Work / Life … Different Letters, Same Word

September 8, 2015 — 56 Comments

I can’t even begin to convey the irony of this post. It is literally Labor Day – a holiday – and I’m sitting in my customary spot on the couch writing this article.  Bonus level of irony – I initially claimed this particular spot on the couch because it is positioned so that I can lay down and watch television; sitting upright is for uncommitted people. My prized spot, positioned to maximize slothful behavior, is typically used more for work than leisure.

Another bit of irony is that I took a break from working so that I could write this article, which is essentially more work. When I’m done. I’ll stop working so that I can continue working.

Apparently work is my respite from work. Whenever I’ve been working too much and I need a distraction, I do some work … I just change out the type of work.

That doesn’t make any sense.

I am completely aware of my circumstances and for the most part, I’m okay with it because the only reason it exists like this is because I choose to have it this way, at least for now.

MMB Architects Office - after hours and on the weekend ... empty

MMB Architects Office – after hours and on the weekend … empty

Work / Life is a topic that is frequently discussed whenever a group of architects get together. When I was a bit younger, most of my associates discussed how they were worked to death and were compensated in peanuts for their efforts. I would simply nod my head and say “yeah” a lot – more to fit in than anything else because that never really happened to me. EVER. Sure, there were times when I worked a lot but it was because I felt ownership in the work and wanted it to be the very best product I was capable of creating. We didn’t keep time sheets; our deadlines were identified by the day, not how many hours we had to finish the work. I could have gotten my work done in less time, gone home, and done something else but my work was exciting to me … this is what I wanted to be doing. Why would I want to leave and go do something else?

Eventually, the low salary might have been a drag but I learned a long time ago that you don’t take a job just for the money (“Golden Handcuffs“) and if you can find work that is rewarding and you can make enough money to meet your needs, I think you’re better off than most of the people out there.

If the culture of an architectural office requires their people to routinely make sacrifices for the sake of the business, I think there’s a problem somewhere.

I remember that time in my life very well and I draw upon those feelings and experiences now that my name is on the front door of the office. As a general rule, don’t work overtime in my office. I can only remember a few brief periods where we all came together to get something completed in order to meet a promise we made to a client – but normally everybody can leave when they want. I want people to have a life outside of the office (if that’s what they really want). I am a big believer in that you don’t ask anybody to do something that you yourself aren’t willing to do – and I work more than anyone in my office.

If the culture of an architectural office requires their people to routinely make sacrifices for the sake of the business, I think there’s a problem somewhere. Don’t get me wrong; I like working and would think it pretty cool if all the people in my office loved working so much that it was how they choose to spend their free time … but it certainly isn’t a requirement. I would be devastated if I heard through the architectural grapevine that the someone in my office felt like most of my friends did in the mid-90’s … that you had to work longer and harder than everyone around you.

Bob Borson - Work Desk at home

When it’s late, sometimes I work at this teeny tiny desk.

This is day 3 of my 3-day weekend and I have spent the vast majority of it working. Between exchanging text messages with a client, visiting job sites (that I couldn’t make it to during the week) to check on progress, working on a professional development project (that might literally be killing me), working on the beginning outline of a presentation I am participating in during the Texas Society of Architect convention, writing this post … I literally took the opportunity to go to the grocery store because it would be a break.

I wrote something last week that basically told architecture students that they should define themselves by something other than the work they create; get a hobby or something. While I believe that to be true, I am not an architecture student and therefore believe that I can say the one thing and behave in a completely opposite manner. For example – writing this blog post is work and yes, it is frequently “architecture” related. I don’t have to write it, I could lay down on the couch and reclaim my rightful horizontal position in front of the television if I wanted to. Some days I want that more than others, but based on the emails I receive, I think I’m making a difference for people and as a result, feel some sort of responsibility to postpone my time on the couch – not forever, but for a bit longer.

But don’t think I am asking you to feel sorry for me – it’s the exact opposite. I have so many cool things happening right now that I can barely stand it. I am excited. I am exhausted. I am energized. I am stressed, I am anxious … I am alive.

