A Vacation From Vocation – Juxtaposing Life, Love and Career

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Let’s be honest. I could have titled this post ‘Taking A Mental Break From Work For A Couple of Days To Work Out Why My Life Has No Balance” but that didn’t seem to have the same level of drama and intrigue to it. And it has the added bonus of allowing me to practice my architectural jargon; yes, I’ve been back on Bob Borson’s ‘Life Of An Architect’ site, reading his tongue-in-cheek take on ‘archispeak’. See the article here: http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/words-that-architects-use/

The UrbanDictionary defines ‘archispeak’ as:

“Large, made-up words that architects and designers use to make themselves sound smarter than you (you being the client or the confused observer of design). It does nothing to inform or enlighten the consumer of architecture and mostly serves to numb them into obedience or self doubt.

“I went to Rem Koolhaas’ lecture last night.”

“What did he talk about?”

“I have no idea. It was all in archispeak. Either I’m stupid or the guy is brilliant!”

That being said, I wrote this post nearly a week ago whilst waiting for my plane to take off to return to Brisbane from Canberra. I had every intention of typing it up and posting it immediately – clearly that didn’t happen. The program I’ve worked out with my employer is that I will do full-time hours but at times that are convenient for me, so I can fit some of my private work + actually have some fun before I return to university in 3 weeks time.

I knew I was going up the coast yesterday morning to see some very dear clients of mine about a new project and I knew that I had a COB deadline for the Canberra office today [Friday]. This is where I become a professional juggler. It meant I had to fit at least 40 hours [or whatever it took to complete the job] by Thursday morning at the latest. So between 11am Monday morning and 4am Thursday morning, I did 44 hours of work. I took 8 hours out of that time to catch up with my uni friends and had around 4 hours sleep a night. It sounds crazy. It IS crazy. But it’s my job and deadlines are a necessary evil.

So below is the original post, which I guess now ties in nicely with how my week has ended up:

Have you ever stopped to think about why we become what we become, career-wise? What shaped our talents and honed our skills so that we become the best damn pilot / designer / ballerina / teacher / politician / psychologist…. or architect that we can be? [though let’s be honest, for those of you who know, the last career is actually a combination of the last 3].

I find I think about this frequently. I never stop thinking, even when I’m sleeping apparently… but it’s the subject matter that’s surprising. Quite frankly, you’d think I’d have a lot more interesting things to focus on… like, say, why I always find the urge to write about philosophical matters whilst waiting for the rest of the people to board this tiny aircraft? Or why it is that I have not yet run screaming from this tiny aircraft, as said vessels actually terrify me? Or if I’m really going to rely on the pompous a-hole in Seat 1D to adequately open the exit hatch in the ‘unlikely’ event of an emergency?

But I digress. I usually find myself thinking about the mysteries of what shaped me after I’ve done particularly well at something or conquered a challenge that my job (read: possible vocation] or studies have thrown at me. I’m not sure why this is so. Maybe because it’s a form of affirmation – a sense that the universe chose correctly when deciding what it is that I should be, if indeed this is how we end up spending at least 40 hours a week for a substantial portion of our lives. Is it odd that I never think about it when I’m on my 3rd consecutive all-nighter, drinking cup after cup of coffee so strong that it takes on an almost paste-like consistency, trying to meet yet another unrealistic deadline?

I think if I was to let those thoughts in at that time, I’d need to assume the Psychologist element of my persona and ask myself to objectively state whether or not this lifestyle is a healthy one. I think anyone who has been there and done that would quite quickly answer “Ummm, no. It’s not”.

It seems that anyone who signs up for this career needs a healthy dose of stoicism, the ability to handle frequent bouts of sleep deprivation and a distinct love of criticism – constructive or otherwise – peppered on occasion with pats on the back for a job well done. I don’t know why this is so. I’ve tried for years to find another way to disseminate the workload but to no avail. It seems to be that driven, type A, perfectionist personalities are drawn to this career like moths to a flame.

I knew from the age of 7 what I wanted to be. As I understand it, this is quite a rare thing, especially when someone actually grows up to become what they wanted to be in their early childhood. I decided I wanted to be an interior designer. Yes, I was a crafty little bugger, I loved to draw and to accompany Mum on trips to Freedom and Ikea and stare at the multitude of furniture and furnishings like it was a wonderland.  And of course there was the constant moving around of the furniture in my bedroom. But the truth of it is, I read about an interior designer in a book. I was a pretty advanced reader for my age, voraciously devouring book after book – usually Nancy Drew or The Babysitters’ Club… and usually after ‘lights out’. That’s when I would crack the blinds and read by the streetlight; probably a good indication of where my vision problems started out.

