Tag: Matthew Frederick

7 Things I Learned in Architecture School

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context
—a chair in a room, a room in a house,
a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

— Eliel Saarinen


Things I learned in Architecture School

“The following lessons in design, drawing, creative process, and presentation first came to me as barely discernible glimmers through the fog of my own education,” writes Architect Matthew Frederick in the insightful book 101 Things Things I Learned in Architecture School. The series of books, which we’ve covered before, includes law school, business school, and engineering school. Like others in the series, the book on architecture offers many lessons in thinking and design that transcend one discipline.

Here are some ideas and nuggets of wisdom that stood out as I read the book.

  1. Be specific. “The more specific a design idea is, the greater its appeal is likely to be. Being nonspecific in an effort to appeal to everyone usually results in reaching no one. But drawing upon a specific observation, poignant statement, ironic point, witty reflection, intellectual connection, political argument, or idiosyncratic belief in creative work can help you create environments others will identify with in their own way.”
  2. Ideas can take away from or add to the essential idea. “When designing a stair, window, column, roof, lobby, elevator core, or any other aspect of a building, always consider how its design can express and reinforce the essential idea of the building.”
  3. Throw away your best loved ideas. “A good designer isn’t afraid to throw away a good idea.”
  4. The most important skill for a designer to develop. “Being process-oriented, not product-driven, is the most important and difficult skill for a designer to develop.”
  5. Think about how you think. “The most effective, most creative problem solvers engage in a process of meta-thinking, or “thinking about the thinking.” This means you’re aware of how you’re structuring your thoughts while you’re thinking. You want to test ideas, challenge yourself, see if you understand the other side of the argument, criticizing, and redirecting your thought process.
  6. Don’t make it too complex. “Create architectural richness through informed simplicity or an interaction of simples rather than through unnecessarily busy agglomerations.”
  7. Consistent and repeatable results come from a process. “True style does not come from a conscious effort to create a particular look. It results obliquely—even accidentally—out of a holistic process.”


Architect Matthew Frederick on the Three Levels of Knowing

Three Levels of Knowing

Architect Matthew Frederick draws our attention to the three levels of knowing in 101 Things Things I Learned in Architecture School.

Simplicity is the world view of the child or uninformed adult, fully engaged in his own experience and happily unaware of what lies beneath the surface of immediate reality.

Complexity characterizes the ordinary adult world view. It is characterized by an awareness of complex systems in nature and society but an inability to discern clarifying patterns and connections.

Informed Simplicity is an enlightened view of reality. It is founded on ability to discern or create clarifying patterns with complex mixtures. Pattern recognition is a crucial skill for an architect, who must create a highly ordered building amid many competing and frequently nebulous design considerations.

One approach to informed simplicity is a narrow specialization. By immersing yourself in one discipline or field, you can often begin to see things at an informed simplicity level. That is, you understand the variables at play, the probable results, what’s important and what’s not, etc.

Farnam Street takes another approach.

We’re trying to better understand how the world works so we can align ourselves with reality. We become the generalist, with a few big ideas from each discipline that we can combine to understand the forces at play.

However, we can only take you so far. Part of seeing things with informed simplicity means that you’ve done the work and chewed on the complexity yourself. If we gave you the answers – not that we have them – you’d never have them when you need them because you wouldn’t understand why they work, when they work and when they don’t work. You have to synthesize for yourself.

At the 2016 Daily Journal Meeting, Charlie Munger commented on this:

Saying you’re in favor of synthesis is like saying you’re in favor of reality. Synthesis is reality because we live in a world with multiple factors involved. Of course, you’ve got to have synthesis to understand the situation when two factors are intertwined. Of course, you want to be good at synthesis.

It’s easy to say you want to be good at synthesis. But it’s not what the reward system of the world pays for. They want extreme specialization. By the way, for most people extreme specialization is the way to succeed. Most people are way better off being a chiropodist than trying to understand a little bit of all the disciplines.

There Are No Called Strikes and Other Lessons You Learn in Business School

Matthew Frederick teams up with Michael Preis to offer some important learnings from the world of business — which isn’t really a discipline in and of itself but rather, as they write in the introduction to 101 Things I Learned in Business School, “a broad field of endeavor encompassing such diverse disciplines as accounting, communications, economics, finance, leadership, management, marketing, operations, psychology, sociology, and strategy.” Here are some lessons gleaned from a trip to business school. (Some of them, at least.)


A mission or vision statement driven by consensus is probably so watered down it becomes meaningless. Part of the reason this happens is that when you seek consensus you end up with something that no one at the table can disagree with so you don’t really end up saying anything important.

A mission statement describes the current central purpose and goal of an organization, to guide daily decision making and performance.  A vision statement describes what an organization seeks to become, or the ideal society to which the organization seeks to contribute.

