After two US Navy ships collided with one another, a 1952 article in the Wall Street Journal said:
"On the sea there is a tradition older even than the traditions of the country itself and wiser in its age than this new custom. It is the tradition that with responsibility goes authority and with them both goes accountability."
How could two of the most disciplined and advanced vessels of the time have collided? What lack of judgement or failure of carefully maintained equipment could have led to the precise intersection of our nation's best warships to be in the same place at the same unfortunate time? Despite all the training, technology, and safeguards, it happened then, and it happened again between a freighter and USS Fitzgerald before the summer of 2017. The US Navy owns this misjudgment, they learn from it, and they grew stronger. They continue to study their failure, enhance their technology, and relentlessly step up their training.
This reminds me of the time in the early years of running my architectural firm when there was a misjudgement made by the captain (me) that resulted in a loss of everything on our ship (office).
It was a couple days before Christmas. We were finishing off deadlines before the new year to earn a much needed break from another successful year finding our way in the profession. That evening, an office Christmas party was planned. It wasn't really a party. It was more of a bash. We teamed up with our friends at Alloy Design Group and Graypants Inc to celebrate the end of a great year with our friends, colleagues, and clients.
At the end of the work day, we would usually lock up shop, switch out the data backups, and bring our laptops home with us. This day was different. We rushed to finish our work, clean off our desks, setup some food and drinks, and display slideshows of our work on our laptops, so our visitors could see what we have been doing over the past 12 months. This left no time for going home. There was too much to do between finishing work for the day and setting up for the party.
People were already starting to filter in before the work day was over. Free booze attracts visitors quite easily as you would expect. It also attracted uninvited guests. The music venue next door to our studio usually attracted a pretty rough crowd. It was no different on that night. Word got out that the design firm next door was having a big party. Seriously. It was awesome. There were strobe lights, DJ's, live streaming photo booths, dancing, and fun all around. Quite frankly, it got out of hand. I think everyone in Seattle was there. People filtered in that we didn't know, and everyone had a blast. At the end of the night, it was really late, and there was too big of a mess to clean up. So we just stashed our valuables, locked up, and went home.
The next morning, I went to work, and went to grab my laptop from its hiding place...but it wasn't there. I thought maybe I was too tired to remember where I put it. I searched some more. No luck. I began to get frantic. I started emptying drawers and shelves. Nothing. I started looking for the other laptops. Nothing. I was now in a panic. I started to realize someone must have walked off with our laptops at the party. But they couldn't have. We hid them and locked them up. That could only mean someone was watching us, cased the place, and figured out a way to break in. I resigned to losing our laptops, but I remained somewhat calm since they needed upgraded anyway, and they could easily be replaced.
Then I felt a bit of ease. As I walked over to the server with the backup, I felt thankful that we still had our files. Those files could not be replaced. They were our life's work. They were everything we needed to do what we do and evidence of everything we have ever done. I felt thankful that we could just buy a new laptop and be right back up and running again.
I reached between the back of a filing cabinet and a wall to pull out the backup hard drive from the server. I reached. I reached further. I swiped my arm up and down in that dusty crevice. Nothing. I stooped down and peered my eye in that dark void. The blinking blue light from the server was not blinking. The blue light wasn't there. The blue light was simply not there. The server and the backup hard drive were gone. EVERYTHING was GONE. EVERY file. EVERY document. EVERY photo. GONE. Our life's work was GONE. I didn't go home before the party, and the backup was therefor gone.
I felt my stomach turn inside out. My mind was no longer in my own head. My thoughts were racing. I hyperventilated. I collapsed into a ball on the floor. My fingers clasped my hair. My chest was pounding. My blood was boiling. I felt extremely hot and extremely cold at the same time. I felt like I had drank 1000 coffees. I immediately thought of all the project files that I didn't have. I thought of all the things people expected me to do for them. I thought of the reasons I needed to go to work that day. I thought of the reasons that I was so busy. I felt empty. I was barely able to move but called my wife. Hardly able to speak, I whimpered, "I need you. Someone stole all my shit. I've lost everything." Right after I spoke the words, "I lost everything," I completely lost it. I sobbed over the phone and couldn't say anything coherent. She said she'd be right there.
I felt this overwhelming sense of responsibility come over me, and the thought of being accountable for those responsibilities was one of the the most intense feelings I've ever encountered. It seemed impossible to redo the things I needed to have done. I felt hopeless and alone. I was alone. I was the only one in the building at that time. The remnants of wine bottles, snacks, and Christmas decorations arounded me were a grave reminder of my total isolation at that moment. They were all a symbol of a few hundred people having fun and celebrating together the night before, but I was alone in the remnants of that same environment early the next morning with the burden of having to replace my belongings, having to rebuild all my resources, having to redo all my work, and feeling victim of some thieve's senseless crime.
When my wife arrived, the rebuilding started. She comforted me. She reminded me that I was the one who built my business in the first place. She convinced me that I could rebuild it better than it ever was. She logically talked me through the items I needed to replace in the short term, the items I could replace later, and the items I didn't need to replace at all. She put it all into perspective. She reminded me that I stayed at work to FINISH deadlines the day before. That meant the work was done. It was out there somewhere. It may not have been in my office anymore, but it was out there in some form. I remembered the last thing I did at work at the end of the day was to send my files to be printed at Digital Reprographics. I remembered that Clint would have a file on his computer. It was Christmas Eve. I called him. He went in to his computer and said, "no problem, Josh, I'm happy to help you." He went through his archives and emailed me everything I had ever asked him to print. He worked on his Christmas Eve to help me rebuild.
When my coworkers got to work, there was initial shock, but that soon converted over to support. Mike endeavored to find the ass that did it and beat him senseless. Callie got started right away on old computers pulling files together and redrawing drawings she had already done. All my friends pitched in. My sense of extreme isolation turned into a sense of ultimate camaraderie. The mindset changed from panic to teamwork. We were building our office from scratch, and we literally had nothing holding us back. We dumped the inefficiencies, we focused on our most effective infrastructure, and we insisted on the highest quality outcomes. Because of this awful event, we are better than we ever were. Our job is easier. We are faster at it. And we simply do it better.
Sometimes two boats collide. There's a reason for it. Someone messed up. The mess can be fixed. Often times, the mess does not affect the goal. The US Navy continues to protect our freedom. They never stopped. There were some casualties, but this mishap will result in prevented future casualties and therefor safer protocols that result in higher accountability. They will simply do their jobs better. I am fortunate that the casualties of my mishap are negligible in comparison to the lives that were affected by the misjudgment the US Navy made.
As an architect, I carry a great deal of responsibility. I am held accountable for listening to someone's vision, understanding their needs, and interpreting their goals all while keeping them safe and protecting the largest investment they will likely ever make. I take this responsibility very seriously. My clients' problems become mine. I own their problems, and I solve them. After I lost everything in my office, I stayed accountable. I stayed focused on the goal and immediately began rebuilding with my wife's support.
My clients never knew I lost all their work. We worked tirelessly to fix everything and keep everything on track. We created a strategy and stuck to it. If I couldn't meet the expectations, I would have still owned it. It was my fault. I learned from my mistake. I'm better for it. This is the first time I've told this story. I hope you've learned something from it. The hardest part of the whole ordeal was not knowing how I could ever express my gratitude to those who supported me. I am eternally grateful for them.
Here's an article that discussed the recent US Navy tragedy as it was being investigated: