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On Alfred Adler, ambition and the real meaning of lifestyle

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Ever wondered about the psychological underpinnings of your work? What makes you go, what makes you stop? In architecture such crises de confiance come with the territory but explaining them doesn't. To master the unconscious elements of success you have to throw away all those outrageous management books about learning from Genghis Khan and turn to Alfred Adler instead. Born in Austria in 1870, Adler first trained as a doctor, then became an eye specialist and eventually turned himself into a pioneer psychologist. He worked with Sigmund Freud until the two quarreled in 1911. After that Adler established his own psychological system with some success in the world of business and the military. Rejecting what he considered to be Freud's undue emphasis on infantile sexuality, he turned instead to the importance of the will to dominate and the consequences of its frustration - both matters of keen interest to architects.

Today Adler is chiefly remembered, where he is remembered at all, for his invention of the phrase 'inferiority complex' which is in common use and excuse in many languages. But he also invented the even more commonly used term 'lifestyle', by which he meant something a tad more substantial than the selection of consumer choices - cars, wallpaper, furniture, vegetarian food - that are summed up by the much diluted word today.

What Adler meant by 'lifestyle' was the unique process by which every individual in a competitive situation endeavoured to move from a subservient to a commanding role. In Adler's original formulation, a person's 'lifestyle' was a behaviour pattern adopted in childhood as a technique for overcoming the essential powerlessness of infancy. Thus, much as a small child devises methods and approaches to get his or her own way against the inclination of larger and more powerful adults, so does the grown-up child use an evolved version of this technique in later life. Refined by life experience, the adult 'lifestyle' becomes a technique for moving from inferiority to command in any situation, but also a means of coping with feelings of inferiority induced by failure so to do.

Properly understood, 'lifestyle' is not only recognisable in the individual courses of action and responses of private life, but can also be seen in relation to the challenges and opportunities of professional careers from their very outset. For example, the all but universal practice of jurying student projects in schools of architecture is a classic arena for the revelation of 'lifestyle'. With all the subtlety of a bull fight, it elicits responses ranging from public humiliation to professorial praise in front of an audience of peers.

In the Adlerian sense the will for power, which is ambition, and the will to endure, which is self-control, dominate in professional life. Once in practice, an architect must either endeavour to retain clients by compliance, or find new work by aggressive bids to seize the initiative. The choice of method will already be programmed into the personality and running counter to it will invariably lead to failure. Thus an individual whose 'lifestyle' tells them that superior knowledge (or the appearance of it) can successfully wrest control of a project from a client, other consultants or a project manager, can succeed where they would fail if confronted by an equally well informed defence.

Adler himself believed that the aggressive bid was inherently superior to the dogged defence, although if he were alive today, he would also probably endorse the military dictum that time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted. Every time an architect is confronted by a new commission they should rethink it from first principles, and never hesitate to question the client's preconceptions, even when the questions might appear to endanger the project itself.

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