Once in the throes of conventional practice, most of us are shown only one career path—to principal. As someone who wanted to be an architect since fourth grade, I felt conflicted when I began straying from this track. Frustrated by the lack of engagement that architects have with their projects’ end users and with architects’ seeming inability to describe the value of their services to everyday people, I left traditional practice. I took out loans and returned to school full-time, pursuing dual master’s degrees in business and public administration. This landed me squarely in the field of design strategy and in self-advocacy—helping architects evolve their practices and remain relevant.
Now, at 40, I’m an experience designer at a tech company and comfortable living in the ambiguity of a world where change is inevitable. I’ve learned that we are generally our own worst enemy. To help others navigate their careers without internal tumult, I recently teamed up with two other trained architects—Laura Weiss and Je’Nen Chastain, Assoc. AIA—who have similar storylines to host an interactive workshop, “A Process for Discovering Your Future,” at the AIA 2019 Women’s Leadership Summit, held Sept. 12-14 in Minneapolis.
We began by sharing our professional journeys to demonstrate three things: Change, albeit hard, is possible; the skills acquired in architecture can serve as a foundation to other careers; and the lessons we learned can be useful for those who want to stay in practice, advocate on their own behalf to grow within their own firm, or look for an exit.
Upon graduation from architecture school, Chastain found herself immersed in the profession as president of The American Institute of Architecture Students. That experience kept her engaged within AIA during the Great Recession as she tried a mixture of jobs in communications, marketing, and traditional practice. While working full-time, she also accumulated hours toward licensure, earned her MBA, and founded the AIA Leadership Institute, a one-day educational event focused on leadership development. With her multidisciplinary background, she recently launched Apostrophe Consulting to help creative professionals develop their business strategy.
Since her days in conventional architecture practice, Weiss has made three major pivots—and was able to pilot each move through part-time coursework. She co-founded the original Service Design and Innovation practice at global design firm IDEO and is now a professional coach, mediator, and creative facilitator through her practice, Design Diplomacy. Along with earning her MBA, Weiss recently added Certified Professional Career Coach and Associate Certified coaching credentials and continues to deepen her understanding in organizational and relationship systems.
The workshop participants then went through two exercises intended to help them get out of their own way, figuratively speaking.
First, we asked everyone to reflect on their past to identify a path forward. We provided a worksheet to list life milestones and what gave them energy and what drained their energy at those times. When looking for next steps in their career, people tend to exhibit a present bias: Even when asked where they want to be in the next five, seven, or 10 years, people often respond in a manner that is reflective of what they are going through at that time. This exercise was designed to reveal what in their whole life generated the most excitement and fulfillment to establish a baseline.
Second, we asked participants whether they can re-engage that energy in present day, whether at work or through extracurricular activities. Participants were prompted to commit to next steps after the conference to ensure they bring that energy back into their lives.
Again, the first step to getting unstuck is committing to change something that you can control entirely. For example, You can prototype your next move part-time by taking evening business classes and earning certifications as Weiss did; pursue something in tandem with full-time work as Je’Nen did; or take an active break from architecture altogether as I did.
If you are unhappy and anxious, look back in your life to the times you felt passionate about your work. Can you recreate those moments in your current role, in a similar role at another firm, or another career altogether? The hardest part is taking that first step. Life is not about where you land, but how you get there, and it is never too late to try something new.