10 Ways To Challenge Yourself as a Young Architect

Nearly every boss I’ve worked for has achieved their success through a combination of optimism and naivety. This mix creates a “just give it a go” mentality; it can be the catalyst for the first step that most of us just aren’t brave enough to take.

I was always jealous of their facade of apparent blind confidence, and have always spent a lot of time pondering how I can train myself to have this “just start” attitude. I was recently reading Ahn Do’s “The Happiest Refugee”* which is really a life story about having a great attitude towards opportunity. There’s one part in it where Ahn tries for a scholarship at school and doesn’t get it, and his parent’s reaction is oddly positive, even excitable. They explain that they’re thrilled that Ahn took the test, and failed, because it demonstrated that he was pushing to the maximum of his ability and exploring the limits of what he could achieve. This really stuck with me. So how can we create challenges for ourselves, as student architects and graduate architects, that force us to ‘just start’ and challenge us to push to the limits of our ability?

CHALLENGE ONE: EXPAND YOUR NETWORK

When I was a student architect, I knew it would be beneficial for me to meet new people at networking events, but this is easier said than done. To make myself do it, I used to go in to each event with a rule that I had to introduce myself to at least one person. Often I knew who I wanted it to be, and often I knew someone else who knew them and would ask for an introduction.

My challenge to you: Attend one architecture event each month where you’re not allowed to leave until you’ve met someone new.

CHALLENGE TWO: ENTER COMPETITIONS

I’ve always struggled to convince myself to enter competitions - they seem like such a large amount of work for a small chance at winning. Then I realised this was the wrong attitude. Competitions can be treated as an opportunity to hone a skill, research an interest, develop your portfolio, demonstrate passion and personality, and even put prior learning to good use. If you do win, or even get shortlisted, they are rich in reward. For me, being shortlisted in a city planning competition, and a light rail design ideas competition, has led to the opportunity to sit on a Design Advisory Panel for the implementation of Light Rail in my city. This, in itself, has broadened my horizons and opened new doors - so the effect of entering competitions can have a really rich ‘snowball’ effect on your career.

My challenge to you: Enter at least one design competition each year.

CHALLENGE THREE: FOCUS ON AN AREA FOR IMPROVEMENT

Architecture is such a broad skill and area of knowledge that it can feel very overwhelming to master. At University, each semester I would challenge myself to focus on one thing that I knew I wasn’t great at. One semester it was visual presentation - so I researched layouts, found colour tools, learnt InDesign, and ended the semester with a pin-up that I was really proud of. The next semester, I challenged myself to enjoy my studio for the experimental exercise that it was. The same could be done once you have a job; for each project or task, focus on one particular area of knowledge to develop. Similarly you could set yourself challenges during University breaks, such as taking a short course.

My challenge to you: Chose one thing that you can focus on improving for each project you work on.

CHALLENGE FOUR: BE GENUINE

A pursuit will never be successful if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons - especially in the architecture industry. If you’re networking just because you want a job, it’s less likely to be successful than if you are genuine about developing your connections and building relationships in the industry. If you’re entering a competition purely because you want to win, your efforts will be less authentic and your submission weaker than if you are sincerely interested in the challenge. I started My First Architecture Job as a side project which I hope, in time, will bring in a small passive income - but I know it only has a chance of doing that because I am so genuinely passionate about mentoring young architects and fixing current gaps in the industry. If you are genuine about a pursuit, then the payout will come naturally.

My challenge to you: Before you take something on, ask yourself whether you are truly genuine about it, and focus on your genuine reason, rather than ‘the payout’.

CHALLENGE FIVE: FACE A FEAR

Author Mark Twain once said “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.” Fear can be a crippling emotion that can affect the smallest every-day tasks through to big career decisions; fear that we will fail, embarrass ourselves, or have to face the fact that we can't do something. Fear is one of our most basic human instincts, but the better you can get at challenging your fears, the easier it will become. I try to follow the 'eat the frog' mentality at work - if I have a task I’m dreading doing, I try to get it out of the way as soon as I can, so it doesn’t hang over me for the rest of the day. Usually, the task isn’t as bad as I’ve built it up to be in my head. This same theory can be applied on a bigger scale to your career development. By finding that fear or nerve-wracking hurdle, and making yourself face it, you will be free of its burden. What are your fears? Cold calling a potential employer? Going to your first architecture event by yourself? Sharing your sketches in a blog?

