Here's a list from my own experience as an architect describing what it takes to be successful in this industry. I don't think these are the only things an architect can do to be successful since everyone is different, but these are the things that I've identified that play key roles in my success in order of importance:
1. Construction Experience: The single most important thing (I believe) for any architect to possess is a strong background in construction. Think about it. We are in the construction industry, and we produce drawings which explain what to build and how to build it. If you don't know how to build anything, how could you possibly come up with a valid idea? There are a ton of poser architects out there that come up with a fanciful idea and push it over to others to "figure out." This sounds good, but it doesn't work. If an architect cannot communicate an idea, how can that idea possibly be articulated with 100% accuracy from the designer's brain, to an engineer's brain, to an engineer's drawing, to a builder's interpretation of that drawing, to the finished building? It can't! It is imperative that the architect understands construction materials, methods, and sequencing. I was fortunate to grow up with a dad that could fix anything and a next-door-neighbor who ran a construction company. They taught me everything I needed to know to have a good solid sense of ingenuity. I have further developed my skills over the years by building some of my own projects I've designed as well as some personal items around the house.
2. Solid Design Background: Learning from the best is key. I think some people might be born with a better sense of design than others, but I don't think anyone is born with a complete set of skills. Design is a trade that takes more than a lifetime to master. It is a process of coming up with a very complicated idea and building it with very expensive labor and materials to see how well the idea works. Then the architect can monitor people's experiences after they use the building for several years. This can also be compared and contrasted to other projects the architect has designed and used. After all of these experiences, the architect has something to base his or her future design decisions on. It is simply not possible for someone to be born with this experience. It must be either acquired from another architect or acquired from years of personal experience. I have had the fortunate opportunity to learn from the best starting at a very young age. Mark Hanahan started me as an apprentice in his architectural firm designing commercial buildings while I was still a teenager which gave me a head start on my contemporaries who did not get this experience until they were well out of college. Stuart Silk and Geoff Prentiss both gave me opportunities later in my career to design some very prominent projects for some very prominent people. These experiences gave me the opportunities to be exposed to so many different design problems, design advice, and design solutions. I trusted their mentoring and soaked it all in like a sponge.
3. Relentless Work Ethic: I work extremely hard. My parents taught me this. They instilled in me that I can only earn things by working for them, and nobody will ever do that for me. I took that to the next level and simply started doing the things I wanted to do, so I could be who I wanted to be. Although I was told I was too young to have the experience necessary to take the state board exams to become a licensed architect, I took them anyway and passed them all on the first try. I knew I had the experience, and I read a stack of books taller than myself to cram all the facts and figures necessary to succeed. I am so excited to design buildings that I attack all of my projects similar to the way my kid runs to the slide on a playground. After interviewing a client and visiting a building site, steps 1 and 2 listed above kick in, and I know exactly what needs to be designed nearly immediately. Next I sit down at my desk a draw without stopping until the idea is properly depicted on paper, so a client can understand. In a matter of hours, I solve complex problems. I never really have "deadlines" because I do the work so far ahead of any expected finish date that a deadline is never actually set. I implement the same strategies with running the business and running my household. By solving problems early, this enables me to have a higher degree of quality control by having the time to consider and evaluate additional features AFTER implementing constructive feedback from clients and builders.
4. Network of Good Builders, Clients, and Friends: Throughout the course of my practice, I have impressed a lot of people through steps 1, 2, and 3 listed above. These people call me for design help, and they refer me to their friends, colleagues, and family when they need help. It's a cycle that doesn't stop unless I stop succeeding at steps 1, 2, and 3.
5. Diversified Sources of Income: It is very helpful for business owners in any industry to diversify. The construction industry has upturns and downturns. Designing buildings is my passion, and I don't want the ups and downs of the economy to shut me down. I plan for that by always having a backup plan. I teach college courses, I own/manage a rental property, I conservatively invest and save my income, and my wife earns an income with benefits. These income sources combined nearly guarantee I won't be out on the street next time the economy crashes. More importantly, this comfort gives me confidence as a designer to push the boundaries and innovate rather than defaulting to boring, repetitive design solutions.