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The Coach: ‘Why do I not feel fulfilled as an architect?’

Shutterstock discontended architect
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Careers expert Matthew Turner advises an architect returning from summer holiday to find themselves discontent with their career

I realised during a lovely long summer holiday that I am not content. I am an architect. I have worked in a variety of practices, and I am good at what I do. I am all I have ever wanted to be. Why do I not feel fulfilled?

Matthew turner

Matthew turner

For many of us, ‘fulfilment’ ranks high on the list of wants from work. But many can’t define exactly what it is. We may know that it is lacking, and feel compelled to seek it out. We trust that feeling fulfilled will give us the contentment and satisfaction we’re looking for in our work lives. While that might be true, many search for fulfilment in the wrong place. 

The first step to greater fulfilment is to be able to recognise that nothing outside of you alone will make you more fulfilled. Don’t think that more money, better colleagues or more stimulating projects will miraculously make you feel more excited about your work. Sure, there are many changes that can take place externally that could have a positive effect, but for fundamental change, you need to start from the inside out. 

We each assign our own meaning to our experiences, which in turn makes them feel good or bad

Life has ups and downs, with events beyond our control knocking us for six, or propelling us positively. However, we each assign our own meaning to our experiences, which in turn makes them feel good or bad, and this originates from inside us. This is why two people can share the same experience – such as looking at a work of art – but have completely different feelings about it. It’s all subject to your personal interpretation. So if, for example, you tell yourself that your work is boring and meaningless, you’re not going to feel fulfilled.

I’ve always felt, positive thinking is incredibly powerful. The more you promote inner happiness (regardless of what’s going on outside or around you), the greater your experience of success throughout your life. Success does not breed happiness – it’s the other way around. 

An important thing we need in life if we’re to be happy is healthy boundaries, and sometimes I feel architects are not great at recognising this. Boundaries in this context are the invisible barriers that regulate the flow of input and information between you and the outside world. The key is finding balance – to be healthily engaged with others but solid enough in your own skin. With your own thoughts, beliefs and self-worth, you can navigate through life knowing who you are and what you want. The best way to determine if your boundaries are healthy is to think about your life and career ask yourself: Am I living someone else’s definition of life and success, or my own? 

What if you need to change? It takes courage to say ‘enough of this!’ when ‘this’ is something your ego, fears and hopes are tied up in. Our egos can stop us from doing the work we’re drawn to because we fear we’re not good enough, smart enough or invested too much. These internal blocks can prevent us from experiencing fulfilment. 

The more comfortable you become taking on fears, the more satisfying your life and career will be

Some people may find all this inward reflection too soul searching. So, what actual tactics can help encourage fulfilment? I think you would do well to start thinking about gratitude, flexibility and the people around you. 

Becoming grateful may sound mawkish, but gratitude is a powerful indicator of what you love and want to create more of in your life. The more you take time to acknowledge with appreciation (even if, in this moment, it’s only a sliver of your full life experience), the more you’ll be able to expand those things, and avoid being blind to the opportunities that are waiting in the wings. 

Experiencing fulfilment throughout life requires flexibility, openness and adaptability. Very few people in this world are happy with the exact same thing every day of their lives. We age, we develop, and we grow. Grabbing new experiences and bumping against new challenges requires walking through fear. The more comfortable you become taking on fears, the more satisfying your life and career will be.

One thing that most people forget about when they’re in the midst of their early career-building is other people. Many of us are intensively self-focused, dedicating time and energy to gaining more responsibility, expanding our skills, and rising to the top. Yet building positive relationships with supportive, empowering, enlivening people (and mentoring those who are emerging) is the best career strategy we can devise. Cultivating a powerful support circle and community now can be the difference between being stuck for years in a miserable situation and having new doors fly open just when you need them to. 

Finally, imagine if you weren’t an architect. We are blessed to work in a sector that actually does something tangible, unlike many service-sector jobs. People feel the most fulfilled when they recognise that they are making a meaningful contribution to the world. When we’re able to get out of our heads and focus on serving the people we work with (and work for) more completely, a greater sense of fulfilment is much more likely.

AJ coach Matthew Turner is an architect and careers consultant who runs the Building on Architecture consultancy. To contact him with your questions, tweet @TheAJcoach or email him in confidence at hello@buildingonarchitecture.com 

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