Unless you’re mad at me, otherwise, I am not alive and please send a donation to my wife in lieu of flowers.

Quite literally the worst thing I could think of is having a job and a life where one only began when the other one ended. I hope you enjoy what you do enough that you have trouble separating one from the other as well.Bob-AIA scale figure

This is the 12th entry into a series titled “ArchiTalks”. 

When I started #ArchiTalks, I wanted people to discover that architects have different experiences, backgrounds, and objectives. Despite architects all getting lumped together with a handful of broad stereotypes, we are all onions … we have layers.

If you would like to see how other architects responded to the topic of “Work | Life”, just follow the links below.

brady ernst – Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA)
Brady Ernst – Family Man Since 08/01/2015

Marica McKeel – Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
Work/Life…What an Architect Does

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
#ArchiTalks: Work/life…attempts

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
work | life :: dance

Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
The One Secret to Work – Life Balance

Daniel Beck – The Architect’s Checklist (@archchecklist)
Work Life Balance: Architecture and Babies – 5 Hints for Expecting Parents

Jarod Hall – di’velept (@divelept)
Work is Life

Anthony Richardson – That Architecture Student (@thatarchstudent)
studio / life

Lindsey Rhoden – SPARC Design (@sparcdesignpc)
Work Life Balance: A Photo Essay

Drew Paul Bell – Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
Work / Life

Mark R. LePage – Entrepreneur Architect (@EntreArchitect)
Living an Integrated Life as a Small Firm Architect

Collier Ward – Thousand Story Studio (@collier1960)

Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Work/Life — A Merger

Jonathan Brown – Proto-Architecture (@mondo_tiki_man)
Architecture: Work to Live

Rosa Sheng – Equity by Design / The Missing 32% Project (@miss32percent)
Work Life Fit: A New Focus for Blurred Lines

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
Work Life

Meghana Joshi – IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Architalks: Imbalanced and uninterrupted

Amy Kalar – ArchiMom (@AmyKalar)
ArchiTalks #12: Balance is a Verb.

Michael Riscica – Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX)
I Just Can’t Do This Anymore

Stephen Ramos – BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@sramos_BAC)
An Architect’s House

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Father, Husband, Architect – typically in that order

Enoch Sears – Business of Architecture (@businessofarch)
Work Life

Matthew Stanfield – FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Work / Life : Life / Work

Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
what makes you giggle? #architalks

Jes Stafford – Modus Operandi Design (@modarchitect)
Turning Work Off

Tara Imani – Tara Imani Designs, LLC (@Parthenon1)
On Work: Life Balance – Cattywampus is as Good as it Gets

Eric Wittman – intern[life] (@rico_w)
midnight in the garden of [life] and [work]

Sharon George – Architecture By George (@sharonraigeorge)
Work = 1/3 Life

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  • Hi Bob,
    I just got around to reading this today, this fine morning, after initially hoping to not be working all weekend, therefore enabling myself to get caught up on meetings, readings, studying, posts I’ve marked that I wanted to read, books and magazines I wanted to look at for ideas, etc; i.e. more work. It’s good to read this. I’m about to finish a staggeringly overworked run of almost 11 years straight just building and designing and and take a sabbatical for a year. The life thing…is a tough balance. Great post.

  • C Franklin

    I had a discussion with a person from a different culture who said that we Americans are too busy and don’t take time to slow down. When I compare the contributions of Americans, in medicine, technology, art (including architecture), education, athletics, food production, etc… I’m proud that we are restless and not satisfied with the status quo. We’ve pulled the world to new heights and those with passion and energy in other parts of the world can’t wait to get here. My experience is that people who are less active are less interesting and more likely to be moody or depressed. An empty brain is a sad brain. I find great satisfaction on looking back on a day, a week, a month, or a year and recounting all that I accomplished.

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  • Your last paragraph is poetry to my ears.
    Your pretty awesome!
    Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Michael – I appreciate the compliment!

