Six Lessons from Six Years of Being an Architect

Today, I reflect on my crazy wonderful six years in the profession. This is special because this year I entered a paradigm shift with these six lessons that I believe will define my next six years. It is a very personal one and it is defining because I do not draw a line between my personal essence and being a designer. My design is my being, and my being is my design.     

In celebration, I will share six special lessons I learned in the six years of roller-coaster ride in the design profession! I hope you learn something out of it too.


 Story by: Nana Cabales 
Photos by Nana's Awesome Friends

My design is my being, and my being is my design.

1. Passion is essential, but it is never enough.

I have been a very passionate person, ever since. I will always be grateful for that. To care and love so deeply comes very naturally to me in almost everything that I do. I am also very fortunate that I have the gift and the much-needed tenacity to express it into words and actions. For as long as I could remember I operated this crazy wonderful thing called life with my heart on my sleeves. It has its fair shares of both good and not so good moments, but it is always worthwhile. (Yes, including all the nasty pain that comes with it.)      

However, as I entered a year of radical transformation in my personal and professional life, I realized passion is not everything. Passion is essential. If you have it in you, nurture it well and good. Keep the fire burning, as we always say. But keeping the fire burning requires tremendous amounts of effort, commitment, and intellect. Passion is strong but it will not last without a plan –to sustain and grow your passion you must be strategic every step of the way. You cannot keep a fireplace lit all night long without stored firewood. No? The same thing in life and in any profession. I am not merely talking about making money here. I am a firm believer that there is always something more superior than money. I am talking about core values which define our being. I always ask myself this more than I ask “how much money have I made” or “how much work have I accomplished”:

How much of my core values have I applied today? ”   

Asking such difficult questions and answering them with brutal honesty is one way of sustaining your passion.

2. Practice does not make perfect, it makes power.

“Practice makes perfect.” This is not new. We have heard and quoted (and probably misunderstood) this over and over. We all fall short in this department naturally because practice is more difficult compared to passion. Passion just like inspiration is made more of an emotional drive which makes it less stable and more fleeting. On the other hand, practice is action oriented and always a decision to make.  

Now, when we commit to consistent practice, we do not only master our craft, but we also master ourselves. True to heart practice requires more than just skills and a certain amount of your energy or x number of hours. Intentional practice requires knowing, finding, and building yourself.  This kind of practice is what my mentor Buck Sia calls Self-mastery. The practice of self-mastery gives us power –over our terrible impulses, bad habits, and most importantly our ego. And it also gives us the power to persevere –a self-sustaining motivation.

“How much power have I gained today? How much of my ‘old self’ have I overcome today?  How self-sufficient is my motivation?” 

3. Pressure is a friend, not a foe.

In the design professions like in architecture from the day we entered design school pressure is a constant companion. It can be pressure from deadlines, professors, parents, peers, and ourselves. You may have thought before that once you get your diploma and pass the licensure exam the pressure would end. Well, you may have thought of it, but –if you are not in denial – you know it is not the case. In fact, as we move on to the next level the pressure does not only stay, it upgrades too. The pressure intensifies because now we are not only dealing with “terror” professors, instead it is a demanding client (who are sometimes unreasonable too). Now, it is not just about submitting plates to ensure passing grades, instead it is constructing buildings or spaces in real life to ensure safety and comfort of occupants or end-users. Now, we have bigger responsibilities and serious liabilities.

Pressure never leaves and it does not have to. Pressure is good if you know how to use it well. Pressure in any form is a challenge which pushes us further and actually the agent that helps us focus. I learned to befriend the right pressure and use it to my advantage by first confronting myself with identifying and scrutinizing these pressures present in my life. What I learned that is very astonishing is that many of them are self-inflicted pressure and totally unnecessary. What is even more fascinating is though we cannot always choose, we have the power to prioritize and filter the kind of pressure to entertain. How did I do this? How did I learn to manage pressure? I have not figured everything out yet –it is not perfect –but I am learning the tricks and all I did was focus on my core values. I learned this the hard way but, most of the time I am most pressured when I am focusing on the prize or the destination instead of believing in the process, practicing the craft, and enjoying the journey.

So, I always ask myself now,

“Is this necessary or just self-inflicted? Is this still aligned with your core values? Is this beneficial pressure or the toxic one? Is this output oriented or process driven?”

4. Pivot is uncomfortable, but life-changing.

Change is not always easy, especially when you start a goal based on a strong passion. This is another disadvantage of being only driven by passion –it makes you hasty, overconfident to some extent arrogant, and blinded by emotions. Again, passion alone is not sufficient and not always ideal.

