As much as I have always imagined myself as a spontaneous and adventurous guy, the older I get the more set in my ways I am. I’ve traveled the world, I’ve run with the bulls, I’ve been on mountaintops, I have a tattoo and earring for God’s sake, but I also haven’t changed my breakfast cereal in 15 years. This stagnation can be particularly difficult during a worldwide recession. Like so many of our ARCADE readers, I found myself recently in the throes of a career change, and it affected me more than I anticipated. Since my Side Yard installments are typically semi-autobiographical cathartic excises, I felt I owed it to myself to share this with you.
To start out, I’ve had a pretty unique architectural career in that I had been a “company man” in my prior firm for close to 23 years—almost half my life! I mean, I still had notes in files that were written on typewriters using carbon paper.
When I began considering a career change, I felt like a divorcee tenuously jumping into the dating scene after decades of marriage. There was this nagging sentiment that this recession was going to make me about as eligible as a hetero male looking for love at a gay summer camp. Who would possibly be interested in me now, at my frumpy age, in this economic wasteland, especially after all the things I’ve written about others in this column?
It became quickly apparent that “firm courting” norms had changed dramatically and Ron van der Veen, wearing his proverbial leisure suit, was behind the times. Simple questions like what to wear (tie or no tie?), how much to talk, what to order for lunch so things wouldn’t stick to my teeth all added to my reticence. During one meeting, I looked down towards my crossed egs noticing in shock that my white athletic tube socks were vividly contrasting with my dark grey slacks and black shoes.
One big personal dilemma for me was how much to promote myself to potential employers. You all know how self-effacing architects can be in Seattle! I wanted to sound like a team player, a collaborator, but felt that I needed to say things to make firms want me. It had been so long since I actually had to impress a boss or colleague that I wasn’t quite sure I remembered the art of understated verbal swank.
The same was true for my resume. When you’re my age, you can really fill pages up with “stuff.” I’ve also been around long enough to know that lots of architects claim lots of projects in their dubious credentials. (I even interviewed a person once who claimed he designed a project for which I had been the lead designer. That was satisfyingly awkward.) So I debated with myself: If half of what most people write in their resumes are exaggerations and/or falsehoods and my resume is half the length of an average one because I am being honest, if a potential architecture firm isn’t aware of this (because of my modesty), will it effectively reduce the value of my resume by 75 percent?
Thank God that most firms don’t expect an architect my age to have a fancy, super-graphic portfolio. This was the part on which I actually spent the least amount of effort. But the last time I actually carried around a portfolio, it was in a big, heavy binder. This time I had to keep checking my pockets every five minutes to make sure my flash drive hadn’t fallen out.
During my early firm courting, I was riddled with doubt about myself and about leaving my previous employer. I had reoccurring nightmares that I crawled back to my old firm, asking for my job back with most of my colleagues not remembering my name. I never really got over the bad dreams and the “dating for the first time in decades” feeling, but I did learn to wear black socks and order food that wouldn’t compromise my teeth.
Eventually things worked out better than expected. After quickly acclimating to the modern courting scene, I am happy to say that I was very lucky to find a great new girlfriend! And yes, having a new career has been exhilarating—kind of like a prom date with a cheerleader. But it has become apparent to me that the courtship doesn’t end when one walks through the door. The toughest part of this transition has been pretending to be competent and concentrating for long stretches of time. It’s exhausting! And I figure it is only a matter of time before my new girlfriend realizes my gazing out the window isn’t as much about architectural reflection as it is trying to figure out what to write for my next Side Yard installment.