Past, Present, And Future Self
I am a capable architect, but there is a lot that I do not know, and what excites me about my career is that there is still much to learn. Writing this one week before my 35th birthday is a special opportunity to reflect on how well I have “adulted” so far. These last seventeen years were a battle for self-acceptance: identifying the external and internal motivators that shaped my life, shedding expectations of myself that were not my own, accepting where I am in my career, and trusting the process of personal and professional growth ahead.
My story is told in three parts: past, present, and future. It’s a story about making life choices that were not completely mine, but then taking ownership of those choices. It’s a story about uncertainty in a career path that then transformed into deep appreciation for it once I decided to show up.
I’m a first-generation Filipino-American. My parents each arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, met through mutual friends, and were married in 1982. They were fortunate to receive formal educations in the Philippines; now in America, they wanted their children to exceed their own achievements in this new land of limitless opportunity.
Growing up the eldest of three daughters and the experiment child of immigrants without a cultural script, I felt the pressure to succeed most acutely. I had a role: to serve as a model for my sisters, to represent my family in the best light possible to prove that we belonged here, and to validate the sacrifice and hard work of the generations before me. I internalized that pressure and used it to excel in school and make them proud. In 2002, I entered my freshman year at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was an excited and naive 18-year-old. I arrived with aspirations to study engineering like my father, only to face the reality that these aspirations were not mine. Being an engineer was just not for me. I felt lost, and as the year progressed, I encountered many brilliant people who seemed to be nailing this college thing. I started to feel like I didn’t belong.
When the search for an alternative major began, architecture presented itself as a provocative, yet mysterious, option. Unlike colleagues who knew they were born to be architects, I entered this profession with uncertainty. Architecture was never a life-long love affair for me. In fact, it felt more like an arranged marriage: Architecture was someone my parents would approve of; he was a handsome catch, intriguing, with a prestigious background and seemingly bright prospects. I knew nothing about the architecture career (my parents and I knew zero architects personally)—but hey, my options were limited, and let’s face it, I wasn’t getting any younger!
This uncertainty followed me through grad school. I found ways to make myself small and unengaged, a phenomenon that professors and classmates noticed. In a written semester evaluation, a professor wrote, “Andrea, you have a great deal of potential. You just need to believe it.”
After reading that evaluation for the 1,000th time, I made a commitment to take ownership of my career choices: to find a workplace with a supportive environment where I, as an emerging professional, could truly engage, take risks, be challenged, and understand what an architecture career was really about.
When I joined KFA Architecture five years ago, my bosses immediately took me by the hand…and then pushed me off a cliff. Juggling multiple projects at once, sometimes alone, was both thrilling and anxiety-inducing. I was given the autonomy to feel things out and learn by doing, yet I was reassured that support was available if needed. Having a boss who trusts the instincts of their employees is an empowering feeling. It reinforces the notion that each day is an opportunity to gain experience, each lesson learned another kernel of knowledge obtained that leaves me hungry for more. This marriage to architecture has some staying power. In my time at KFA, I’ve become a licensed architect with a stronger voice, a deep appreciation for my career, and a desire to support the careers of fellow colleagues.
Why does this matter? It matters because I am not a unique case. There is a colleague of yours, a younger staff member, or even you yourself—someone who may not be fully engaged in the profession—who is extremely capable but has convinced themselves otherwise or feels like they do not belong. This is the pool of talent that we risk losing: those who don’t receive the validation that they’ve earned, who don’t have a clear picture of the career ahead, and who don’t make it to those positions of leadership.
How well do our professions recognize the untapped talent and leadership potential in younger staff? My career self-actualization was due largely to a company culture that encourages sharing personal hobbies and interests, engaging in organizations outside the office to build a network, and creating a tribe of supporters and mentors to meet with regularly to gain a better perspective on the career.
It’s up to us to put ourselves out there, to value engagement both in and out of the office, and to build the supportive environments that will lift us all up.
I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and I encourage other professionals to do the same.