  • Matthew Stanfield

    Great post. I echo your sentiment that life should not begin where work ends. That would truly be a sad state to be in. It is great to be in a profession where the passion erodes the distinction between working and living.

    • I hope others feel that way as much as I do – I can’t help but think that I feel this way because my lifestyle affords me the luxury of such an opinion. If I had a hard time paying my bills, would I be as fluid in my balance? Who knows – I’d like to think so.

  • We are fortunate when our work/life separation is diminished by the passion we have for the profession. Thanks for sharing and all of the great examples you set, Bob.

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  • Thought provoking post Bob. I admire your dedication to not ask anyone else to do what you wouldn’t do yourself.

    That is one trait of a leader that people can get behind.

    I also hope that people have found a vocation that doesn’t feel like ‘work’, but more like ‘life’!

    • My sister is actually the one who articulated that concept to me succinctly – the idea of not asking someone to do something that you weren’t willing to do yourself. In her case, she was a partner in a large Chicago firm and an important document was accidentally thrown away … so she and her admin we down and crawled through the dumpster till they found it.There are a handful of lessons to be pulled from that one experience.

  • Jeffrey Pelletier

    Great post and it is always reassuring to read that other firms are trying to maintain the work/life balance even in boom times. As the only Principal of a 14 person firm I find myself always working far more than anyone else and having my personal life bleed into my professional. It took a while for me to realize that I wouldn’t have it any other way. While it is hard for me to imagine a day where work and life didn’t intertwine I realize that my employees don’t have the same skin in the game so supporting them in a way that allows them to stay happier and more productive. Thanks for staying out there as a loud voice and advocate for what we all do.

    • I think you’ve hit on something that most people don’t really understand until they go through it themselves – and not all people will even choose to go through it. Being the boss means a lot more than people think and the responsibility that comes with the well-being and welfare of the people who work for you isn’t something that you can switch off at 5:00 and leave at the door.

      Thanks Jeffrey – glad to have your comment.

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  • Meghana Joshi

    “But don’t think I am asking you to feel sorry for me – it’s the exact
    opposite. I have so many cool things happening right now that I can
    barely stand it. I am excited. I am exhausted. I am energized. I am
    stressed, I am anxious … I am alive.”- That’s the story I love to hear! Balancing is not about doing certain things at certain times, it’s finding time to do things that make you feel alive. Going by everything on your plate, you have a life of thousand years!

    • I think I wrote that without really thinking it through (like just everything else I write). Choosing to accept balance as doing the things you want to be doing is really as simple as it gets. Variety is not the same thing as balance.

  • architectrunnerguy

    The work/life conundrum (and I love that word!!) is there for all of us, especially for those who have hung out their own shingle as the work required for a completely new start up can be overwhelming.
    For me, starting up from no work and no clients in 1980, just in time for the economy to go over a cliff LOL!, and working 60 hour weeks as the head guy, I reassessed the whole set up in 1999. By that time my partner and myself had a firm of 16 including 6 architects with work in three states.
    I was 47 and had been working my butt off for 19 years and I just decided I was working too hard and wanted to do some stuff before I got too old. After all I thought no one raises their head from their final bed and says “I wished I’d spent MORE time at the office”.
    So I left to be just me working out of my house, and believe that transition was just as scary as the one 19 years before. Sure some weeks I still work hard but I make time for other stuff. And it’s been a fantastic 16 years.
    I think the work/life conundrum (you know I had to work it in again!!) is not a fixed thing, is very fluid and should be treated as such. It just takes experience and self examination from time to time to know which one is more important at any given time.
    For me I love what I do and can’t ever imagine “retiring” and genuinely feel sorry for the folks who are in a job until one day 29 years and 365 days on the job arrives and they don’t work anymore.
    As usual, great thoughts Bob.

    • To exciting and scary life transitions, I’m sure.

