What Should Students Do Now?

volcanic foothills on the Big Island of Hawaii

   The profession of architecture lies today in smoking ruins. Most students don’t have a snowball’s chance of getting a job in this environment. What should they do?

   Many architecture firms have closed their doors entirely, and many more have been reduced to little more than the partners. And there is no end in sight for anyone taking a realistic view of the carnage. Simply put, 2006 isn’t coming back. We’re in the middle of a major structural shift, and it isn’t immediately clear where things will stabilize.

steam rising from burning shore where lava meets the sea on the Big Island of Hawaii

   Fortunately for students and recent graduates, this is the one time in their careers that they can withstand such a jolting upheaval, for reasons I described here. Simply put, this is the one time in your career that you can afford to do something else for a living while building your ideas away from work. Because the meltdown is sweeping away many of the architects of older generations, it is clearing the way for students and recent graduates to become the leaders of the profession much sooner than they would have ever dreamed... if they do certain things.

   The first necessary thing, if you haven’t started already, is to begin building your networks. If necessary, build them in advance of knowing exactly what you’re going to do with them. For example, I have a network of over a thousand people on LinkedIn, and I haven’t decided yet how best to use it... but it’s there, waiting for me once I figure it out.

lone tree standing at the border between two lava flows on the Big Island of Hawaii

   I’ve built a network of over 3,000 people on Facebook, mostly centered on those who have an interest in the Original Green... pointing out the fact that once you do know how you’re hoping to use the network, it’s much easier to grow because you stand for something. There’s an Original Green cause on Facebook that has over 11,000 members from all over the world. Somewhat over a thousand people currently follow me on Twitter. Some of my Useful Stuff blog posts have had upwards of 3,000 readers. And several hundred people regularly read this blog, and not all at once, either. There are new readers all the time for blog posts over a year old. I’m even building a network of sorts around the images on my Zenfolio site. The point is that you shouldn’t build just one network, but several... because you’ll find significantly different circles of people in each.

orchard and farmland on North Shore of Big Island of Hawaii

   Networks are of very little use, however, unless you have something useful with which to feed them, because without something useful nudging them in a particular direction, you’re left with nothing but conversational static about completely random and likely non-useful stuff.

   You can feed your networks in the beginning with little snippets of useful information, even if they’re gleaned from other sources. But sooner or later, you’re going to need at least one big idea. Why? There’s an external reason and an internal reason: From the outside, it’s the big ideas that attract like-minded people to you. Those who want to know about the Creative Class seek out Richard Florida. Those who want to know about sticky ideas seek out Chip & Dan Heath. Those who want to know what’s wrong with suburban sprawl and how to fix it seek out Andrés Duany and Galina Tahchieva.

   The internal reason for a big idea is that everyone needs a taxonomy of their work. “Taxonomy” is a fancy word for putting things in order. Your big idea informs your taxonomy. Lots of things fall in place when you have a big idea with which to organize them.

streams coursing through pastures near the North Shore of the Big Island of Hawaii

   Does the idea need to be your own? Let’s think about that a moment. It is completely fine to be a student of other people’s ideas, contributing none of your own, and simply using their ideas to organize what you do. Nothing wrong with that. Matter of fact, that’s what most people do.

   Some people, however, aren’t satisfied with just hearing about the truth; they want to observe it. Working directly with empirical observations of the way things are, unfiltered by numerous commentators over the years, can be a bit scary because you don’t have the confirmation of all those other wise people who have thought about these things. But if you’re curious enough, then this may often be the path you find yourself on. This is where the thought leaders emerge.

   Where do big ideas come from? Start by looking for “insight holes.” These are places in an existing schema where things don’t quite line up... places where your professors’ theories get a bit frayed around the edges. These are places in dire need of an insight... and that insight just might be yours if you’re looking for it. But if you’re not looking, there’s very little chance the insight will be yours. Nothing fuels insight so much as expectation.

streambeds cutting through rain forests near the North Shore of the Big Island of Hawaii

   Interestingly, you never know whether your insights will support the existing schema or break it. That’s part of the fun of discovery. At the very least, your insights will help explain those troubling little things nibbling around the edges of your mind about how things work. Or they may explain how things work in an entirely different way.

   Please note that this can be slow work. The day after Thanksgiving 1980, I visited the tiny hamlet of Mooresville, Alabama and encountered a great mystery which I described in Twenty-Eight Years Later. A brilliant person might have figured it out in short order, but I did the next best thing: I adopted the mystery. I took it home with me, fed it, and took care of it for years.

trees scattering across pastures from a streambed near the North Shore of the Big Island of Hawaii

   Late on the evening of July 21, 2004, over 23-1/2 years after first encountering the mystery, the Transmission Device of Living Traditions was rediscovered. The dominoes began to fall very quickly after that evening, and just over a year later, on the day after Thanksgiving 2005, precisely a quarter-century to the day after encountering the mystery at Mooresville, I finished a book (A Living Tradition [Gulf Coast Architecture]) which thoroughly incorporates the discovery, providing a roadmap for making the discovery work. Soon after, A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas] built another roadmap for another place on the same framework.

waterfall plunging thousands of feet into a gorge on the North Shore of the Big Island of Hawaii

   Since that time, insight has fallen quickly upon insight, culminating in the ideas of the Original Green. I never would have been able to tell the Original Green story today without adopting that mystery nearly thirty years ago.

