Monday, December 10, 2012

Know when to hold 'em, Part 2: career advice from Mark Twain

It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt.
--Mark Twain, from

Speaking up in meetings and asking questions is something that I generally encourage interns to do.  You will very often be the least-experienced person in the room at a meeting until you've got about ten years' experience, so you might as well learn from those in the room with more experience.  (You can often learn what not to do by watching the dumber of these people, but that's another post.)  There are times when you have information about a project that needs to be shared, so you'll need to muster up the courage to share it.  You might need more information to understand how what you know (or don't know) fits in with the project or discussion, so you'll need to muster up the courage to ask. 

Long-time readers of Intern 101 know that I believe that architecture and construction are more ageist than sexist or racist.  Part of that is just old guys being cranky and crotchety.  But part of that is based on truth--you need to work on a certain amount of projects for a certain amount of time to learn, do, make mistakes, get yelled at for those mistakes by your boss or client or contractor or code official, and fix it the next go-round or on the next project. And to do that takes time. I'm working on a hospital project right now on which we began design in fall of 2011, and it won't be finished and operational until fall of 2014. If I started on it as an intern fresh out of college, I'd have three years' experience by the time we got substantial completion,  but I could still only say I'd worked on one hospital and one project in my career.

I want to encourage you all to keep asking questions and speaking up when you know you have information that could vitally affect the discussion at hand, but I'd also like to share a few situations in which you're best off staying silent:

  1. You're new to the project. Take time to learn what's going on and just listen.  No one's going to expect you to know everything just yet.  Plus, depending on what you say or ask, you're going to reveal just how little you know, which will decrease your already-possibly-tenuous credibility.
  2. You have less than 12-18 months experience.  See #1.
  3. You're new to this building/project type. Again, see #1.
  4. You think there might be an issue but you don't have all the facts. Make a note to yourself to go back and check the drawings or code or check with your boss, then let explain the situation in a follow-up email.
  5. You think/feel like you need to prove your qualifications or validate your presence.  The harder you try to say in not-so-many-words "I'm smart and good and I'm a grown-up and I deserve to be here!" the less everyone's going to believe it. Just nod and say, "I'll check on that when I get back to the office."

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