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Advice for Young Architects

Advice to My 17-Year-Old Self When Considering Careers

Jeff gets pensive on a tour of a completed project with clients, and ends up writing a letter to his 17-year-old self. If you're young and thinking about a career in architecture, this one's for you.

February 7, 2013

My feelings about the pace of life lately were recently summed up when I got to visit with one of my clients.   I was sharing some wine with them and getting a final tour of the completed remodel.  I found myself looking around and thinking some pretty profound thoughts.  I got to thinking how myself at 17 would react to the career I have now and how it all worked out for me in the end.  These were deep, intense, and profound thoughts.  I wanted to go back in time and let my younger self know a simple truth.

WHOA! I have a freaking awesome job!

Well, not exactly profound but pretty miraculous.  See, back in high school, I had that period of doubt where I didn't know for sure what I wanted to be.  It seems almost odd to look back to that point as I have always said that I've always known I wanted to be an architect since I was 2.  Well, that may be true, but when it came time to actually sit down and think about what I should do in life, the practicality of what schools I would apply to or what majors I'd pursue suddenly gave me pause.  I remember feeling like I was making decisions then that would alter the course of my life and I sincerely didn't feel qualified to make them.

Well, I did just fine.  So dear 17-year-old Jeff, calm the hell down.  More importantly, future Jeff has the following kernels of wisdom to pass down to you:

  • Look away from those Mechanical Engineering booths at the college fairs.  While someone may have told you they are similar, they are filled with nasty lies.  Nope.  Get the hell away from there.
  • DO soak in the salary numbers they're telling you.  People in this profession don't make a lot of money contrary to TV shows and movies.  Plan your budget accordingly and you'll do fine.  You didn't need a collection of All-Clad cookware in college even though their collision of form and function really is pretty spectacular (and they will still work wonderfully for you many years later).
  • Do, however, put yourself in credit card debt throwing some kick-ass parties while in college.  Socializing is about as integral part of being an architect (at least for me and many of the people I know) as knowing what does and does not look good.
  • Know that you'll never get rich in this profession but if you focus your attention on doing the things you love you'll be pretty damn happy even when you're working more hours than you knew existed in a week.
  • Don't work more hours than you knew existed in a week.  Be confident, be skilled, use your time wisely, and go the hell home.  Really, things will be fine.  People will respect you more for holding a line on your personal life.  If they don't then they're not worth impressing.
  • Never lie.  Bullshit all you want, but don't lie.  And just bullshit to your professors, they really will enjoy it even though they'll see right through it.
  • Buy more architecture books and less Star Trek novels.  Still read the Star Trek novels, mind you, but get the damn things from the public library.  You'll want to keep architecture books around for years but the Star Treks paperbacks with pictures of starships on the cover aren't the coolest things to display in your office.
  • Eat better as you get older.  Eat more vegetables and less meat and get over your aversion to working out.  Don't let this be the last time you were this skinny.

    Here I am at one of my campus jobs measuring buildings to an 1/8 of an inch accuracy
    Here I am at one of my campus jobs measuring buildings to an 1/8 of an inch accuracy.

  • NEVER take yourself or architecture too seriously.  It is a profession that, in the sweet spot, perfectly combines science, art, and math.  That gets to be some pretty intense stuff but in the end, remember that there's always opportunity for something super cool and super fun to get thrown into the mix.
  • Don't design prisons as the above point is probably invalid then.
  • Support your boss even when you don't agree with him or her.  This one is a hard bit to swallow but you'll understand it eventually.  If it keeps on happening, get the heck out of there.  Undermining someone, even when you're right, just makes you look bad.
  • Recessions suck and will ruin the careers of many of your co-workers and friends in the field. Make yourself as invaluable as possible and NEVER burn a bridge.  Bite your tongue so hard it bleeds, but keep that bridge up.  Always be the bigger man.
  • Do crazy, ridiculous, and wonderful things in studio while at Cornell (by the way 17-year-old Jeff, calm the hell down, you get in and they give you a load of financial aid so you can actually afford to go), and take advantage of every waking moment to soak it all in.
  • Find a way, anyway, to spend the semester in Rome. Your future self wants you to know that your logical and practical reasons for not going are bull and you'll always regret it.
  • Remember that even with all the points above that when you get to sit with a family and see the impact of what you've done to how they live every day, THEN you'll know it was all worth it.  Keep going sir, you're going to do just fine.

Yours truly, the guy from the crazy future where we have fancy phones that can access all of the world's knowledge but we use it to play Scrabble with our friends and watch videos of animals doing silly things.

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