Humility and the Architect

Last year I wrote a post for AIA Colorado/Archinect titled “The Ego and the Architect.” ( )  If you didn’t read it, the post discussed evolving forms of leadership within an architectural office spanning age and experience, and how this relates to what seems to be a softening of the egotistical architect archetype in favor of a socially-conscious, collaboration-minded, sometimes empathetic individual.

As I look book after many months and reconsider this post, I have been scratching my head at how personal experience has begun to shed light on what might be a question and counterpoint:

Do architects need some sense of ego to maintain strength and optimism while experiencing what seems to be an even greater challenge than bravado; humility?

In the last year, I’ve moved out of the 1-3 year range as a designer and am now in what seems to be a rare bird in today’s post-recession market; a 3-5 year employee (Gasp! We do exist!)  In the 3-5 range, I’ve participated in a wide range of projects, large and small, from start to finish. I now recognize the importance of all project phases, and have begun to engage with each new assignment in a more involved role. Hence I am not a newbie, despite also not being an “expert.”

With that said, in this transition of time and knowledge acquisition, I’ve stumbled across a few revelations regarding perhaps the most exciting but also challenging aspects of becoming an architect: the ability to be humbled by the complex nature of what we do, how we do it, and perhaps most importantly, how we follow through once a project is being constructed.

To keep this post short(ish) but hopefully helpful, here is a counterpoint to my original blog post; a list of the lessons I’ve experienced as a student and young professional that require a personal shield of confidence to protect against an on-going sense of humility and acceptance in learning from experiences and decisions approached with optimism, idealism, and simply not knowing…yet…

(1) Academia: From a first critique, architecture students are challenged on every thought, decision, graphic, verbal, and text-related decision that is made. “Your project is promising, but must be improved here, here, …and here!” We are taught from an early age to both welcome feedback and to use it as constructively as we can, knowing that despite what we do or how much we produce, despite its level of quality, it will always have potential for improvement or different methods of thought and experimentation—a thought and design process carried throughout an architecture professional’s career and life.
(2) The IDP experience: At this time, a recently-graduated student is the most junior staff around (besides interns,) and he/she is eager to prove themselves while gaining relevant job experience. It is inevitable-regardless of what field he/she is in- that this time will be filled with learning, mistakes, and learning from your mistakes.

(3) The ARE: It wasn’t until I took my most recent exam that I felt truly humbled by the daunting process of taking not 1, not 2, not 5, but 7 exams testing ideas and concepts that I have engaged in directly, indirectly, or at this stage—not at all. I’ve found studying to be rewarding as a reminder of how many factors must be considered at every stage in the design process, and the degree in which an architect must become a semi-expert regarding the small and large nuances of our environment and the world we have made. With that said, I have found myself both bewildered, nervous, and then (hopefully) relieved to find my knowledge is on par with what NCARB might consider “sufficient knowledge” for an associate pursuing licensure. I have no doubt that after Test 7 I will have the biggest ego in the world, rooted in a necessary discipline, persistence, patience, not to mention a sharpened ability to complain, focus, agonize, and rejoice all within the same week (or days in some instances…)
(4) Becoming a 3-5 year person. After cutting your teeth as a junior designer, the more involved a young professional becomes in client relationships, a design process in its entirety, as well as actually walking his/her drawings in the field, there is a large window of opportunity to make mistakes that dance the line of being small but illustrative of how much you do not know yet.

So what will help the emerging class of future architects remain aspirational and optimistic, all the while knowing each design problem will require discourse, unfamiliar tasks and challenges, not to mention the uncharted territory of each unique client and client relationship?

I would come full circle from my previous blog post to say “mentorship”  as a form of leadership remains the key to balancing a young professional’s process of learning and developing.  Without oversight and people to teach, challenge, and recognize young designers (especially millennials,) our next group of architecture leaders may have to wear a similar façade of ego to protect them simply from what they do not know…

2 thoughts on “Humility and the Architect

  1. Good discussion topics! Care to help put together a “here’s what’s needed in terms of mentorship @ each step of the way”? Would be interesting to hear what others think too.

  2. This post made me think of a recent New York Times piece by David Brooks:

    “Instead of coming up with a real thing, which can reliably be called self-confidence, you’re just conjuring an abstraction. In the very act of trying to think about self-confidence, your vanity is creating this ego that is unstable and ethereal, and is thus painfully fragile, defensive, boasting and sensitive to slights.

    “If you want to talk about something real, it’s probably a mistake to use a suspect concept like self-confidence, which is self-oriented. It’s probably a better idea to think about competence, which is task-oriented. If you ask, ‘Am I competent?’ at least you are measuring yourself according to the standards of a specific domain.

    “The person with the self-confidence mind-set starts thinking about his own intrinsic state. The person who sees herself as the instrument for performing a task thinks about some external thing that needs doing. The person with the confidence mind-set is like the painfully self-conscious person at a dinner party who asks, ‘How am I coming across?’”

    “…if you start thinking about your self-confidence, you will just be inventing a self-referential story. It’s probably easier to go through life focusing on what specifically needs doing, rooted in a set of external obligations and criteria and thus quieting the self.”

    He starts off by talking about women, but gets to the main point pretty quickly.

    I would encourage young architects to focus on the concrete tasks that they know they need to do in order to fulfill their firm’s contracts with the clients. Ask your boss to show you those contracts, if they haven’t already. These are the concrete tasks that CLIENTS measure us by. These are tasks that we can measure our own competence with. And, as you alluded to above, a lot of these tasks occur during construction.

    Even if bosses can’t, sophisticated clients can see through a “facade of ego” (great phrase!) and can quickly determine whether or not an architect knows what she’s talking about. Look beyond the firm, look beyond design, you will find you don’t have to rely on ego – you can measure your actual competence, and expand that competence, and grow as an architect.

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