December 19, 2015

How to Build Confidence as an Architect, Part I

by: Taz Loomans

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Some years ago I designed a stair for an office building that was too narrow. It was supposed to be a minimum of 48 inches wide, but I designed it to be 36 inches wide. No one caught it, not my supervisor, not the firm’s quality assurance team, and not even the contractor until he had already ordered the steel, which was the wrong size. My firm had to pay for new steel for the correct size stair. I was so ashamed and this hurt my confidence so much, that it was part of the reason I left architecture for six years.

The practice of architecture carries with it a lot of responsibility, which is evident in our hefty insurance policies. And with great responsibility comes great pressure and stress. The pressure and stress of the profession may be responsible for the fact that about half of all NAAB (National Architectural Accrediting Board) graduates are lost before they reach licensure, according to Clive Knights, Director of the School of Architecture at Portland State University and according to the Equity by Design 2015 survey, about a third of the people who enter the profession leave it before reaching the 4-year mark.

Having returned to the profession as a project architect in charge of small and large projects, I am learning that everyone makes mistakes. The key is in how you react to the mistake. Do you apologize, make amends and focus on the solution, or do you wallow in the mistake and let it erode your self confidence to the point where you make yourself prone to making more mistakes? The key to practicing architecture is not to make zero mistakes, but learning how to get up after making one, dusting yourself off, and getting right back on the horse with poise and confidence.

I have noticed that women tend to have more confidence issues than men in architecture. Women are more likely to admit the things they don’t know and be more tentative about taking on larger, more complex projects if they lack experience. Whereas men will unflinchingly take those same tasks on with the same amount of inexperience. My friend Anne Marie told me that she was asked to lead a very large project once and turned it down, thinking that she didn’t have enough experience. A young man with less experience than her ended up taking on that project but had to quit after a year because he didn’t know what he was doing. And sadly, according to the 2015 Equity by Design survey, fewer women than men even aspire to become principals or owners of their own firm.

I am publishing a series of posts on how to gain more confidence in the practice of architecture with the hopes that we retain more talented people in the profession. I asked some of my personal heroes, very successful and inspiring women architects, for their advice on how to build confidence as an architect. I will be publishing what they said over several posts.

Today’s piece of advice comes from Rosa Sheng, Senior Associate at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and Chair of Equity by Design:

“Become an expert. Get out of your comfort zone and get really good at something that you fear. Choose a skill that you value in leaders that you admire and start there. Learn as much as you can about the skill you are trying to master through technology and in person with mentors. Practice, Practice, Practice.

Keep a list or journal of what you value as accomplishments in your professional and personal life. Document, Document, Document. When you are feeling a lack of confidence. Read the list to re-affirm that what you have achieved. If you feel that you have fallen short of your goals, don’t beat yourself up.

Live with positive focus. While it is easy to get fixated on the negative aspects of shortcomings based on the critical training we go through in architecture school, learn to separate the criticism of the design from your personal ego. Be authentic and use your voice. Surround yourself with people who will reinforce your positive focus.”

Next: Architect and Principal at Holly Street Studio, Diane Jacobs, will give her recommendations for young architects on how to build confidence.

Photo Credit: Original art by the author.

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One Response

  1. Cheryl Bicknell says:

    Thank you.

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