Saturday, December 28, 2013

When it's deeper than burnout

During these weeks (who am I kidding? months) I've been quiet on the interwebs, I came to realize that my apathy comingled with fury was beyond burnout. It became clear even after a long, wonderful vacation with my husband that what I've been experiencing was deeper than burnout--it was full-on, irrefutable, un-ignorable, in-your-face-like-a-can-of-mace depression. A fair amount of October and November were spent adjusting to an antidepressant and letting my coworkers know what was going on with me. Because I do in fact work with human beings, they understood and agreed to help adjust my workload and schedule accordingly.  This wasn't just "Lulu is feeling kinda burned out"; this was now a medical condition that, while it would pass eventually with medication and therapy, it also must legally be accommodated and ethically and emotionally cannot be ignored.

I also spent the fall working on some project process research for the firm for which I work, and I still had to fulfill my managerial duties of participating in staff performance reviews and some HR tasks. These chores kept me busy enough that I didn't feel totally useless and gave me a reason to come to work every day while the lack of serotonin in my brain told me that work was bullshit and life was bullshit and there's no point in anything anyway. Fortunately, I have several amazing and wonderful relatives and coworkers and friends who helped me combat these despondent voices. I cannot thank them enough.

Assembling coherent, helpful blog posts has been tough for me these past few months, and it's still a struggle. While I'm still not done wrestling with this condition, I at least have the clarity to see when my angry apathy is the depression talking versus when it's truly work that has me pissed off. (One sign that it's depression: if I say I hate my job and someone asks what I would rather do instead, and I say "Nothing. Nothing sounds good." That's the lack of serotonin talking.) Things are looking up professionally; I have some professional speaking engagements coming up in the spring, and I'll be working with some different project teams in my office to see if that helps with my mehness. I promised myself I'd try again at this blog. I hope I'm not done trying to help and mentor others wherever I can, but if I've given all I can, then I have to accept that. I've found in the last few months that I was right about some things, and I've been dead wrong about some other things. I hope to have to courage to share these things with you all in 2014.  

Til then, have a lovely holiday season, and here's to a new year.

Lulu

Monday, September 23, 2013

Is there a place for the quiet leader?

Part of the discussions my firm is having about the next ten years involves leadership. Some of the conversations are basic--who's retiring, who's staying, who's advancing or should be advanced, and so on. Some of these conversations are more abstract and revolve around leadership itself. We've had previous discussions about what does it take to reach certain titles in our office, but there's still something lacking, something not quite right about those rules.

Many of our firm's, and indeed our society's, hallmarks of leadership include what might be considered extroverted behaviors and traits. Speaking up (and often), being visible, tooting your own horn, being involved in multiple visible roles, etc. are often considered what it takes to be a "leader" in our culture. But if we are to believe the research presented in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking (and I do believe it myself), we need quiet, more reserved, and less "out there" leaders as much as we do the social butterfly multitaskers that we've rewarded with leadership roles and power for so long.

I'm often thought of as an extrovert, but the truth is I prefer to work alone or with only one or two more people, and I require a lot of alone time to recover from public speaking and teaching engagements. I consider myself just barely an extrovert, but I also find myself getting louder and more involved and vocal when something really matters to me. Even now while trying to slog through my burnout and get some much-needed rest, I find myself compelled to be involved in these long-range planning efforts going on in my firm right now. This is due in part to the fact that it's something I've wanted to be involved in for a long time, and it's also due to the fact that whenever something needs to be done as part of this planning, there is only a handful of people willing to do it...so it falls into my lap or the lap of one of a few colleagues. Extroversion through coercion, so it seems.

So I do wonder: is there a place for the quiet leader, the monotasker, the thoughtful sage in lieu of the verbose savior? And can architecture make that kind of leader work both in its firms and as its face in society?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Random thoughts on architectural work

I still don't have anything lengthy and coherent to blog, but I have had some musings I thought I'd share. Our firm has been going through some major changes regarding how we manage and treat employees and how we're going to move forward for the next ten years, and the conversations that are causing and are caused by these changes have given me some random insights and/or ideas. (Or maybe they're just brain droppings.)