When drafting and evaluating potential mission and vision statements, ask if the opposite of a proposed statement is obviously undesirable. If it is, the statement is obviously undesirable. For example, a university mission statement that says the institution “seeks to produce highly effective productive citizens” is unlikely to have any real influence on employees or students, since no university seeks to produce its opposite—ineffective, unproductive citizens. A more meaningful statement will assert that which is truly specific to the organization; it describes what the organization seeks to do that many or most of its peers do not.

This is reminiscent of the approach Ken Iverson took at Nucor: The company needs a specific call to a specific action. Otherwise, you’re wasting everyone’s time with a watered down message.

There are no called strikes.

Billy Beane, who offers compelling insight on making better decisions and avoiding biases,  is quoted in Moneyball to have said “You can always recover from the player you didn’t sign. You may never recover from the player you signed at the wrong price.” This is reminiscent of what Warren Buffett had to say on the same subject: “In investments, there’s no such thing as a called strike. You can stand there at the plate and the pitcher can throw the ball right down the middle, and if it’s General Motors at $47 and you don’t know enough to decide General Motors at $47, you let it go right on by and no one’s going to call a strike. The only way you can have a strike is to swing and miss.” Turns out we can learn a lot about decision making from baseball star Ted Williams and the fictional character Mr. Market, who was invented by Benjamin Graham.

Adding to our knowledge on Feedback Loops, Frederick and Preis distinguish the difference between positive and negative feedback loops.

In a negative feedback loop, the system responds in the opposite direction of a stimulus, thereby providing overall stability or equilibrium. The Law of Supply and Demand usually functions as a negative feedback loop: When the supply of a product, material, or service increases, its price tends to fall, which may lead to raising demand, which will drive the price back up.

In a positive feedback loop, the system responds in the same direction as the stimulus, decreasing equilibrium further and further. For example, a consumer who feels prosperous after making new purchases may end up making even more purchases and take on excessive debt. Eventually, the consumer (Ed. or Government) may face financial ruin and have to make a major correction by selling off assets or declaring bankruptcy (Ed. read A Parable About How One Nation Came To Financial Ruin). Because positive feedback loops restore equilibrium in their own, often dramatic way, it is sometimes suggested that positive feedback loops occur within a larger, if not directly visible, negative feedback loop.

Speaking of The Law of Supply and Demand: It doesn’t always apply.

The Law of Supply and Demand says that if the supply of a given product or service exceeds demand, its price will decrease; if demand exceeds supply, its price will increase. Rising and falling prices impact demand similarly. When supply and demand are exactly equal, the market is at an equilibrium point and acts most efficiently: Suppliers sell all the goods they produce and consumers get all the goods they demand.

Not all products have historically adhered to the Law. When the prices of some luxury or prestige items have been lowered, demand has fallen due to reduced cache. In other instances, rising demand for a product has led to improvements in technology, increases in production efficiency, and the perfection of distribution challenges, all of which have driven prices down. Electronic technologies have tended to follow this pattern.

Experts are not always the best people to solve problems – it’s more about combinatory play — A point not lost on SenecaSteve Jobs and James Webb Young.

Experts are expected to know a lot, but often it is better to know how to organize and structure knowledge than to simply have knowledge. Innovative thinkers don’t merely retain and recite information; they identify and create new patterns that reorganize known information.

When you don’t think about what you’re doing, you tend to promote the best performer to manager, which is often a mistake. Echoing James March, Preis writes:

Employees who excel in one area of business are often promoted to supervisory positions. But in management, one’s achievements are measured through the actions of others. A first-rate lab researcher promoted to lab supervisor, for example, has to coach, mentor, manage, and help other researchers make discoveries—something that may be beyond his or her abilities or interests. Compounding the problem for the organization is that the department no longer has its best researcher making discoveries on the bench.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the higher one rises in an organization the longer it takes to implement a decision. (The decisions are more consequential, though.)

Front-line managers can effect immediate changes by directly instructing workers. A sales manager can redirect the activities of sales people immediately, and an accounting manager can make immediate changes in bookkeeping practices. At higher levels of an organization, where employees are more concerned with strategic matters, decisions take more time to implement. If the vice president of marketing wishes to change the style of a product being produced, considerable time will be required to engage feasibility studies, explore design alternatives, investigate the technical methods required, and alter manufacturing practices.

Further to this, the higher one rises in an organization the more one must be a generalist. At the front-line level you often only need direct knowledge of specific activities. Managers need a broader understanding in addition to this knowledge, and they are often missing one or the other.

101 Things I Learned in Business School is a good read; however reading The Letters of Berkshire Hathaway (also freely available) is a better way to understand what an MBA should be teaching. This site, after all, wouldn’t exist without the failed education of an MBA.