I spent my first few months in the profession with former classmates attempting to establish a firm. I received promising and large-scale projects early on and I knew right then that I could not do it by myself so the first thing I did was assemble a “dream team” with people who I am already familiar with. I was under the assumption that we all shared the same values. This partnership attempt was unsuccessful, and it broke my heart. This damaged me emotionally and mentally.

Not long after the split I decided to pursue –what I fondly call “my first love” –teaching. I spent almost four years in the Academe. Teaching saved my life, and I am not even exaggerating. While I was teaching part-time, I was also practicing part-time, an in-house architect of a reputable Drugstore company, and doing my master’s studies. 

In my third-year juggling all of these, I was already very unhealthy and at the height of burnout. This was the last quarter of 2018. I was a burnout 25 years old, living alone. I swear, it felt like I was the ‘oldest’ 25-year-old ever! And to add the cherry on top, I was also dealing with a mental illness at that time. I was barely managing life in general. 2018 was especially a crazy year and it continued to be until the middle of 2019.  

2019 came with a bang –I lost my job, scholarship, and a project I valued and worked hard for –all due to unfair and unreasonable grounds. There was nothing else I could do at the time but to move on. Around the same time, I made another attempt to establish a partnership with another two former classmates. I was very invested to make it work. I said to myself, “This is it! It’s finally making sense.” And of course, all that excitement came from my initial assumption that all three of us shared the same values. And for the second time it did not go as planned and I was once again brokenhearted as if I were not already.

In my painful recollection I have spent most of 2019 thinking to myself that the last four years were purely a series of unfortunate events. I felt that I was just making mistakes on top of another for the last four years and it felt like never-ending.

There were many things I was very grateful for, do not get me wrong. But as far as the career I imagined and planned was concerned it was pure crap. But towards the end of 2019 I made a very bold decision that scared me a lot but truly made sense. I finally decided to focus 100% of my energy and time on my design practice. No more part-time jobs. No more excuses. No more being afraid of whatever. I knew I would be in for another crazy ride so I made a solid concrete plan that would sustain me for at least four months while I figure out the rest. We all know what came to us all in 2020. The solid concrete plan did not withstand the vicious whip of the pandemic. 2020 was not kind to me and to many people around the world. But for better or worse it taught me how to pivot.

*Pivot is a structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth.” –The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

Before I arrived at this radical transformation there were dark, grim, heavy moments, and a bucket full of tears! (To know how I overcame this, read here.)  My list of apprehensions is kilometers long by then so far from my still forming solid concrete plan 2.0. I arrived at the conclusion that there was no amount of mitigation I could do, and the only thing left was to restart and go back to square one. And that is how I learned to pivot. It was the most important decision I have made.

 I asked myself a very crucial question that led me to the creation of DAVA:

What is it that you are so afraid of losing should you begin again from scratch? And what would you do if you were not afraid?”

5. Perseverance defines you, not the count of projects.

Now at this point, it is crystal clear that passion, practice, pressure, and pivot would only amount to very little without perseverance. So, the result of my recent pivot was DAVA which was initially intended to be “Dava Design Studio”. Now, it is Dava Design Stories. I am a designer, but a storyteller first. I am obviously the type of person who deeply enjoys introspection. I contemplated a lot and it rewarded me with a very strong sense of self. And this gives me the courage to try and try again and again.

A very vital element of perseverance is also guarding your inner self from the constant calls of insecurities and ego. Some colleagues of mine have accomplished more than I have in terms of numbers and recognition. I would be lying if I say that it never bothered me because it did. But was I insecure? No. Was I jealous? No. Was I threatened? No. The answer is always the same because I know what I can offer. I have faith in myself and my capabilities. I can fight and win against my self-doubts. What bothers me is –from an irritating voice that incite —this fear that I may never have the opportunity to serve, lead, and make an impact. This is a pure horror story to all striving designers!

I dissected this irrational fear further because I know it is a grit and motivation killer. Our irrational fears drag us away from the life we aspire. I handle this irrational fear by reminding myself of these life’s truths I picked along the way:

Just keep in mind: the more we value things outside our control, the less control we have.

Epictetus

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

Neil Gaiman

When you want something; all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

Paulo Coelho

Whenever I hear this irritating voice with its whispers of fear, I simply ask myself:

“Are you allowing these lies to rule over your mind and get the best of you? Don’t you have better things to think about and do?”  

