by John F. Tuton
I am a furniture maker. And whenever I start to work on a piece, I am guided by the three-part rubric “Firmitas, Utilitas et Venustas” coined by the Roman architect and engineer, Vitruvius. The three words translate to “Strength, Utility and Beauty”, and have come to be recognized as the cornerstone of any successful act of “making” by studio furniture makers world-wide.
But the qualities of “Strength, Utility and Beauty” aren’t just something for us furniture makers to keep in mind. They are equally important for every Penn student, graduate and undergraduate, who is thinking about their career.
Like any good piece of furniture, a worthwhile career has to have “Strength”—it has to be built to last. The parts of a chair—seats, arms, legs etc.— must be made of the right material and properly fitted together or it will not wear well and might even fall apart. And just like a chair, the “parts” of you that you will use to build your career—your skills, your knowledge and your experiences—must be made of the right material and fitted together properly in order to last. As an example, your problem-solving skills, your technical knowledge and your experiences as a team member should not only be as strong as they can be in and of themselves, but they must fit together in a way that will strengthen your career and make it last.
The “proper fit” of parts that give a chair its strength is not enough, however. The chair must also be practical and useful, or in other words, it must work like a chair. And your “parts” must not only be strong and fit together well, they must also have a practical use. Just as a chair needs to be comfortable to sit in, with the seat and back at the right angle and height—your “parts” need to be useful as well, in the right setting and circumstances. So the combination of your problem-solving skills, your technical knowledge and your “teamwork” experience needs to yield practical outcomes. For instance, you may know how to use your problem-solving skills in an academic setting, but you may have to adapt those skills to fit the requirements of a more practical setting like business or industry.
But how does the idea of “Venustas”, or beauty, apply to a career? How can a career be pleasing to the eye? Because just like a chair, your career must not only be strong and useful, it must be appealing, or you won’t want to pursue it. The strongest chair in the world, put together in the most serviceable way, will not succeed unless it is “attractive” to you, or “invites” you to sit in it. And your career must be pleasing to you as well—it must fit your hopes and expectations—so that you will want to keep “sitting” in it.
Two last thoughts about chairs and careers. Both are living, dynamic things that can constantly change. For instance, chairs may occasionally need to be repaired when they are overused. And this is also true of your “parts”—you may need to increase your knowledge or even learn a new skill in order to advance your career. And, like a chair, you may find that at some point you are being moved to a new setting or environment, where you’ll have to adapt to different conditions. If you’ve paid attention to the “Strength, Utility and Beauty” triad, though, you’ll have a firm foundation to build on so that your career, like a treasured family heirloom, will last over time.