Be humble and be ambitious, and believe everything is possible, advises Shelley Penn.
I can picture you, aged maybe 25, in your flannel shirt. Sitting at the long trestle table under the deep, broad sill of your Californian-Bungalow-window. It’s strewn with collected objects, books and paper, and there are only glimpses of sky through the overgrowth crowding in against the window. Having a cup of tea and reading this letter from 28 years hence – a letter from your older self. You’ll be frowning.
Frown away, and don’t mind others telling you not to. Enjoy that lovely space and slower, quiet time. Your older self yearns for it sometimes. The independence, youth, beauty and potential you have then, but don’t recognise.
I’ve found it very hard to write to you from this perspective. It’s so tempting to tell you what to do. You ‘should’ do this, or ‘should’ do that. But I think the best advice, and I’m still learning it, or learning it again now, is that life, or at least the really important choices in life, should not be about ‘shoulds’ at all. It’s quite tricky to sift out what’s right for you from what looks like it might be right, or right for you in the eyes of others… parents, friends, people you admire from afar, stereotypes. So instead, I’m going to try to provide some encouragement and remind you of some things that will help you navigate and create your own path.
The first is to say… it IS your path, and it’s for you to create. It’s no one else’s – just yours. You get to decide. You may not feel like it (for many years) but you are in fact a grown-up. That is liberating. You get to choose how you deal with what you encounter or are confronted with in life, and you’re responsible for those choices. Be considerate of others but try not to wait to live the way you want to and believe you should. Grab onto opportunities… try things out. Be humble and be ambitious, and believe everything is possible.
Second: I know you’re thinking of stepping away from architecture. That’s ok – reflection and doubt are healthy, but don’t let them paralyse you. Use them to grow. Trust yourself. There’s no right or wrong answer – other than to look inward. Be as honest as you can about what feels right for you and then pursue it. Put aside the outside voices. Drop them. You’ll always question things, and you should. You will step out… and come back, again, and again. And you’ll not only still be you – you’ll be better for it. Those side steps will all lead to unexpected and interesting things, including some thinking on what ‘architecture’ is and what architects can offer to the world… things that might help others too. Accept that you’ll never feel entirely sure of yourself or your abilities, and then get on and do your best.
Next, I would say, believe in yourself and your value. You’ve been privileged to have had a loving and supportive family, to have had somewhere warm and safe to live, to have inherited some abilities and strengths, to have been born into the fleeting era of free tertiary education (thanks Gough), and without which it’s unlikely you’d have gone to uni. It’s easy to forget those blessings when you’re worrying, quite naturally, about the weaker parts of yourself and the harder parts of life, but I encourage you to put your head up and look at where you are. Even though you doubt it, you have something to give. So, rather than dwell on the uncertainty, think about the potential and what you can do.
Fourth, be yourself and be true to yourself. Cliches are often cliches for a reason… Hold tight to your values. Stand up for what you believe in and take care of others. It’s easy to think people have things under control, but everyone is just muddling through, learning as they go and wondering if they’re getting things right, so be generous and resist being judgemental. Be honest with yourself too. You’ll find you have strengths and limitations that will emerge through your work… and you might only realise somewhere down the track that these shape the kind of work you ultimately do, a lot more powerfully than ideas you might now have about what work you ‘should’ do. That all just means: don’t worry too much about whether you’re ‘doing it right’ or not, just be yourself, do your best at whatever you take on, and see where it leads.
Be diligent and work hard. That’s #5. It’s not just about putting in the hours, but also about challenging yourself to address the stuff you want to avoid. Back yourself and don’t hide your strengths out of some kind of false modesty. But do be modest – accept your limitations, work harder where you need to. If I sound a bit simplistic, I apologise. I’d really just like to give you a warm hug and tell you not to be so hard on yourself. You’re fabulous! Just remember to be rigorous and do the homework. Pay attention, then relax.
Sit back, look out the window at those glimpses of sky, breathe the cool air coming in where the sash won’t quite close…. And don’t forget to live. That’s the last piece of advice, and is what everything’s about. Not just your work. Build a bit of extra frivolity into your life… work’s important but life is the thing. Enjoy who you are and trust the people you love – if they want to be around you it’s because they value you, like you, respect you, love you back. They can see who you are, try as you might to hide.
Just keep going. It’s pretty nice here in the future, despite global turmoil. That’s not new, but it does mean your gifts are needed – get out there and give everything you’ve got. There’s lots to learn and so much to do. So, don’t hesitate. And by the way, there is no ‘there’ to get to – you’re there already. Enjoy it! One day you’ll look back and wish you’d realised how much you had to offer and how amazing things could be in those moments, rather than worrying about whether you were good enough. You were. You are.
Shelley Penn is a Melbourne-based architect, urbanist and non-executive director. After establishing her own studio in 1993, she developed a hybrid practice combining architecture with senior strategic advisory and advocacy roles within government and the private sector focused on advancing the quality of the built environment. She is Associate Professor at the Melbourne School of Design, and an Adjunct Professor in Architecture Practice at Monash where she is also the University Architect.