The Difference Between Truth and Honesty: What Law School Teaches us About Insight, Logic, and Thinking

“We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.”
— Anaïs Nin


Matthew Frederick‘s series of 101 things I learned in {Business School, Law School, Architecture School, Engineering School} attempts to distill the key learnings from these disciplines and offer them in a bite-sized package.

In 101 Things I Learned in Law School he teams up with California-based attorney Vibeke Norgaard Martin. Together they deliver a noteworthy book for the armchair lawyer in all of us. Despite the title, readers will find the selection of insights below connect to a lot of the ideas on this site.

Consider this bit on the difference between truth and honesty.

Lawyers must be honest, but they don’t have to be truthful. Honesty and truthfulness are not the same thing. Being honest means not telling lies. Being truthful means actively making known all the full truth of a matter. Lawyers must be honest, but they do not have to be truthful. A criminal defence lawyer, for example, in zealously defending a client, has no obligation to actively present the truth. Counsel may not deliberately mislead the court, but has no obligation to tell the defendant’s whole story.

Insight doesn’t arrive head on — echoing William Deresiewicz they write:

Be suspicious of the person who sizes up a new situation very quickly, claims understanding, and stakes out an ironclad position. Insight usually requires long periods of discussion, research, analysis, rationalization, and counter-argument, and it rarely arrives while attacking a matter directly or on a first pass. If one occasionally is able to quickly understand a complex matter, he or she is far more likely to misunderstand it.

Thinking means ragging at problems long enough to understand them — something less and less common in our fast-paced world. Most people won’t or can’t do the work to understand the problem. Our first thoughts are most often the thoughts of someone else and represent conventional wisdom.

Writing is thinking on the page.

A well-constructed argument rarely, if ever, resembles what one started with. Writing effectively isn’t recording the argument one wishes to make; it is a process of discovering what one’s argument needs to be. Through writing, thinking, researching, rewriting, rethinking, and rewriting again, an argument is discovered and clarified.

You don’t have to be right. You just have to be better than the alternative.

It is always possible to make at least some arguments for or against a legal position. An argument requires logic, but legal argument is not a purely logical form of argument that promises a universal, absolute conclusion. Rather, it is a practical form of argument that aims to establish one claim as more probable or reasonable than another.

Make a logical argument. There are two types of logic: deductive and inductive.

Deductive logic: usually works from broadly accepted truths toward demonstrating a truth in a specific situation, although more properly it is any argument in which the premises guarantee that their logical outcome is a truth.

Inductive logic: tends to work from specific examples of truth toward demonstration of a larger truth, but can be any argument whose conclusion, while not guaranteed, is a likely or higher probability outcome of the premises. Successful inductive reasoning requires a convincingly large sample size.

Large sample sizes are not only important in inductive reasoning but they also offer a guide for how to spend our time reading and learning. Peter Kaufman offers some insight on the three largest sample sizes.

Every statistician knows that a large, relevant sample size is their best friend. What are the three largest, most relevant sample sizes for identifying universal principles? Bucket number one is inorganic systems, which are 13.7 billion years in size. It’s all the laws of math and physics, the entire physical universe. Bucket number two is organic systems, 3.5 billion years of biology on Earth. And bucket number three is human history, you can pick your own number, I picked 20,000 years of recorded human behavior. Those are the three largest sample sizes we can access and the most relevant.

Arguments, however, are about more than rationality and sample sizes. We are human after all. Passion comes into play.

Rationality is cool; passion is warm. Rationality provides logical justification for a position, while passion provides a human connection to it. Both are needed to advance an argument; an abundance of one will not compensate for a dearth of the other. An argument may be extraordinarily rational, but its correctness alone is unlikely to compel others to care enough to right the wrongs behind. it. An extremely passionate argument may initially attract sympathy, but unmitigated displays of emotion at the expense of rationality will wear thin and eventually prompt others to tune out your message. Rationality makes an argument worthy. Passion makes it worthwhile.

Show me a company governed by rules and I will show you a dying company — the extent to which rules govern culture offers an indication of how fast. Despite our attempts to reduce everything to an efficient systems of rules there are always exceptions. The wise know the exceptions to the rules. One could argue that you don’t know the rule until you know its exceptions.

A presumption of all court testimony is that the opposing side may cross-examine its source. If a witness quotes someone who is not available for cross examination, the statement, if objected to by the opposing attorney,  might be ruled hearsay and be forbidden. The rule against hearsay testimony has about thirty exceptions. In order to get a statement made outside court into court when its originator is unavailable to testify, one has to determine how to fit it into at least one of the exceptions. In practice, the exceptions to the rule are the rule.

Echoing the Kantian Fairness Tendency, the integrity of a system is more important than the fairness in one case.