  • Empowerment is a two-way street. Your manager needs to allow you to take something on and run with it and do it without his/her micromanagement or constant supervision. On the other hand, you have to be willing to accept responsibility if/when there are errors and do what it takes to get that task (or part of a project) done.
  • If you can't get right what I've given you so far, chances are good that I'm not going to give you new or different stuff to do.
  • The farther you go up the ladder at an architecture firm, the less actual architecture you do every day.
  • The biggest skill that young architects and interns (as well as the rest of the world) isn't learning before they hit the work world is how to communicate clearly and civilly. Your bosses didn't learn it either, but we have to start somewhere with good communication in the workplace.
  • Good communication doesn't mean "always being nice" or never calling people on poor performance. It means that when you do call out bad performance, it's about the performance and not the person.
  • Cultural change takes time. Even when an entire organization is on board with changing the way it works, it can still take 3-5 years to see the changes and get them firmly entrenched in daily office culture. It's still worth doing; just be patient.
  • "People want change, but people don't want to be changed." --Winston Churchill
  • No matter how much you try to help make things better, there are always going to be a few people who aren't going to be happy. It's still worth making things better.
  • There are two sides to the happiness at work coin. One side is that you have to be able to do the things you enjoy doing so that you can stand coming to work every day. The other side is that you have to do the crappy stuff sometimes in order to get the job done. Not every day should be a horrible grind, but not every day can be sunshine and flowers.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Update on Lulu, the Duchess of Burnout

First off, thanks to everyone for the kind emails and comments; they're appreciated and I'm thankful that anyone is moved to comment or email at all. Many of my posts go uncommented except for the occasional Anonymous spam comment saying "i much like this and have made bookmarked it" or some other such nonsense. So, thanks again.

To address my burnout, I realized that while I do need some rest, I also do better when I have something to do. I created a project for myself that involved reviewing my office's processes for planning and staffing projects, and my two primary bosses agreed that this would be worth doing.  I'll be working only on this project until late September, at which point I'm going on a two-week trip out of the country for a nice, long vacation. When I return, my bosses and I will assess what I'll be doing next based on how much of my analysis/project I'll be able to finish by the time I leave. 

In the meantime, I've been pondering a variety of professional and personal topics, none of which I can discuss here with any coherency or brevity, but I'm working on it. I've broken a few of my own rules lately, including that I've actually told several of my colleagues and interns/architects about the nature of my burnout.  I've realized that the old "stiff upper lip" behavior in the guise of being "professional" only works to a point in the 21st-century workplace. This is just one of several big shifts I've had in my thinking lately, and it's taking some time to get used to the idea that the way I've worked, acted, and behaved in the past several years may not be serving me well anymore.

Having said all that, I should let you all know that I'm not able to redline any resumes right now. I have received a couple of questions about what to do with some ethical and professional workplace questions, which I'll get to in due time. Thanks again for hanging in there with me, and I hope to get back on track in the next few weeks.

Lulu



(Note: someone asked recently about whether you can include work you've done at your present/previous firm into your own portfolio. I would advise against bringing a lot with you, but photos of the project along with a description of the project would be okay, especially if they're photos you can take yourself or get from an online source, like a web article about the project. Bring photos from your employer as a last resort.  Don't bring plans or details--if you have more than four years' experience, you're supposed to know how to detail stuff, so showing it would be redundant.)

Monday, July 29, 2013

This is burnout.

I have no advice today.

I have no wise words, no helpful hints, no simple tricks to try in a sticky situation. I'm bereft of helpfulness for anyone, including myself. I'm in a place where I've used up all my smart, all my funny, all my helpful, all my useful. I can no longer lean in, step up, take charge, be strong, and make things happen. It's because I've been leaning in for the past year at work on a big, fast, impossible project, and I'm burned out.

When I say "burned out", I don't mean that I'm tired and could use a week's vacation or maybe a couple months of normal workweeks and workloads. I mean BURNED. OUT. It's the kind of feeling where the thought of answering one question regarding that project--or any project I've been working on or helping out on--sends me into a fit of rage, tears, or sighing, followed by the words "I don't care; do what you want." I mean running to the bathroom every couple of hours so I can cry for five minutes, so I can go back to my desk and answer more questions and emails, be smart, be helpful, and be kind to my staff, who are not particularly the cause of my tears. I can't stand the thought of working on my existing project. I can't stand the thought of starting something new, with more ridiculous deadlines and panic and half-ass information from the client and lack of staff and mixed messages from my bosses and every other thing that has plagued me for the past year. I can't stand the thought of doing simple administrative tasks at the office--things that aren't project related but are appropriate for someone at my managerial level. And I can't stand the thought of being at home, where I'm not supposed to be at 2pm on a Wednesday but it's clear I'm not getting anything done at work.

I'm struck with the overwhelming feeling that I'm weak and I've failed. I can't bear the burden of running projects, can't stand the thought of sticking with the project and seeing it through to completion...so what kind of role model does that make me for the interns and young architects in my office? How can I tell my interns that they need to be diligent and follow through and think through RFIs and questions when I hate the thought of looking at those drawings so much that I've stopped wearing mascara because I just cry it off before noon? How can I reinforce professionalism to my staff when I'm constantly holding back the urge to give my bosses a five-finger death punch to the neck? How dare I admonish someone for a casual email or statement on a phone call when my two favorite words are "fuck" and "goddamn"?

