Where’s My #@$% Coat???
A Lesson in Communication – Part I
Carl was an interesting man, that’s for sure.
He was my first mentor as an architectural designer and had a way of communicating to me that anytime I had a serious discussion with him, I felt my inner soul being painfully sucked through a drinking straw into some time travel warp and back to a fire lit cave with hieroglyphics written on the rock formed walls.
There I stood with my unibrow, hairy knuckles, a wooden club in my hand and covered with the pelt of my winter’s kill.
Carl stood at the cave wall, pointing to what I assumed was a building of some sort. Maybe a deer? Sabretooth Tiger?
“Ugh…Booga..Ugh Ugh…Booga Booga.” That’s all I seemed to hear, but then again, when you’re a few months into an industry that you’ve committed a lifetime to, anything sounded Neanderthal.
Carl wasn’t normal by any means. As a mentor, he would send me back to my computer with my head slowly falling forward and resting on the keyboard. If I turn ever so slightly in the right light and you look closely, instead of years of distinguished wrinkles, you’ll see keyboard imprints….A S D F G H J K L
Carl also taught me the power of prayer. Anytime I laid drawings of my designs in front of him, my mind was racing for any available Bible verse that would get me through the next fifteen minutes.
Every time, it would be fourteen minutes and fifty seconds of him staring at my design as I spoke and asked questions. Then he would spend the remaining ten seconds saying, “Huh, that’s an interesting concept.”
Remember in elementary school, when it was funny to lean just far enough back in your chair and almost fall over? You know the knot that would form in your gut just as you caught yourself and we would all laugh?
Yeah, well, I never felt that knot. I just constantly fell, over and over and over…so lucky you.
For most of that first year under Carl, drawings would be sat down, questions would be asked, and drawings would be handed back to me without one comment. I spent that year resting my head on the keyboard wondering what I had signed myself up for.
Carl was killing me.
Then one day it happened.
I was sitting at my desk, working through a project, when I heard the crunch of an apple behind me. I turned around and there stood Carl.
For the first time, Carl looked like Carl. Crewcut, black-rimmed glasses, short-sleeved white dress shirt, all pulled together with a black thin tie. Straight from 50s and much less Neanderthal-like.
He stood there inspecting his apple after he took another bite.
“You have your Ah-Ha moment yet?” he asked while spitting out pieces of apple.
“What?” I asked with a confused look on my face.
“Your Ah-Ha moment.” He replied.
(Now, I grew up in the 80s, and I knew the band called A-Ha and their hit song Take On Me, so for a second there I thought we got wrapped up in a game of trivia. What could that song have to do with this conversation?)
I’m sure the look of “I’m lost, Carl” was fully engulfed on my face, because that’s when he pulled up a chair and kicked everyone else out of the room.
“Well, here it comes,” I thought to myself. “My Ah-Ha moment is coming in the form of a pink slip. Time to pack it up and start thinking about cleaning a Slurpee machine down at the corner 7-Eleven.”
With one last bite of his apple, this is what I heard.
“You see, every time you presented your drawings in front of me, I would sit and listen to your thoughts and questions that supported your methods,” he started out.
“And for the past year, I let you communicate with your words and with the lines on that paper. I also let you ask all the questions. I was not going hold your hand. I wanted you to fail. I wanted you fall flat on your face. And I literally wanted you to come crawling back to me every time,” he added.
“You want to be a designer? Then, be a designer that reflects who you are. If I showed you what to do or told you everything, then the designs would reflect as mine and they would be my design. You create pieces of art from your brain, to the paper. Not from my brain, back to your brain, and back to the paper,” he continued.
“But, here’s what’s interesting...” he added.
“You failed many times and you never crawled back to me. You always sucked it up and you never asked me to fix something. You literally spent the time necessary to figure out your own mistakes. Why? Because you knew what questions to ask and you knew exactly how to communicate, and that is how you make it in this industry. You communicate, and you ask ask ask ask questions, and you don’t assume. So, there you go, I just gave you your first Ah-Ha moment. It’s going to be one of many. But, I’m not here forever, so you need to figure the rest out on your own,” he finished.
As I sat there in silence, Carl tossed the apple core into my trashcan and left the room. Soon after, the others began filing back into the room. For the rest of the day, the room was silent. Not a word was said about Carl talking to me, and as far as the others knew, he lectured me like there was no tomorrow.
Noun: com·mu·ni·ca·tion \ kə-ˌmyü-nə-ˈkā-shən \
A process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.
Through the years, I’ve grown to know exactly what that word means. It does not matter if we are architects, engineers, teachers or even parents. Communication is a valuable tool we must utilize. Sometimes we communicate through a set of architectural drawings. Sometimes we communicate without words by allowing our renderings talk for themselves.
With technology at our fingertips, we often forget how one simple phone call can make a huge difference. We often forget that a text or email can be misinterpreted. And, we often forget that it’s okay to ask questions.
I hate to say this, but we all have a little bit of Carl in us – especially people of my generation. We find ourselves saying to the generation behind us, “You ask ask ask ask questions, and you don’t assume.”
We want to share our knowledge with the next generation, but we don’t know what they don’t know unless they ask questions. Every question is a good question.
Yet somehow, all of us still mess up at times and forget the hard lessons that were taught to us.
Not long after I left working the firm where Carl eventually retired from, I was given the opportunity to rub elbows with a few celebrities on a project I had helped design. I was presented with an invitation for a giant gala where the fundraising would officially kickoff to raise money for the project’s construction.
I was young and still stupid in a way, but this was my first real big event.
Nervous? You bet.
As I pulled in and parked, I grabbed my coat and headed to the event. People were filing in wearing tuxedos and formal wear, and I was immediately ready to turn around and leave, but I decided to head on in.
Standing at the door was a gentleman holding coats, and I thought to myself, “Wow, I’m really moving up in the world. They have a real-life door-slash-coat guy.” So, I piled my coat on top of the others and went inside.
After thirty minutes or so of looking at art, trying wine, sushi and other weird raw things, they seated us for dinner.
Conversation came to a quick halt as we heard the ting-ting-ting of a fork on the side of a wineglass at the head of the table. The dinner was about to begin.
As I looked up, fear hit my face. There he was, the man I was now going to fear all evening.
You see, the man standing at the head of the table was the President of the Association hosting the event. The head honcho raising all the money for the project. The same guy standing at the door who I thought was the door-slash-coat guy as I tossed him my coat and bounced on in for an evening of celebrity gazing.
As he began his speech, he looked right at me, and his little smirk said it all.
“You idiot, you forgot the main lesson Carl taught you. You ask ask ask ask questions and you don’t assume.”
To this day, I have no idea what happened to my $%#@ coat.