One particular book in Francine Pascal’s 1980’s cult series ‘Sweet Valley Twins’ mentioned that the twins’ mother was an interior designer. I remember thinking how glamorous it sounded. I remember thinking I was going to be one. That it was my calling. It wasn’t until the final couple of years of my degree that I realised Alice Wakefield was in fact a decorator, not a designer and there isn’t a hell of a lot of glamour to the job. In the last decade, I can count on my fingers (and perhaps add in a few toes) the number of times I’ve been able to get dressed up to impress clients or go to a professional function. I was always too damn busy. I felt like the worst friend in the world because promised dinners and catch-ups always fell by the wayside as deadline after deadline approached. Relationships were difficult, if not impossible. Understandably, men didn’t want a partner who only needed them for 15 seconds a week to open a jar or take the bin out. And by necessity, not by choice, I started my own design business at the age of 23.

At 22, I developed a tumour in my right breast the size of a golfball. Stress. At 23, my hair started going grey – not everywhere, just in patches. Stress. At 26, I had my first round of stomach ulcers. Stress. At 27, I had my gall bladder removed. Stress. At 28, the ulcers returned. Stress. At 29, I was a pitiful mess of what the doctors then diagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Stress. So how the F can something be so stressful when it’s supposed to be creative and enjoyable? And why, if it’s always like this, would anyone want to do it?

This is where the question of our life schematic comes in. Is there some unseen cosmic diagram, like a flow-chart, that says if your traits are X, Y, Z then you should become an A or B or C? I can safely say that I followed in nobody’s footsteps in my family. Including my extended family, we are a group of 10 people. Of those 10 people, 8 are teachers. One is a lawyer… and then there is me. If I didn’t look so much like my family, I’d assume I was the product of a passionate affair with the milkman. Mum tells me that her grandfather was an architect in Italy [possible throwback] but Dad is adopted so really, I have no idea where my creativity comes from. The family says there are really 9 teachers in the family because I have a lot of patience and I’m also skilled at educating people about what I know. But it’s just not where my heart is.

I know there are people in this world who are, in my eyes, predestined to become nurses, doctors, healers, teachers… but can architects be put in that same category? Do we put ourselves through it because we secretly thrive on stress? Because at the end of the day, we have the rare opportunity to see a physical product of our arduous work and be able to say “I did that”? Or because we are skilled at conceptualising; at being visionaries / great artists / capable project managers?

Or is it just because we love it and it’s what we enjoy more than anything? I’d argue that it’s a combination of all those things and then some. If I didn’t have that basic element of loving what I do, trust me, I think I’d pursue another career path. I keeping hoping that there will be a way to tame my compulsions and my perfectionism. My reality is that I want to be a place maker. Maybe I could be cut out for other things as well but this is what brings me joy. I want to create structures and places that amaze and inspire awe. I want to create spaces that both humble and exalt their inhabitants. I have an irrepressible urge to be more and do more and to never stop learning.

Had I not had the experiences of the last decade, I wouldn’t feel the way I do about my place in life now. I’m grateful, I’m humbled and I can feel the fire in my belly returning. With a vengeance.

Whilst I want to be brilliant and create brilliant, iconic and lasting designs [secretly I want to be the next Hadid], I’m also a realist. And the reality is that the job market is bleak, the economy is woeful and there is a chance I may end up as just another body in a sea of workstations in a big firm… being constrained by tight budgets and even tighter time-frames. IF I let that happen. What I really want is to start my own firm with some of my very talented fellow students; to offer a full-service firm with architects, interior designers and landscape architects for people who want something bespoke and special. It’s a pipe dream but life is too short not to at least try for what you want. I think there are a lot worse things in life than wanting to be the best that I can be in my career. And the day I stop dreaming and I stop learning is the day I throw in the towel.

So was it my personality traits and the gift of having very understanding and open-minded parents who encouraged my every whim that led me here? Was it part of a predestined plan that I had no control over? Was it a calling? For whatever reason I became a designer, I’m incredibly grateful to have the skills I have and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s the many parts of myself – my creativity, my insight, my artistic abilities and my stubbornness that will make me into the Architect that I want to be. Sure, half the time I feel like I have my backside cantilevered (yes, more architectural jargon] out in the wind but without risks, life wouldn’t be half as fun or half as rewarding.

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