      I’ve always thought that it takes a certain type of person to go out on their own – not just in the beginning but to keep it that way. I don’t think I would do all that well on my own, I like the personal interaction I get from the same group of people day in and day out.

      A consideration for that is I am at the age where you gave it all up and went solo, maybe in 16 years I’ll be ready for the same move.

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  • Wade Boggs

    A lot of people feel the pressure that in order to keep their job they must work 50-60 hours a week. Even if it is required of the firm or not.
    It makes me happy to think that I am part of a great profession full of creative people. No matter where I go.
    Young Architects need to understand that if the principals can’t understand why they don’t work a lot of overtime, then it’s a place that they shouldn’t work. Especially if they are not being compensated for it.

    I wonder though is it possible to run your own Architectural Firm and work standard 9-5 hours? Seems like everyone I know that has their own business is always doing something work related.

    • The distinction that I would through in to this conversation is this:

      What professional works 9-5?

      I don’t know any professional – not just architects – who works a 40 hour week. Maybe if you have a vocation where you get paid hourly this is the norm.

      • Wade Boggs

        Thanks Bob for the feedback. I am at a crossroads on whether to go into business for myself or stay at the firm I am at now. Having two kids and a wife makes the decision even more complex.

        • architectrunnerguy

          Bob ought to write a column on “hanging out the shingle” and share the experiences of how others did it…..hint….hint Bob!
          Just don’t stay “at the crossroads” too long because that is a decision in itself.
          But if you think you’re working hard now just wait ’till your names on the door!

          • Wade Boggs

            Yeah that’s what people say. But I’ve heard that its worth it because you are doing what you love. A separate blog post would be helpful for those who are thinking of starting there own business.

          • architectrunnerguy

            Setting up your own shop is a life experience not much different than may others. To me, I think the worst possible fate would be to arrive at the end at the end of your life and realize you have not lived.
            And to be honest, that was one of the factors in going in that direction and ironically one of the factors later for devoting time to other things.

          • Kerry Hogue

            I know two individuals that hung their own shingle on the door. Both claimed to be very successful, but tired of the relentless of it and shut down to go back to work with established firms. So I guess doing your own thing is not for everyone. Both are though glad they experienced it.

          • Wade Boggs

            Yeah I’ve heard the same thing from people and it makes me wonder if it’s the right thing for me to do.

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  • Mark Wilson

    I write as a colleague that has met success. Three weeks ago, my bride and I sent our youngest child to college which means we are now empty nesters. For 27 years of a 32 year marriage, it’s been children first, then everything else. First on the list of everything else was work, and lots of it. We’re having a great time of it so far, as I already look forward to being with her next weekend, and we just had a holiday weekend. But looking back at 2008, or so, the person I am, is not who I was.
    During the recession, I had a long talk with my boss. I asked him if it would be OK to put in less hours on projects and devote more time to marketing and family. The idea was met with a skeptical nod, but agreement, since there was little to do other than internet research and watch my hair fall out. But a funny thing happened. During the stretch of time between then and now, my attitude changed from one similar to yours, to a realization that although I loved my job and profession, I really loved my family more. Then, either in a movie or internet, I read or heard someone say that “when on your deathbed, will you look back and think, I wish I’d worked more?” No way. I would wish I’d given my wife the kind of husband, companion and help mate she deserved. I’d wish that I had told and shown my children how meaningful they are to my existence. I’d wish that I had chalked up more experiences than projects. So my bucket list didn’t shrink, it grew.
    Reading of how you were texting with clients over a holiday weekend is honestly concerning. I don’t say that in an internet troll sort of way, but as a colleague in design that has walked that road. I suggest you disconnect fully. Over the last years, one of the skills I’ve learned is to not answer the mobile device. Time with my family in full attentiveness is far more important than any temporary gratification of client satisfaction. Clients won’t tell you that because they typically feel like they’re the most important item on your list. Reading back through, this sounds preachy, but really not meant that way. A culture that makes the kind of demands on our attentiveness I describe above is not appropriate.
    So when I describe success, it’s not how many scheduling items I’ve juggled while becoming a successful landscape architect. It’s how many projects are completed while being the best person/husband/dad/friend I can be. Am still working about 50 hours a week. But at the end of each day, it’s a full disconnect.
    With all due respect, and not as internet troll,
    P.S. – I’m the boss, and a really good one too 🙂

    • I think I would tend to agree with your comments, however, I do think that there is an evolution in play here that has rose colored glasses.

