By Mark Wight, Wight & Company
May 5, 2021
With commencement season upon us, I can’t help but think about this year’s graduating class. As they receive their diplomas, most are likely to grab it like a relay baton and run off swiftly towards their career goals. However, before they do, I thought I’d share a bit of my own story and give students something to ponder.
Each year, my friends Jim Cramer and Scott Simpson publish a new iteration of “Lessons from the Future,” a remarkable collection of inspirational short articles written by some of the Architectural Industry’s foremost designers and leaders. The “lessons” are meant to impart some insight and wisdom upon graduating architectural students.
Most of the articles in the collection focus on the key business and life lessons learned throughout the various authors’ careers. However, when I was asked to contribute, I chose to focus on the lessons I learned before embarking on my career. Rather than encouraging new graduates to immediately grab a rung and start “climbing the ladder” of their careers, I suggested they might benefit—as I did—from taking some time off prior to pursuing their professional endeavors.
I hope you enjoy the read.
Help Wanted: “Back Country Ranch needs Ranch Hand. Prefer Single Male with Fencing Experience.”
After graduating from law school at Notre Dame, I accepted a job in Portland, OR, at a company called Techtronix as in-house counsel, handling international trade. The pay was great and the future limitless. There was only one glitch: It was June and Techtronix didn’t need me to start until January. Plus… I was penniless.
My friend Steve and I drove to Idaho and applied to work on a firefighting crew, but they stopped taking “walk-ons.” So we headed back to Oregon, camping along the way. At a local coffee shop, I saw an ad for a job as a ranch hand and decided, on the spur of the moment, to apply. I interviewed, got the job, returned Steve to Portland, and bought gloves, boots, and a cowboy hat. The ranch was an old homesteader’s place with a house, a barn, and a workshop.
No bunkhouse, and no bar with girls and a pool table surrounded by guitar-playing cowpokes. It was just the six of us stuck five hours from nowhere.
I would stay on that ranch for almost two years. Just before Christmas I called Techtronix and told them that I wouldn’t be joining their legal team.
It’s funny how moments in life come along and something as benign as reading an ad in a local paper can change your life in profound ways. My time on the ranch was priceless and there’s a whole book I could write on my two years with those five other people.
The moment between school and “real life" is one that never comes around again. I strongly encourage the notion of taking some time off before clambering up the workplace ladder. Taking time won't hurt your career; it will provide a context for what you want to do and add perspective to your life that you would not otherwise have. I would be a dramatically different person today if I had taken that job at Techtronix. Everything is better because I didn't.
As things turned out, today I’m the CEO of a 200 person A/E/C firm. I have the distinct pleasure of taking on about 20 interns each summer. Invariably they want to know how to achieve success in their careers, and they are always surprised when I encourage them to take a year off. A year of mission work to help people in stressed communities. A year to travel, learn a foreign language, or even to spend some time on a back-country ranch. It can become the cornerstone of your career.
Best regards and good luck,