Why Architecture Graduates Should Embrace the Mundane in Their First Job

This week, I took on a question from a reader. The following post is in direct response to that inquiry.

Karate Kid// 1984 Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

Karate Kid// 1984
Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

 

"No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do."

Mr. Miyagi (Karate Kid)


READER QUESTION:

After you graduate from architecture school and start your first job, is it true that you'll have to repeat the same tasks on a daily basis?

THE FIRST FEW YEARS

I'm not going to lie, during the first few years after graduation, most seasoned veterans assume that new hires are incapable of most tasks in an architecture firm. This doesn't mean that you're invaluable, it just means that it will take a while for someone to train you how to draw, create, and function in a professional office.

The ways in which you worked in school don't really apply to the 9 to 5 setting. In school, you were essentially working for yourself. You may have had an intended 'client' for your studio projects, but in the real world, architecture firms are running businesses and you're on their time. Architecture school provides you with basic skills in order to understand space and concept, but it very rarely provides you with an understanding of how to write a spec, how to use a firm's given software (regardless of what fancy 3D algorithms you generated for your amoebic studio project in Rhino), or how to assemble a proper set of drawings that must be buildable.


EMBRACE THE MUNDANE

(KARATE IS OPTIONAL)

When you first walk into a professional office, everything may seem mundane that you're working on. Some people think they're stuck when they've designed 12 toilet rooms in a row, laid out ceiling grids until their fingers bled (they don't really bleed - it's not that kind of torture), or drawn interior elevations until they couldn't see straight. The reality is quite the opposite. You need to embrace the mundane and here's why.

Think 'Karate Kid.' I may be slightly dating myself here, but whatever. Daniel is a young, teenage kid that just moved across the country with his mom to start a new life in California. After a few run-ins with a gang of bullies that know karate, a wise, old maintenance man at their building, Mr. Miyagi, agrees reluctantly to teach Daniel karate so that he can protect himself and stand up to the relentless, karate wielding Cobra Kai!


WAX ON, WAX OFF...

On the first day of his training, Daniel arrives at Mr. Miyagi's home to eagerly get down and fight. Well, that's not what Mr. Miyagi has in store for Daniel-San. Instead, Dan is instructed to wax all of Mr. Miyagi's classic cars in a very specific way. 'Wax On' - Outward, radiating circle with right hand. 'Wax Off' - Outward, radiating circle with left hand.

As you can imagine, Dan is a bit lost for words. He was anticipating some kind of whirling roundhouse flurry or a super charged Bruce Lee punch attack. And yet, here he was, washing and waxing some really nice cars instead. Whah. Whah. Dan tirelessly waxed all of the cars. Anytime that he forgot how to, Mr. Miyagi would run over and correct his form.


...SAND THE FLOOR, PAINT THE FENCE, PAINT THE HOUSE

After waxing all of the cars, Dan arrived another day and eagerly awaited the secret to the world of Karate backflips and hits. Instead, Mr. Miyagi had Dan sand the wooden deck in his garden.

This time, Miyagi told Daniel to 'Sand the Floor' by using a very specific method, the opposite way of 'Wax On, Wax Off.' Here, Dan would use inward, radiating circles with his right and then left hand, repeating the process as he went.

Miyagi then asked Daniel-San to 'Paint the Fence' around his yard. With each stroke, Daniel was asked to use sweeping motions up and down, bending at the wrist.

The final task was to 'Paint the House' - Mr. Miyagi's house to be exact. Now at this point, Dan is getting a bit more irritable because he's starting to resent doing all of these chores for Mr. Miyagi without seeing a single minute of karate practice time. He reluctantly paints Miyagi's house using a side to side motion.


PATIENCE PAYS OFF

After Daniel had washed and waxed Miyagi's cars, sanded Miyagi's floor, painted Miyagi's fence, and painted Miyagi's house, Daniel was frustrated, tired, and fed up. He approached Miyagi and told him that he was done with the whole thing and going home.

Miyagi turned to Daniel and asked him to show him each of the chores one by one. As Daniel motioned 'Wax On, Wax Off,' Miyagi helped him lock in to place his form. With each new move, Daniel could see the pieces fall into place - he had been learning karate the ...entire ...time. Miyagi signaled Daniel to prepare himself and unleashed a flurry of karate onto his student. With each punch, Daniel blocked the oncoming onslaught with grace and poise. His hands blocked jabs and kicks a plenty.

Daniel had learned over the course of four days what it could take months or years to understand otherwise. Miyagi had used the mundane chores as a way to create muscle memory for Daniel.



EMBRACE THE MUNDANE

When you get your first job in an architecture office after school you need to be a sponge. Take in everything you can because you don't have the experience yet to know why you're being given the tasks you have. Just because you're drawing your 12th toilet room, doesn't mean that you need to resent it.

Architecture isn't just pretty pictures you see in magazines. Architecture is functional. Architecture is real. You need to treat every space you design with equal respect.

As you prove to others that you are willing and able to complete one task, they will give you another that may build your skill set in a completely different way. If you simply resent what you're doing all of the time though, you may just find yourself stuck in the same place.


CONSIDER THIS

Thom Mayne has designed bathrooms. Zaha Hadid has designed drop ceilings. Renzo Piano has designed interior elevations.

You don't become successful in architecture because you can just create overall building designs like you did in studio. You need to understand all of the functions and reasons of why a building is the way it is first before you can iterate and improve upon its other, more enjoyable qualities.

If you keep an open mind to the tasks that are given to you and do them to the best of your abilities, you may just be rewarded with tasks other than just bathrooms.


P.S.  //  When you're first starting out, just doing what you're told at first can be the best thing for you. Allow your mentors to guide you through the profession for a while. You may not realize until later why their 'mundane tasks' are so important to your success. What types of activities were you doing when you had your first job in design? Did those tasks help you later in your career? Let me know some of your thoughts in the comments below.

Michael LaValley

Buffalo, NY