by Jame Anderson, AIA
When invited to write a post about my “return to architecture”, my first thought was “What was this ‘Architecture’ that I had left?” I pondered all of the ways I could describe this decision, anything I could share with others, and I started performing an epic Tina Fey eye roll. Who would want to hear this? It sounds like a cheesy self-help book or one of those posters in the breakroom of The Office.
So, let's embrace the cheese…
Everyone wants to believe in themselves, that they have an internal source of power. It’s the stuff of super-hero movies, and Star Wars (admit it, you tried to move stuff by concentrating on it too). I’ll be the first to admit, I’m drawn to down-and-out characters saving themselves and others, fighting free. As an audience, we are totally sucked in by this stuff. It is a lot more dramatic than seemingly happy people making a change. Where’s the drama in that?
In December, I left my position as an Architect at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) to return to private architecture practice at SmithGroupJJR, a company for which I’d worked prior to my 13 years at the NGA. I was in an absolutely beautiful place, I loved my work and my colleagues at the Gallery. I was surrounded by the most amazing objects in the world, and felt a sense of fulfillment and a touch of pride in making the Nation’s Collection shine. I had great federal benefits, a wonderful schedule, and solid, stable pay. My work was fulfilling, detailed, and my colleagues were driven.
Sure, there was this lazy person over here, or that crappy office relationship over there, but I typically try not to let those things make my big life decisions for me. Complaining about the day-to-day, or “sweating the small stuff” was not a part of the decision. Besides, every workplace has that. My decision was not about any of those factors. My decision was about deciding to alter my path.
This is not a tell-all, nor is it a list of observations of my new job. This is about the moment of decision.
Changing jobs is not that big of a deal for some people. For me, this was a pretty big thing.
You may remember my last post, from January 2015. I spoke about labels, titles, and life-work.
Perhaps this was the first step in my “transformation”. I felt that I was ready to put to greater use the skills I had honed in the field since I walked into my first museum internship at the age of 19. I was beginning to get a bit antsy. Maybe that Scarlet Letter that some of us try to avoid – Ambition – had something to do with it. Or, perhaps this disquiet came from not having that next step solidified in front of me: there were clouds at what looked like the top of the ladder. In order to get to the bottom of this feeling of uncertainty, I started asking questions.
I talked to a lot of people: to mentors, to people who had jobs I could envision myself having, to those who had jobs I’d never want. Things began to solidify. I attended the AIA WLS Conference in Seattle and met amazing people, and I sat at a lunch table called “Taking Risks,” although I’m not quite sure why I chose that table… maybe the title was direct and short enough for me. Maybe I felt that I wasn’t taking enough of those. I listened… really listened. And I discovered that we are all searching for a place where we feel important, utilized, and a place where we are comfortable and can contribute… and lead.
All of this talking led me to discover that it was time for a change. But, who wants to move, change jobs, find a new relationship? It’s easier to do what we know, especially if we’re good at it. But sometimes, we need to realize that the desire to move on, to do something different, to ‘go boldly where no man has gone before’ is just as human as the desire to stay put, and feel safe.
What was I doing? I had one of the coolest jobs, EVER! At parties, people’s eyes widened when I told them what I did for a living. Visions of Night at the Museum and of the those Mixed-Up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler danced in their heads. They can be magical places, right? My daughter, I’m convinced, thought I was working in some fairy tale. I had been to architecture school with the Gallery as THE goal….but what do you do when you get what you want in the middle of your career? Sit still? Camp out? The more I became an expert, the easier things got. Perhaps that was it. I have a great fear of complacency, which is very different than boredom. My work has never been boring, or easy. But in closing my mascaraed eyes, I took a deep breath and imagined… what would the Shonda Rhimes show of my life look like if I could “design it?”
It wasn’t that the museum was “wrong”. I was ready for a different path…my own yellow brick road. Journeys teach us something. This time, I’m on my own terms: I’ve picked my specialty, I have a ton of knowledge many don’t, I’m confident in what I can do, and I’m confident I’ll pick up on the stuff I have no idea how to do.
I want to do more, I think I can, I will.
I was concerned, frankly, about some people’s reactions to my decision. It takes a lot to get over what you may think other people’s expectations of you are. I worried a little. The reaction that had the most impact was my daughter’s. Change and suspense are not thrills for her and we had a fascinating series of conversations about it (which might be yet another post). I was able to tell her that there was no boogie-man in the office and that she could visit the museum any time. I think she understood.
