Shelley Penn advises to try not to worry about delays or interruptions to your career plan – attend to the essentials, work on something that matters to you, and then use spare time to do something for your soul.

Shelley Penn

Shelley Penn is an architect, urbanist, non-executive director and built environment advocate.

Economic downturns & lessons learned

I graduated in 1988, straight out into “…the recession we had to have” (PJ Keating). I had been fortunate to get a job in architecture for all of 1986 – my year out of what was then a five-year degree – and worked through my final years in that fantastic practice. That was intense. I loved it, and worked hard. When I graduated I, perhaps foolishly given the recession, quit that job because I was feeling pretty uncertain about my commitment to architecture and wanted to pursue something else that had been beckoning for a while. I had moved out of home at 18 and was fully self sufficient so had to find an income. I just didn’t want to work in architecture at that point… I did a couple of odd things for a bit (eg, was a barrister’s assistant), then worked at George’s Department store in Collins Street (in Gentlemen’s Accessories, initially!) and did a one-year course in another field I wanted to investigate. I ended up back in my old job a year or so later, when I was asked to return for a big project that had come in…

In other words, I was lucky, but I also worked hard and lived frugally. I wasn’t focused on some set career path or on saving money, and was very open in my mind about what I ultimately wanted to do… and I think these things meant I was spared much drama due to the recession. I used the time to study in other areas, and to get registered, and also did some travel in 1992. I started my own practice in 1993 – still in the tail of that recession. Lots of us started our practices then, because there wasn’t much work around and we were kind of free. I had a very small project to kick off with, and worked on competitions, etc. I worked from my tiny flat and rarely ate out!

I was Associate Victorian Government Architect from 2006–10, and in London in 2008 when Lehman Bros fell (GFC), and able to be a strong advocate for the profession and what we can offer. Lucky.

Opportunities for the profession

So many. We desperately need to advance. I think the profession is a bit stuck in many ways. Attending sustainably and responsibly to life on the planet needs real innovation, and radically different ways of living. Architects are innovators. I think we can offer so much more than beautifully detailed artefacts (even though these are nice).

The profession & your future

Don’t stress! It won’t help. So much will change and move over the years ahead, in totally unpredictable ways, but you will continue to be you, and if you’re true to yourself (and attend to what you value and need), that constancy is all you really need to find your way through this and other hard times. Work hard – wherever you can, even if it’s not in a job right now. Work on something you care about. There’s an opportunity that comes with this kind of slowdown too – even though it can be so so stressful, particularly if you’re struggling to pay the rent. If you can make ends meet, then beyond that, try not to worry that you can’t save just now or that your plans might be delayed by a year or three. Attend to the essentials, and then see if you can use spare time to do something for your soul… explore ideas, pursuits, deep interests that get put on the back burner in ’normal’ times. Experiment with things you usually don’t have time for – that stuff can take you to amazing places that can end up being much more meaningful than you might expect at first.

Gaining employment

Do your due diligence – find out about who you’re applying for to work with. Spell their name properly. Pay attention and if you get the chance, work really hard, but with dignity and self-respect. I believe employers value and seek the fundamentals most. The relevant qualifications and experience are obviously a baseline, but also incredibly important are attributes such as honesty, diligence, being alert, attentive, listening well and being open to learning, being ready to have a go, taking some initiative, being respectful of others and wanting to contribute. These are invaluable. Your strength will be your you-ness… so try to be true to who you are… try to be aware of your strengths AND weaknesses, but don’t put yourself down, don’t bluff, and do know you’ve got lots to learn (we all have!).

Working in aligned fields, further study & building skills

Life is long. And very interesting. Especially the bits you don’t predict. Try not to let anxiety hold you back or down. The debilitation that can come with that is a bigger problem. You can do all sorts of things that are not architecture, and if you apply yourself to them and do your best, then everything you learn will be relevant in some way and will help you in your future work. If you’re really passionate about architecture, you will make your way back to it at some stage, and you’ll bring a whole lot of other skills you’ve picked up doing that non-architectural work. If you don’t get back to it in years to come, that will probably be because you don’t really want to at that stage, and that will be ok! I recently realised that one of my strongest and most-used professional skills is something I learned, or at least substantially developed, in my years working as a shop assistant in a pharmacy from age 13–21.