And where do I get the nerve to post anything on this blog, giving advice to young professionals and telling them how they need to act and speak and write emails and arrange their resumes when I'm a dumpster fire in an Ann Taylor pantsuit?

I don't know what any of this means just yet. Readers have said nice things about this blog, so on the one hand I'd like to keep it up. But I'm utterly worn out to the point that even the most basic of tasks seems impossible. I also feel like a fraud telling people to get their shit together when I can't get my own together. It may mean that I'm posting less regularly, less forcing of the content and more posting just as something interesting comes to me. It may mean that this blog goes quiet for a while as I sort out this feeling of ants crawling just beneath my skin and the sound of blood constantly rushing in my ears.

I feel like I owe you all an explanation and perhaps even an apology for the poverty of content in recent months. My writing has been half-hearted and hollow, even platitude-filled to the point of being trite. You  all deserve good, thoughtful writing and discussions on meaningful topics, and I haven't really been providing that. You deserve better, and I ask your patience as I work towards whatever that better is.

Lulu

Monday, July 15, 2013

Work-life balance: a sine curve, not a scale

I just took a week off from work. I almost made it the whole week without checking my email, but I caved on day 5 when I realized I had 200 emails in my inbox. Fortunately, a fair amount of them were things like "there are cookies in the break room" and "the copier is up/down/depressed/homocidal". I was able to handle anything that truly needed my attention easily with email, and everything else appeared to be well in hand, thanks to the great interns that work on my team.

This week off is part of my summer-of-scaling-back, which was preceded by the months of October 2012-May 2013 being fast and furious (sans Vin Diesel) with deadlines and workload. It was during that time that I remember a phenomenon that is arguably particular to architecture. It's the phenomenon of our work-life balance. The general world of white-collar work gives us this image of work-life balance as if it were scales, like the sign for the zodiac sign of Libra: always in perfect balance and harmony. We're told that every day is balance: some work, some play, some chores, some sleep.



But the truth, especially for architects, is more complex: it's more like a sine wave. There are times where the work calls for more of your effort, time, and attention. There are times where your health calls for the most attention. Sometimes it's your partner or spouse. Sometimes it's your parents. Sometimes it's your hobby or side business. Life's demands ebb and flow depending on what's going on, and the illusion that everything is always only demanding X or Y is a myth. The sine wave shows this a lot better than the scales: above the X axis is work and professional demands, below the X axis is personal demands.

After my major deadlines passed in May, I pulled my boss aside and let him know I needed some rest this summer, and he concurred and has been supporting me in that. The project and the team are in a place where I can do this, and even better, they can get rest too. (I wasn't the only one who was worn out.) So I'm planning some vacations and time off this summer with my husband to make up for answering work email on our anniversary trip in February.

Accepting the ebb and flow is a lot easier than constantly struggling to make things balance every single day, and it's a lot more realistic. Allowing yourself to deal with demands and deadlines by month Or week instead of by day takes some pressure off. But do remember: it's up to you to say when the sine wave has gone too far for too long in one direction.



Monday, July 1, 2013

The pitfalls of informality

The workplace--architectural and otherwise--has changed radically in terms of formality in the last twenty or so years. Suits and ties have given way to khakis and jeans, typed letters are being replaced by emails, and even language itself has slid into a casual territory. Colleagues call each other "Dave" and "Becky" instead of "Mr. Swenson" and "Ms. McNeal". "Sir" and "ma'am" have been replaced with "yeah", "hey man", "yo, lady", "sure thing", and "no problem". 

While there's a certain ease and indeed relief to be associated with this new informality, let us not follow that slippery slope down to an absence of respect, for our clients, our consultants, and our colleagues. A client recently emailed an intern and me for a rendering image to be included in some marketing and fundraising materials. The intern sent back the image to the client with just this in the body of the email: "Here you go." 

Yikes. 

This is not your aunt or your friend. That's right--your client is not your friend, they're your acquaintance at best. You don't get falling-down drunk in front of them, you don't make yo-mama jokes to them, and you definitely don't dash off three words to them in an email. The intern and I discussed this, and the next email in which the client asked for something got this response from her: "Mark, attached is the file you requested. Please let us know if you need anything else. Thanks, Sandy." Much better.

The formality--even and especially from interns--reminds my intern's client that even with her young age, she went to college, is a properly-trained professional, and she respects the fact that he cuts the checks that keep our lights on and doors open. Furthermore, an email that looks like someone took the time to write actual, coherent sentences subtly tells the client that the writer also takes his/her time when working on other things, like floor plans and details, renderings, meeting notes, and so on. 

Casualness in the workplace is overall a good move. Keeping a little formality in your business writing is also a good move, and it's just good business.