What Summer Camp Taught Me About Architecture

Summer Camp vs. Architecture
Most architecture students look for summer internships to gain work experience before graduating from college. But when I was a freshman in the Rice School of Architecture  I opted out. I figured the experience would be useful for life after college, but that wasn’t so urgent. Plus I had an opportunity to be a summer camp counselor, and I suspected summer camp would be a lot more fun. I also knew that Rice would set me up with a 9 month internship after my senior year. So I spent my college summers playing games with elementary-aged campers at Pine Cove in Tyler, Texas.

Several years after my transition to professional life I realized that my naive decision in favor of summer camp would pay huge dividends. One of the reasons Rice arranges 9 month internships is that it takes time to learn about the intricacies of architectural practice in the real world. A firm won’t expect to get much value out of a student who can only give three months. And many firms are wary of investing too much time in a summer intern who may end up working for a competitor. In other words, if I had picked architecture over camp, I would most likely have spent my summers doing tedious work that was less than deeply satisfying.

Unexpected Benefits
Summer camp, on the other hand, was a blast. As a rookie counselor, Pine Cove depended on me to make sure that every week my group of campers had a fun, safe and memorable time. My leaders couldn’t afford to micro-manage me or stick me with the work they didn’t want to do (although I did clean a few toilets). Instead I had a job that tapped into my intrinsic motivation to mentor youth. Within our clearly defined guidelines, I enjoyed a high degree of creative freedom (and accountability) in leading my campers, and  a deep sense of purpose. And because I had a new group of campers each week, I had the opportunity to continually improve.

I didn’t understand until years later that the organizational culture of Pine Cove was ripe for fostering the creativity, personal development and leadership skills that have served me well as a professional architect. My three summers at Pine Cove offered many lessons that became surprisingly relevant to my architectural career. They continue to profoundly shape my attitudes toward work and success. Below are just a couple of them.

1. Never Say “I don’t know” (Even If You Don’t)
At summer camp we were in the hospitality business. Our campers (both kids and their parents) were on their vacation, and they paid good money to spend it with us. My job was to serve. Our leaders trained us to never say “I don’t know.” If a camper requested something, and you didn’t know how to accomplish it for them, the correct answer was, “Let me find out and get back to you.” You see the difference? “I don’t know” is a dead end. It signals that no more effort is required. The need goes unmet, and my obligation is fulfilled. On the other hand “let me find out” means that my challenges instigate inquiry, not paralysis.

Because of the complexity of buildings, building codes and the construction process, I frequently encounter situations in which “I don’t know” the answer. If I stopped at that point, many problems would remain unresolved.  If I get stuck at “I don’t know”, I’m accepting helplessness. But helplessness is largely a matter of perception, not objective reality. Ignorance is always the starting point for knowledge. Even if I don’t know, I can find out. Or I can find someone who can help me find. That little bit of initiative goes a long way.

2. Don’t Assume You See the Whole Picture
Every week a new set of campers would come to Pine Cove. They would see skits, play games, make friends and go home at the end of the week completely oblivious to all of the hard work we did behind the scenes to prepare for them. Then during my final summer at Pine Cove I was a senior counselor. Every six weeks we had a new crop of counselors come in. They would act in skits, eat lunch with their group, and make sure their campers had a great time. At the end of their six weeks, they would go home completely oblivious to much of the hard work done behind the scenes to make sure they would be successful. Then my director’s wife had their first baby, and for a week I had his job as the director of Wild Woods. You’ll never guess what I realized. The pattern became very clear: There’s usually more to the story than what you see.

Every time you function in a new role you gain a new perspective. When I started working, I made a point of trying to understand the priorities of different groups within my firm. Designers, project managers, marketing, IT, accounting: they each have unique challenges, limitations and pet peeves. Occasionally, something that makes my job easier, makes someone else’s job more difficult. Understanding the nuances of how each group works, combined with good communication and a dash of empathy, can alleviate frustration and improve our effectiveness as a team.

The Deeper (Design Thinking) Lesson
Designers give a lot of attention to the way things look. But good design thinking goes much deeper. In my case, the superficial similarities between an architecture internship and my architecture career were not nearly as significant as the leadership skills that transferred from summer camp to architectural practice. Innovation often arises from juxtaposing things that seem marginally related on the surface. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore the appearance of things, because appearances give us important clues. But design thinkers know that it’s important to look deeper. Keep your eyes and your mind wide open. Incredible insights often show up in unexpected places.