My challenge to you: Choose something in your studies or career development that you are avoiding facing, and use your architectural problem solving skills to work out a way you can begin to address it. Then, action this plan as soon as you can.

CHALLENGE SIX: FIND A MENTOR

In high-school we had one of those motivational speakers come talk to us, and I remember he said “all you have to do to be successful is find someone who has done what you want to do, take them out for a coffee, and ask them how they did it.” I love this idea for student architects and recent graduates because it a. flatters the person you ask; b. gives you a new contact; c. demonstrates your willingness to learn; and d. can potentially be really valuable for just the price of a coffee. The long-game version of this is to find a mentor. While a mentor can be a formal relationship, where you ask someone to catch up regularly, you can also informally pursue a mentor by developing a relationship with someone you admire and consciously observing them and asking them the odd question. The Institute of Architects run various mentor programs in each state and territory through both the student network (SONA) and the graduate network (EMAGN) - both of which I can’t recommend highly enough.

My challenge to you: Find a mentor or take someone you admire out for coffee.

CHALLENGE SEVEN: GET INVOLVED IN THE INDUSTRY AS SOON AS POSSIBLE

You don’t need your degree to attend architecture or industry events, and in fact, attending as a student is one of the cheapest ways to go. I attended my first National Architecture Conference and my first Student Architecture Congress while I was an undergraduate student and they introduced me to people and ideas that I still value today. It’s such a shame to hold yourself back because you think you aren’t ready - this is the perfect time to go because no one expects anything from you, and most experienced architects love to help keen students. If big conferences aren’t your thing, look out for industry product showcasing events, causes/protests, or events by groups such as the National Association for Women In Construction, Building Designers Association of Australia, or Future Net Young Professionals. The Institute’s National and State/Territory newsletters are great for finding out about all kinds of events and can be accessed here.

My challenge to you: Contact your local AIA Chapter and ask to be added to their e-news mailing list. (You do not have to be a member to receive e-news, and there are often related industry events, sometimes free, advertised through e-news.) Attend one industry event every two months.

CHALLENGE EIGHT: BECOME INVESTED  IN YOUR FELLOW STUDENTS OR CO-WORKERS

When I’m tutoring at University I’m saddened by how blinkered students are in studio these days, often switching on for their own ten minutes with the tutor, and then popping the headphones back on as soon as they’re done (or leaving!) When I see this I wonder whether the students are there to simply pass, or to make the most of an education they are investing an awful lot of money into. By taking interest in your fellow students, or co-workers, and caring about/collaborating with them on their outcomes, your own development will be so much richer.

My challenge to you: Be present for your friend’s critiques and inquisitive about your co-worker’s projects. Invest time each week collaborating on their ideas and helping them succeed.

CHALLENGE NINE: STUDY OUTSIDE OF UNIVERSITY

I’ve always thought it funny that we work our backsides off at University, simply because we’ve paid an institution a lot of money to make us do that. But then we rarely consider that we could, in our own time, study topics of our own choice, for free. In a former blog post I suggested that you should keep three notebooks for this purpose, but you could really apply this lesson to any area where you want to develop your skill as an architect.

My challenge to you: Pick an area of skill or knowledge that you would like to develop and set a habit for studying/practicing it.

CHALLENGE TEN: REVERSE ENGINEER WHERE YOU WANT TO BE

If you’re an ambitious young architect, you probably have ideas about where you want to get to - but have you ever worked out a map of how to get there? The difference between a dream, and reality, is a mapped-out plan. If you want a job by a certain point, count back the steps you think you need to take to get there. If you want to be registered by a certain point, research the experience you need and work out how to get it. If you want to earn a certain amount, reverse map the pay raises you need each year. I was once at a presentation by architect Angelo Candalepas and he explained that in his first year of solo practice he set himself the goal of earning a certain amount of money and exposure/opportunity from competitions. He then did nothing but enter competitions for a year, and hit his goal!

My challenge to you: Consider what it is you really want in your career and then reverse engineer a plan to get there.

In summary, there is a common theme to all of these challenges. At their essence, they are all about working out what you want/need, and solving the problem of how to get it. At an architecture conference I once heard an engineer say something to the effect off “you architects are blind to your best asset - you’re professionally trained at problem solving. You could apply this skill outside of architecture.” So this is my final ultimate challenge to you, young architect: work out what it is that you want, then design a solution to get there.

*This link takes you to Amazon. We receive a small commission for any sales through this link - it helps us keep doing what we do. Thank you!

Sarah Lebner