You see, support matters. There is absolutely no way I could do the things I’ve been able to do throughout my life without it. I’m talking support in the form of a spouse that knows that my work and how I spend my time away from my family is one of my personifiers that makes me ME, in mentors who simply listen and then at times offer suggestions, in friends who give hugs and order champagne when they hear my good news, in parents who made sure I had the most fantastic art teacher they could find, in professors who were direct and supportive, in bosses that hired me for my potential, in a child that gives me hugs and looks up to me as if i am the most impressive thing in the world.
You have to find support somewhere. You can't isolate yourself, and you can't do it all by yourself.
I’ve been surprised by the responses I’ve received about my “transformation.” I've heard a lot from folks. There have been some "Wows", the normal "Congratulations" from others, and the "What about your benefits?" from those who think I'm nuts. Then, from most architects, an immediate commentary on how difficult my new life will be due to the pace of things, as if there's a secret I don't know.
But I try not to take it as patronizing. There have been countless articles about women in the workplace that Leaned Back… that selected what's called a slower track or slower paced professions, took time away during their child-bearing and raising years. I think it’s unfortunate to see choices through these do/don’t filters. Nevertheless, I didn’t Lean Back, I did exactly what I set out to do when I enrolled in architecture school in the first place: work in a museum designing things. I tried to be as smart as I could about my career, work in a firm to follow through on my education, and get licensed. It wasn’t for another 5 years that I had my kid. I feel lucky to have been able to do it that way… get ME done first before dealing with mini-ME.
Timing sometimes works, things sometimes fall into place. But sometimes, you have to do some leaning.
Back to Architecture… this fictional place I left. Now, I can say I’m an Architect with no one asking me what I mean without the addition of the words Exhibit Designer. Does that matter? People seem to need very cut and dry terms. People also have a lot of crazy ideas about what an architect is or does… I’m not walking around with a blueprints, although I do still wear a lot of black. But I don’t allow others to define me. I am an architect, and I have been one, for quite a while. Now, I hope I am in a place where I can make spaces and containers for beautiful works of art, and also build buildings again, while I look at the greater whole. My experiences are not two separate pieces, they are part of me.
I want both, you see. Will I get it? Who knows, but there is only one way to find out.
OK, the first month has been weird… honestly… and yet, exhilarating. I have this headset at my desk and no actual phone (which makes me feel like Brittany Spears or Tom Cruise a la Magnolia). Not that we used rotary phones at the museum, but you get what I mean. Then there’s the culture, and the notions of money (profit vs. non-profit) which are quite new. Most days my new colleagues say things to me and I stare back at them blankly. Every trade and office carries its own language around, its lingo, its series of acronyms that one has to decipher. Architects especially are known for their, wait, our, made up words.
I went on my first project interview this week. It was peculiar not being on the client side of the table. I felt very “nervicited” (a word from my daughter) But, feeling uneasy is something I asked for. Honestly, I question myself too, just like anyone. Will I succeed? Can I contribute enough? Will I be good at this again? It all creeps in. But I’ve learned to let it go. No one has all the answers, no one can do it all, and no one is better than you, they are just different. I just keep reminding myself that I have a ton of knowledge many don’t. I’m confident in what I can do. I’m confident I’ll pick up on the stuff I have no idea how to do.
I want to do more, I think I can, I will. (But I've been here for like 3 months… talk to me in about 6 more.)
In writing this I began to wonder who reads the Inspire blogs? Who are you, reader? If you are mid way through your career, are you keeping up the good fight? If you are in the beginnings of your life as an architect, or are contemplating a career as one, I’ll leave the cheese and get down to those brass tacks…
Here it is… the unsolicited advice…ready?
Look at it like brushing your teeth… it’s something you have to do. If you never use it that’s another matter entirely. Just get it, and you will have it.
I would not have been at the level I was outside of the profession without this credential. I would not have had any choices in a return to an architecture firm without it.
So many of the other things that affect diversity in practice are non-tangible and seemingly out of our reach. This one is very cut and dry. It is hard, it is annoying, but it is doable and quantifiable. So, make a plan and follow through. Life gets in the way and always will. I get it.
You can fix it.
Get your license.
Don’t go missing.
Then, go through whatever process you need to in order to figure out what you WANT to do. Write it all down, talk to folks, imagine your future, go see a fortune teller… whatever. Design it. But keep it short, succinct. Don't get stuck in that planning stage forever… in the time it has taken you to read this long rambling post, you could've gone online and signed up for the exam. I realize this simplifies everything, but seriously… there is no try there is only do.
Just Do it.
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