      Most of the people who look back and wish they had set their priorities differently normally do it from a position of some measured success – meaning, you aren’t worried about sending your youngest (or oldest) off to college because your previous behavior took care of those things.

      Everyone’s priorities should evolved and shift as they move through their life – at least I know my have/are. I work less now than I did 20 years ago, but the difference then as compared to now was that all my efforts were focused in one area – my job – and not much else. Now, in addition to working my job, I volunteer my skills to charitable organizations, I sit on the Executive Board of my local AIA office, I write this blog (thinking that it can actually help people), and so on. Some of my office time has been sacrificed to accommodate the other activities but for the most part, I am home every evening by 6:30 and all weekend long.

      Eventually, I’ll stop writing this blog. It’s part of the reason I started the #ArchiTalks series was to get more architects writing about the profession so that I didn’t feel like it was solely up to me. I’ll regain this time, I won’t always be serving at the local and state level of the AIA, and then I’ll have to figure out what to do with myself. Sounds kind of exciting, doesn’t it?

      Thanks for adding your perspective to the comments, they’re important for others to read.

  • Lora

    Great job, riddler. My vote = not crap.

    • this is what a semi-focused 37 minutes will get you.


  • Gene

    In architecture some of the smallest details make the biggest difference. The same applies to writing, and to life.
    Here are two small changes to your title. / to = and the order.
    If you are in the environment of or your mindset is the latter you are in trouble. It isn’t work as long as you don’t think of it as a chore.

    • I think that’s what I basically wrote – I enjoy what I do for a living and don’t feel like I have misaligned my priorities. There isn’t anything that I want to do that I can’t because of work obligations; more times than not, I don’t have the time I want to continue working.

  • Kerry Hogue

    okay I cannot agree with that Mark. when I was early in my career, I worked long hours not for the firm, but for myself. I had ambition and goals, and wanted to accomplish things. I was not afraid to put in the hours. I also actually enjoyed what I was doing, and therefore I did not mind. My attitude was, and is, that it is not a job, it is a career. When you acknowledge that this is something that you want to do, and enjoy doing, then it is not work, and the hours it takes is a commitment to the career that I chose. Now that I am in the twilight of my career, I chose not to work the hours that I once did. But when I need to, I do. I do not do it for the firm, I do it for me. And well yes I do it for the firm, and that is because I want the firm to be successful, and I am proud to be with a firm that is successful.

    • My thoughts tend to align with what you’ve written here –

  • Mark Mc Swain

    There are times when I wonder if there is something culturally wrong with our business. There are just too many offices that seem to insist upon work for work’s sake; that if you are not miserable, you are not making the company any money.

    If you get a task done in 8 hours of a day (or, heaven help you 7) your reward is not an attabboy, it’s two or three more hours’ work To B Done Today!

    • See Kerry Hogue’s response just above your comment.

      I’m not if I know you are talking about this topic in general or with something I said specifically. Working long hours for salary isn’t anything unique to our profession. I would say that my wife works as much as I do if not a little bit more. Also, if I chose to eliminate all the architecturally related extra-curricular activities, I could probably have as many hobbies as I could stand.

      We dole out attaboy’s for a job well done, regardless if they got it done on time or early.

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  • Stephen Ramos

    Great post Bob. I’m sure you already have a stack of resumes, but I would expect people to be lining up to work for your firm in Dallas after this post. Cheers!

    • Thanks Stephen – we do alright with the resumes but as a small firm (when people rarely seem to leave without getting pushed from the nest) our needs remain small. I should get back to work so that I can hire more people!

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