A while back, I was half-listening to a radio talk show when a guest’s comment struck me like a bolt from the blue. New York Times Magazine columnist Lisa Sanders, a practicing physician, was talking about the basic problem with America’s health care system. What caught my attention was the following statement:
“Thinking, which is really what a doctor does--thinking, examining, questioning-- is not valued by the system. We value doing rather than thinking.”
At a single stroke, her words solved a mystery most architects grapple with for the whole of their professional careers: Why so few people understand what architects do, and why it takes us so long to do it.
Citing an example in her own profession, Sanders described a day during which she’d seen a slew of patients with very complex medical issues, capped by a routine, twenty-minute procedure to remedy an ingrown toenail. Later, to her surprise, she found that the medical insurers had paid her more money for the toenail procedure than for any of the more complex cases. This , Sanders believes, is because those cases required less action but lots of thought--time the insurance company didn’t value and wasn’t willing to pay her for.
Architects are a far cry from doctors, but we do face a similar problem. Most people envision us sitting rapt at drafting tables or computers, busily drawing blueprints. But the fact is that the most valuable part of our service is when we sit around and do nothing. That’s right--we don’t draw, we don’t research, we don’t talk: we just plain think. And, as Sanders notes, that’s the problem: We’re not used to putting much value on thinking.
We Americans are a take-charge bunch, after all, and we’re leery of people who think too much. As that corporate clothing giant is always urging us: Just do it. Don’t waste time thinking, in other words--just go and buy gobs of our products. The danger of this viewpoint is self evident, since most of the stupid and tragic things we experience in our lives, whether car accidents, wars, or recessions, are precisely because someone “just did it” instead of thinking first.
Unfortunately, the amorphous process of mulling over a problem is just the part of our work people aren’t too keen to pay for. Once, when I delivered a set of plans to a client along with my bill, he turned to me with unconcealed annoyance and asked: “So these two sheets of paper cost me three thousand dollars?” No doubt there have been many more folks who kept the same thought politely to themselves.
Faced with such reactions over the years, I’ve always hoped to explain how the real work was not in the roll of paper itself, but in the thought behind it--in the hours upon hours spent evaluating countless possibilities to close in on the one best solution. This never really seemed to register, and after hearing Dr. Sanders exclaim, “Thinking is not valued,” I guess I know why.