6. Progress comes in waves. Patience is a virtue and the reward itself.

This last one is the toughest. I learned this lesson the hard way. Life has tried to teach me patience time and time again. I got used to getting progress faster than usual. I was accelerated in preschool, grade-school, and high-school (Nope! I screwed up college, I am not that smart! LOL!). I realized I develop impatience growing up particularly in progress and mastery.

But here is the thing, Architecture –if you would truly take it seriously –is a very difficult and complex study let alone practice.  Six years’ time is still very young in the architecture profession with all its science, art and all the complexities in between. I was such an arrogant, young, passionate, and newly licensed 22-year-old believing I can accomplish the ambitious aspiration I have set for myself in five-year time!

Let me elaborate a bit on that ambitious aspiration. During one of our earliest conversations (September 2019) Buck blatantly asked me crucial questions which thankfully I had the answers to. I will share it with you:

Buck: What are you truly searching for?

Nana: I want to grow as a designer and experience what designing really is. I want to experience doing a project or even just simple conceptualization but with deep meaning and pure sense. The kind that transcends the norm of drawing-building-turnover.

Buck: What is the meaning for you?

Nana: It is to open or to unravel the full potential of an idea, space, or an object. To give design problems meaning not only by solving the issues but also highlighting its opportunities and making sense out of it in every aspect possible –its interrelationships with other spaces, experience of the users, emotions it evokes, story it conveys, impact to the built environment, everything!  

Buck: Very good start! Start with yourself. Self-mastery is very crucial.  

That is how my journey to self-mastery became much elaborated and pronounced. And this journey from passion to steady practice of self-mastery takes so much patience. We should always plan, and it is always good to see and measure progress as planned. But because personal growth and professional progress are always tied up with all our other experiences and the forces that make them –which we do not have control of –we must learn to let go and let it be. It is a lesson of not obsessing over progress but enjoying the process. My most valuable progress both personally and professionally all came from a confluence of amazingly different things. The most unlikely ones were just as special as those I had planned and expected.

I have truly extraordinary experiences and ambitious goals, but my most valuable life lesson thus far is learning to love myself unapologetically and my most rewarding achievement is making genuine relationships along the way.

I learned that progress comes in waves, not a one-time-big-time aha moment. This helped me become genuinely patient. Patient is a virtue, but it is also the reward itself because when you truly trust the process and keep calm and enjoy the ride, you will be at peace. Nothing beats a peaceful mind.   

In my recent interview with Buck, he said the saddest thing is when we become impatient. On a separate occasion, he posed a dare (as he always does): “Unya, willing ka mo huwat?” / “So, are you willing to wait?

Yes, I am willing to wait, and I will. Because now I have more inner peace.


Here’s the confluence of amazingly different things I had over the past six years!

Slide 1: Annual photoshoot  for the College Student Governance at the University  of Mindanao; I was the faculty-adviser (2018)
Slide 2: My Capstone Project presentation for MS Architecture Major in Urban Design (2018)
Slide 3: My Induction as the Chapter President of UAP Kadayawan-Dabaw Chapter (2019)
Slide 4 & 5: The UAPSA 26th National Congress at Apo View Hotel, Davao City; was one of the mentors (2019)
Slide 6 & 76: The SPAM x Babble Talks Davao 2019 at MCM; I was the post-lecture Q&A host 
Slide 8 & 9: At the 2018 Archifest pavilion (Singapore)
Slide 10: My Induction in the Camera Club of Davao and 37th Charter Anniversary (2019)
Slide 11-14 At BER SAB ARC design studio with my Design Davao Society co-founders for our regular design collab sessions (2021)
Slide 15: At an empty classroom at Malayan Colleges  Mindanao (A Mapúa School) on a breaktime; I was a former faculty (2019)
Slide 16 & 17: At Tulunan, South Cotabato during the Christmas outreach I lead for the earthquake victims (2019) 
Slide 18: At the site of Freedom Academy during our site visit wit my co-founders and their kids (2020)
Slide 19:  My first mentoring session with Judith Torres of Kanto via Zoom (2021)
Slide 20 & 21: At the beach site of my first project, a small-scale garden beach resort during early stages of construction (2015) 

PS: I  will be posting some of my noteworthy projects soon. 
 

2 thoughts on “Six Lessons from Six Years of Being an Architect

  1. “The answer is always the same because I know what I can offer. I have faith in myself and my abilities. I can fight and win against my self-doubts.” ❤❤❤

    Liked by 1 person

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