   There’s another important thing to note here: Adopting the mystery helped me all through the years, because when you adopt a mystery, you’re continuously looking at everything with expectancy, not knowing which tree, which rock, or which street corner the answer might be hiding behind. But in the early years, outward progress was exceptionally slow because I had no network. I was on an architectural island in a small town where my colleagues were far more interested in architecture as an income-producing medium than an idea-producing medium.

floor of deep gorge near North Shore of Big Island of Hawaii

   Twenty years after the mystery at Mooresville, I began to actively engage with New Urbanists, first at the Seaside Institute, then at the Congress for the New Urbanism and elsewhere. Friends and colleagues sharpen each other’s ideas like they could each never do alone. It was less than five years from the time I started building my New Urbanist network until that July night when the Transmission Device was rediscovered.

   So start building your networks now. Had I started building mine in 1980, who knows how soon the Original Green story could have been told, and how much good it could have done in the meantime?

   One caveat: both the network-building and the idea-building are slow tasks. Don’t get discouraged. You will get very few follows in the beginning. And the beginnings of idea-building are where you make the slowest progress. Critical mass is more likely to occur in a several months or a few years than in a few days or weeks. But if you don’t get started, you’ll never get there at all. So get going now! And by all means, let’s discuss this... please add a comment and let’s talk about it.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Note: See Social Media and Living Traditions and  The Importance of Blogging for ideas that dovetail closely with these.

Legacy Comments:

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 10:38 AM

John Anderson


In addition to the activities you listed, I recommend that newly minted architecture grads figure out a way to build something (or renovate something).  FourGrads+family&friends LLC might be the only outfit building small well-designed rental and work space during these tough times.  Take this time to learn the business side of the built environment.

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 10:59 AM

Steve Mouzon

Excellent point, John! Plus, this dovetails with my long-held belief that every architect should have worked at least a year or two in construction. And not just for a contractor, but in the field actually putting stuff together.

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 04:23 PM

Denese Bottrell

You've touched on so many important points here.  I know you're speaking to architecture students, but all professions at all levels could benefit from adopting a student mentality. Being open to learning new "ways," being patient with the process and comfortable showing vulnerability will be what drives success going forward. Your story is realistic, showing us we can't wait to figure it out before we start trying...Whether our efforts evolve into a big “business” idea isn't necessarily important. If the practice helps us become closer to who we are and find a community that connects.... then it’s worth all the late nights & weekends spent blogging & tweeting.

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 04:30 PM

Steve Mouzon

   Thanks, Denese! And yes, you're exactly right... these are things we all could and should be doing, IMO. It's just that students are in the best position to do so because they haven't gotten sucked into the machine yet, and burdened down with all the obligations that come with pre-meltdown success.

   Your point about comfort showing vulnerability is particularly valuable, IMO. In the old Fort Business model, everything coming from Public Relations was supposed to indicate that the company had it all figured out. Now, however, the admission that we don't have it all figured out is an open invitation to collaboration with others. Someone recently said "all of us are smarter than any of us," which makes that collaboration especially valuable.

Friday, October 22, 2010 - 02:20 AM

Brent Baldwin

Great advice! If where we are headed is fewer clients that can support the old model of architecture as high design for the discriminating, then the solution may be to open it up to the masses. Just as everyone I know goes to the dentist, maybe through blogs like this and a collaborative environment, one day we'll hire architects and designers for all sorts of problems, big and small.

Friday, October 29, 2010 - 10:38 AM

Steve Mouzon

Exactly... we need to be open to all sorts of new possibilities, because the old systems clearly aren't working anymore... at least not for most of us. FWIW, I'm working on a post right now entitled A Time for Healing... it proposes some ideas for the current realities.

Thursday, November 11, 2010 - 02:33 PM

cindy frewen wuellner

Steve, You are so right, in areas where much has been developed, like architectur, important ideas take a couple of decades of simmering to become fully realized. Sometimes we hit on a fantastic idea immediately, early in life, but those tend to be in areas with little completed - as Bill Gates, the Beatles, and now Zuckerberg found. they were creating transformational new domains. In architecture and cities, we are building on thousands of years of civilization. and the technology is complex. In school and the first five years of practice, we just see all the parts, another five or ten to orchestrate it in design or management. Most architects best work begins after 40. People have to love it or try something else. beautiful thoughts, Cindy @urbanverse

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:37 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Cindy! BTW, have you read Gladwell's Outliers? He makes the case that even with Gates, the Beatles, and others, their "overnight successes" were at least 10,000 hours in the making. So there's no doubt we've gotta build up to greatness. I'm just thinking that by harvesting the wisdom of many, networks can help make the path a little more direct... maybe?

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:38 AM

Steve Mouzon

One more thing... for anyone interested in the Mooresville story, here's a more recent blog post that tells it in more detail.

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