Three Lessons from the Streets
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If you are interested in writing for Entrepreneur Architect, click here for information on how to submit your work for consideration. Until next week, please enjoy Jeff’s story of life on the streets as an intern architect.
Full of Hope and Confidence
In December of 1991, I completed my finals and headed home to Chicago. I had completed three-and-a-half years of my architectural education in Ball State University’s College of Architecture and Planning and was heading into my required Internship semester. I was full of hope and confidence, vim and vigor and all that.
The next few months would be some of the most formative of my life; but not for the reasons you might expect.
The economy in 1991 and 1992 was in a shambles. Students don’t understand that. Unemployment numbers were high, construction starts were almost non-existent and I had just unleashed a resume mailing campaign the likes of which will never be replicated.
As the respondent volley of rejections began to intensify I realized that there must be a better way. After all, printing and postage for resumes and follow-up letters was putting a strain on this student’s budget in both time and money.
Not a single class I had taken so far had prepared me for this. All I knew was that you were supposed to compose a professional looking resume, send it to the best contact you could find and follow up a few days later. This obviously wasn’t working.
For some reason as the rejections rolled in I began collecting them in a shoe box. That shoe box was getting full. I wear size 12.
I knew it was time to go off-script; to improvise. The thing that bothered me the most was that I was essentially sending a couple pieces of paper to a name and never having any direct contact with the person that name belonged to. What’s worse, sometimes that name was Sir or Madame. I had no idea if that person read my cover letter or reviewed my resume. I didn’t have the opportunity to introduce myself, much less explain myself. I didn’t even know if that person even worked there any more.
LinkedIn wouldn’t be founded for 10 more years.
I decided that I had to head directly to the front lines.
Taking It To The Streets
Let me set the stage for you. It was January, 1992. Cell phones hadn’t been widely adopted. Smartphones hadn’t been invented. No one was walking down Michigan Avenue staring at their iPhone. We used pay phones, in phone booths and Yellow Pages.
Tuesday, January 14th 1992 was the day that changed everything. Actually I made that up. I have no idea what the actual date was. So there I was; freezing, with a pocket full of quarters, in a phone booth, on a street corner, in Chicago, in January.
I was burning through my list of firms, calling, stopping in and following up. At least now I was having actual conversations with human beings. One of those conversations went like this:
Firm Principal: “Yes, we received your resume but unfortunately we don’t have any work” (I’d heard that line about 12,000 times by now). “In fact, we’ve been reducing staff lately.”
Me: “I understand. I’m hearing that a lot. I’m sure you have a lot of friends around the City. Do you know of anyone that I should call that may have work?”
Firm Principal: “No, there isn’t much work out there right now.”
Me: “I know. Well, I’ve got to complete an Internship before I can graduate. Do you have any advice that you’d be willing to share with me?”
There was an exaggerated pause. That gave me hope. The thought that was going through my head was “I’m about to receive the single-best piece of advice I’ve ever heard.”
Firm Principal: “What year did you say you were in school?”
I KNEW IT!
I have the well-known Principal of a prominent, award-winning Chicago architectural firm on the telephone and they’re putting a lot of thought into a golden piece of advice just for me.
VICTORY WILL SURELY BE MINE!
Me: “I just completed my third year. I’m in a five year, professional degree program at Ball State.”
Firm Principal: “Well …”
HERE IT COMES!!
Firm Principal: “I guess the best thing I can tell you is it’s not too late to change your major.”
Talk about exaggerated pauses. That’s what you came up with? Change my major? I grew up surrounded by Frank Lloyd Wright. I’ve watched This Old House every Saturday morning with my Dad since it first hit the air waves. Almost all my cousins and uncles are Engineers or are somehow tied to the construction industry. I was meant to do this. Change my major?
Firm Principal: “I mean, it really has nothing to do with you, it’s just that the economy is terrible and I don’t see it turning around any time soon. I think you’d be smart to look at another field.”
I didn’t know what to say. I have no idea what I said after that. It’s entirely possible that I just hung the phone up. I don’t know.
That was the last call I made that day. In fact, not long after I made the decision to give up on working in Chicago.
I headed to Indianapolis. I knew nothing about Indianapolis but it was a major city and it wasn’t far from Ball State. Maybe there would be work there.
I didn’t give up. I couldn’t give up. I didn’t even understand that as an option but I didn’t send out a single resume, at least not until I’d talked to someone at the firm first. This time my strategy was simple … and desperate. I opened the Yellow Pages to “Architects” and started calling. I worked my way all the way from ‘A’ down to ‘R’ before I finally found someone who actually needed an Intern.
In February of 1992 I went to work for Richardson, Munson and Weir. In March, I took the stub from my first pay check, placed it on top of the hundreds of rejection letters in that shoe box. I put the top back on the box. I never opened it again, but that shoe box remained on the shelf in the top of my closet in whatever apartment or house I was living in for the next 15 years.
3 Lessons for Finding Your First Job
Even though the box and the letters and the pay stub are gone now, the memory reminds me of a few lessons that have served me well over my career:
Take Permission. Seth Godin is probably credited with the popularization of the term. I went from sending letters and cover letters, hoping someone would invite me to come in and talk to them to calling, or just stopping in to talk. I didn’t wait, I took permission.
Communication. Social Media as we know it didn’t exist in 1992 but a lot of people try to market their firms with Social Media the same way I sent out cover letters and resumes back then. Not focusing on a singular conversation is ineffective. We are human beings. We want to communicate with other human beings. We aren’t interested in an anonymous broadcast message whether it’s an email or a cover letter from a hopeful intern.
Get Uncomfortable. For me, January 1992 was uncomfortable for a number of reasons. I was cold. I was tired. I was broke. I was desperate. More importantly, I was way outside my comfort zone. I’m naturally shy. Walking through the front door of a firm unannounced or even “cold calling” was completely unnatural to me. Do something every day that makes you uncomfortable. That’s how you grow.
That’s how I found my first job in Architecture.