The atrium floats in a distant sky of gleaming glass. Smartly vectored light lances through side windows at captivating angles, the product of careful simulation and forethought long before the building ever met a hard-hatted construction worker. Terraced mezzanine levels offer glimpses of bustling life on floors above the ground without revealing specifics inside those suites. There’s a deceptively large spatial volume inside the structure belying its apparent shape seen from street level. Somehow it's bigger inside than outside, yet the echoing sound feels warm and inviting. The building engineers and designers and architects clearly took sound absorption and reflection into account so that this gleaming atrium could become a place where visitors slow down for a moment rather race across on their way to somewhere more important. The atrium is what's important; the atrium becomes it's own destination.
A visitor stands and turns in place, a smile on her face. She observes the light, she listens to the warm echoes, she sees how suited business people change their pace on their way to the elevators simply to breathe in the clear air of that big room. Filled with a measure of respect, with unspoken, deep appreciation for the artistry and craft that made this glorious space possible, she nods to herself and then to her companion. "It's really something, isn't it?" she says. "Beautiful."
"I love it," he says. "It's inspiring. Glorious, really."
"It is," she says, smiling, turning to appreciate the opposite ceiling corner. "Want to get lunch?”
Ladies and gentlemen: that's all you get. If you're on the creative team who made this gleaming space, you’re ultimately sending two people on a lunch date. You've just kicked off a good afternoon for a couple you’ll likely never meet. It took two years for you to get the preliminary financing for this project; another eight months to get past initial design review. Then it took four years for permits and construction plans and building teams to actually dig the hole and erect the tower so that it could tickle the clouds above. Somebody made plans for a big opening day celebration, somebody strung a ribbon from one stanchion to another so a bunch of people in sharp suits could cut it with gleaming scissors. Tenants jockeyed with real estate brokers for months to fill the floors extending into the sky. Two weeks before it opened, engineers worked on floors twelve and fourteen to figure out what was wrong with the water pressure there. Your office still has terabytes of engineering data on slightly out of date hard drives that it's not sure what to do with, even as it’s fully aware that it already has properly protected data archived in the corporate cloud.
Then, of course, there's the small drawing table in your spare bedroom at home where you sketched out the designs for that atrium with a number two pencil. Your infant daughter had woken one night at three in the morning, and in a haze you staggered in to check on her. Reflected silver light from Earth's moon crept into her bedroom through the gap between the curtains and the window frame, and in that moment you saw how light could sneak around corners and illuminate the vast atrium you were tasked to build in the city. By 3:15 your daughter had fallen asleep again and you were hunched over a scrap of paper perched on her changing table, slippers on your feet, scratchy skin and sleep-deprived eyes as you tried to resolve your thoughts and resolve your own doodles in the twilight. Later those doodles would follow you to your spare bedroom and your drawing table.
A few weeks later you had it all worked out in CAD/CAM software at the office, and your client’s appreciative smile at the concept doesn't even began to describe your private moonlit moment, something you'll carry forever. If the tower ultimately got built, that atrium would belong, heart and soul, to the bond between you and your daughter.
Nobody knows all of this, of course. Nobody knows the thousands of work hours from hundreds of people it took to bring the space to life. Years later, standing in that atrium, two friends on a mid-day walk look up in casual passing and marvel and smile. Then they go to lunch and speak of other things.
If you're lucky and successful as a creator, this may be one of the best compliments you ever get. Your work invests people in a feeling. It implies that there’s demonstrable competence and creativity successfully functioning in the world. Most creative work does not become the stuff of college courses, or day long conversations, or deep, impassioned considerations and banners and debates. Even the best work like your atrium exists along the periphery of most people's lives. But look: you made something that caused two people to stop in their tracks and look around and appreciate the space for just a moment. They smiled, shared something with each other that didn’t have to do with their ordinary lives, made a small memory, and carried on with their days, quietly enriched.
You changed their trajectory and you shaped their emotions, even if just for a moment. Now they're at lunch, together. In some small way you influenced their afternoon in a good way.
That means your efforts were not for nothing.