Frank Lloyd Wright

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Kentuck Knob. Southwest Pennsylvania. 2017

We amended a family vacation to include stops at Kentuck Knob and Fallingwater (yes, that one) to see these Frank Lloyd Wright houses. In preparation I read about Wright and noticed four patterns we’ve seen before.

1/ Luck. Wright was born in 1867 to a doting mother and overly ambitious father. His dad moved the family around as he tried this and that and his mom treated Wright like a prince during those years.

Ed Thorpe wrote, “Chance can be thought of as the cards you are dealt in life, choice is how you play them.”

This was true for Wright. His mother couldn’t control the moves (the cards) but she played them well, getting Wright music lessons, drawing supplies, and blocks as a child. When he was in high school Wright’s father left the family and Frank dropped out to help pay the family’s bills. His mother’s family hired Wright to do basic drawing work. In 1871 the great Chicago fire destroyed a swath of the city and fifteen years later Wright was one of the many builders that immigrated to rebuild and expand the city.

While Wright’s childhood wasn’t in the big woods of Wisconsin, he had both misfortunes and fortunate breaks.

2/ Learn by doing. Wright wasn’t opposed to dropping out. He didn’t like school. Rather, he had spent so much time learning by doing.  At one job Wright couldn’t do anything but trace prepared drawings. That was fine because it gave him time to learn and ask questions.

As his skill grew he left one firm for another until he started his own. Job hops gave Wright experience doing this and that. It showed him how people thought. Tyler Cowen suggested to Russ Roberts that the advantage to centrality is not connecting with everyone but with someone who might. Cowen said that being in DC means he doesn’t need to visit think tanks but only talk to people who do.

Know and do, do and know.

Yvon Chouinard wrote  “I didn’t know anything about clothing. I learn everything by taking a step forward and see how that feels. If it feels good I take another step, if it feels bad I take a step back…I learn by just doing.”

Wright, Aziz Ansari, and Ty Warner all learned by doing.

3/ 10K hours. Wright was committed to his work and not much else.  Charlie Munger never coached youth soccer. Gene Kranz of ‘failure is not an option’ fame wrote, “Behind every great man is a woman – and behind her is the plumber, the electrician, the Maytag repairman, and one or more sick kids. And the car needs to go into the shop.” John Boyd had the greatest gulf between professional accomplishments and personal failings.

Malcolm Gladwell told Stephen Dubner this was his point in Outliers:

The work required for elite success is intense and leaves little room for much else.

4/ Be different. The reason Wright stands out in time is because he was different. He even invented a word, Usonian, to describe a style. That’s Tyson Zone different. Wright wrote about his approach, “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill.”

Critics baptized him as ‘Frank Lloyd Wrong.’ Artists refused to have their work shown at the Guggenheim. Being different means headwinds.

But America needed a style of architecture and Wright wanted to give them one. It reminded me of Alton Brown show Good Eats. When someone asks, what the hell is that? it means you might be headed in the right direction.

Leigh Drogen said:

“Union Square Ventures finds that when they go into a partner meeting with an idea they want to see a barbell of, ‘I think that’s an awesome idea’ and ‘you’re freaking crazy, why would we ever do that?’ Their worst investments are the ones where everybody thinks, ‘yeah that makes total sense.’


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