Monday, September 12, 2011

What makes it "worth it"?

I recently got a comment on the very first post I ever did on Intern 101 that asked a good question.  I noted at the end of that post that I myself nearly left architecture but am glad I stayed and that staying in the profession is worth it.  Reader DRob26 asked:

I really appreciate your insight as I am a new intern. It seems to be a difficult transition from school to practice. I have only been here 4 months, and I have often wanted to quit. You say staying is worth it. What made it worth staying?

First of all, I really feel your pain, DRob26--the shock of going from school to work can make a person curl up in a ball in the bathroom floor sometimes, and even today I have moments where I think Good Lord, did I really spend all that time in school for this?!  (Apparently, yes.)  But the question still stands: why did I say it was worth it even if I find myself now and again wishing I'd gotten a degree in psychology or mortuary science instead of architecture?  (Those who know me personally know that I'd make a great embalmer and funeral home director.  I'm not particularly goth, I just find the whole process of dealing with death interesting.  Every vacation I take eventually involves touring a graveyard.  But I digress....)

One of the reasons I'm glad I stayed in is that I gave myself enough time to experience a wide range of the architectural profession's ups and downs.  No offense to DRob26's four months in a firm, but anything less than two or three years isn't much to base a career (or career change) on. Projects in a firm last too long to make a quick decision about what's good, bad, exciting, or craptastic about the profession you've chosen and for which you've spent volumes of time in school.  In a way, joining a firm is where the rubber really meets the road--it's where things get exciting, and you find out if you really can handle all that's being asked of you.   Furthermore, time spent at one firm also may not be enough experience on which to base a career.  I've spoken with interns whose first firms out of school were everything from bland to Stephen King-esque nightmares; interns either did the same types of plan details over and over for two months straight at the blah firms, while other interns were forced to work 20 hours of unpaid overtime a week or sexually harassed by the firm owner.  All of the interns in these firms I just described have since left those firms and are now much happier and fulfilled at other firms.

I considered leaving architecture while working for a frustrating jerk back in the early 2000s.  He was arrogant and would behave either passive-aggressively or as if he were bipolar--laughing and joking one moment, then fifteen minutes later he was cursing loudly and throwing code books.  Other people at my firm were talking about how great my firm was and how much better it was that where they used to work, and all I could think was Jesus, really?  If it's so great, and I'm so miserable, then clearly I shouldn't be in architecture at all.  However, a few months after I had this feeling/realization, he told his project team that he was leaving our firm and moving out of state to start his own firm closer to his family out east.  It was only after he left and I was able to work with another manager in the office, one that many people refused to work for because he was "strict and overly-serious", that I found out that the problem wasn't the firm or the profession but rather the manager.  I was finally working with someone who was more interested in teaching me how to be a good architect than in eating a whole bowl of crazy every morning before coming to work.  Once I was able to experience that difference, I could settle down and enjoy the profession for real.

The other reason I'm glad I've stayed is that after working my butt off, I'm now reaping some of the fruits of my labors.  I spent years slogging through details and drawings and code books and project after project, and I've finally developed the expertise to know if I can or can't locate a soiled utility room in a certain part of a department or how a room has to be built differently if it has one kind of equipment versus another.  I've developed the ability to look at a corridor in a floor plan and know almost instantly if it meets code (IBC, ADA, or various state and national healthcare guidelines).  By learning constantly and producing good work and retaining knowledge and managing my projects well, I've earned the right to run some of my own projects and have interns help me draw and detail and do code research on those projects.  And because I'm in charge, I finally get to do it my way.  While adjusting to the changes in my workdays and workweeks hasn't always been easy, at least I'm not doing the same thing over and over for eleven years.  And because I learned what I needed to learn and am still learning more and more, architecture is, in some ways, becoming easier.

Architecture can be an addictive profession.  You work so hard for so long for that brief, strange payoff of walking into a building you drew that has been built and indeed has come to life.  For me, it's the payoff of having the users--the people without whose input I couldn't have done the work--run up to me in the new building and proclaim how great it looks, and how well it works, and how wonderful it is.  Those moments are rare and few indeed.  I've done a lot of remodeling jobs lately, one of which was in a very busy clinic in a metropolitan area.  The clinic's project manager, the contractor, and I were all standing in the newly-renovated lobby recently, discussing the open items from the punchlist and wondering how to phase the next part of construction because there had been so many complaints about the temporary walls we'd had to put up for the first phase...and a little old lady came out of nowhere and put her hand on my arm.  She looked up at me and said, "I want you to know that this lobby  looks so's just so pretty in here, and I just love it!"

That, my friends, was worth it.

1 comment:

  1. I've practiced for 3 years (planning) and I'm STILL asking myself if I should leave and go to another career or stay.

    Part of the issues stem from still doing crap work, and not being vetted, to worrying if I can handle a big project if its given to me to do solo (i constantly worry if i have enough expertise, knowledge, wherewithal to actually do what is asked of me, especially after three years on the job).

    Long story short, after three years I still feel like an intern fresh out of school