A trial’s search for truth is invariably imperfect because it cannot be conducted in a way that introduces unfairness into the legal system. If a piece of evidence was improperly acquired or mishandled by the prosecution, it may be excluded from trial even if it provides an incontrovertible link between the defendant and the crime, because evidence in future cases could be similarly abused. If this allows a guilty person to go free, it is not because the court is not interested in the truth of the case; it is because it accepts that the truth must take some small lumps in the short run so the court gets better at finding the truth in the long run.

101 Things I Learned in Law School goes on to discuss how to explain your argument, language, why an hour can have 116 minutes and more.

Why Early Decisions Have the Greatest Impact and Why Growing too Much is a Bad Thing

I never went to Engineering school. My undergrad is Computer Science. Despite that I’ve always wanted to learn more about Engineering.

John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick have put together a book, 101 Things I Learned in Engineering School, which contains some of the big ideas.

In the author’s note, Kuprenas writes:

(This book) introduces engineering largely through its context, by emphasizing the common sense behind some of its fundamental concepts, the themes intertwined among its many specialities, and the simple abstract principles that can be derived from real-world circumstances. It presents, I believe, some clear glimpses of the forest as well as the trees within it.

Here are three (of the many) things I noted in the book.


#8 An object receives a force, experiences stress, and exhibits strain.


Force, stress, and strain are used somewhat interchangeably in the lay world and may even be used with less than ideal rigor by engineers. However, they have different meanings.

A force, sometimes called “load,” exists external to and acts upon a body, causing it to change speed, direction, or shape. Examples of forces include water pressure on a submarine hull, snow loads on a bridge, and wind loads on the sides of a skyscraper.

Stress is the “Experience” of a body—its internal resistance to an external force acting on it. Stress is force divided by unit area, and is expressed in units such as pounds per square inch.

Strain is a product of stress. It is the measurable percentage of deformation or change in an object such as a change in length.

#48 Early decisions have the greatest impact.

Early Decisions Have Greater Impact

Decisions made just days or weeks into a project—assumptions of end-user needs, commitments to a schedule, the size and shape of a building footprint, and so on—have the most significant impact on design, feasibility, and cost. As decisions are made later and later in the design process, their influence decreases. Minor cost savings sometimes can be realized through value engineering in the later stages of design, but the biggest cost factors are embedded at the outset in a project’s DNA.

Everyone seems to understand this point on the surface and yet few people consider the implications. I know a lot of people who make their career on cleaning up their own mess. That is, they make a poor initial decision and then work extra hours while running around with stress and panic as they clean up their own mess. In the worst organizations these people are promoted for doing an exceptional job.

Proper management of early decisions produces more free time and lower stress.

#75 A successful system won’t necessarily work at a different scale.

Systems Scale

An imaginary team of engineers sought to build a “super-horse” that would be twice as tall as a normal horse. When they created it, they discovered it to be a troubled, inefficient beast. Not only was it two times the height of a normal horse, it was twice as wide and twice as long, resulting in an overall mass eight times greater than normal. But the cross sectional area of its veins and arteries was only four times that of a normal horse calling for its heart to work twice as hard. The surface area of its feed was four times that of a normal horse, but each foot had to support twice the weight per unit of surface area compared to a normal horse. Ultimately, the sickly animal had to be put down.

This becomes interesting when you think of the ideal size for things and how we, as well intentioned humans, often make things worse. This has a name. It’s called iatrogenics.

Let us briefly put an organizational lens on this. Inside organizations resources are scarce. Generally the more people you have under you the more influence and authority you have inside the organization. Unless there is a proper culture and incentive system in place, your incentive is to grow and not shrink. In fact, in all the meetings I’ve ever been in with senior management, I can’t recall anyone who ran a division saying I have too many resources. It’s a derivative of Parkinson’s Law — only work isn’t expanding to fill the time available. Instead, work is expanding to fill the number of people.

Contrast that with Berkshire Hathaway, run by Warren Buffett. In a 2010 letter to shareholders he wrote:

Our flexibility in respect to capital allocation has accounted for much of our progress to date. We have been able to take money we earn from, say, See’s Candies or Business Wire (two of our best-run businesses, but also two offering limited reinvestment opportunities) and use it as part of the stake we needed to buy BNSF.

In the 2014 letter he wrote:

To date, See’s has earned $1.9 billion pre-tax, with its growth having required added investment of only $40 million. See’s has thus been able to distribute huge sums that have helped Berkshire buy other businesses that, in turn, have themselves produced large distributable profits. (Envision rabbits breeding.) Additionally, through watching See’s in action, I gained a business education about the value of powerful brands that opened my eyes to many other profitable investments.

There is an optimal size to See’s. Had they retained that $1.9 billion in earnings they distributed to Berkshire, the CEO and management team might have a claim to bigger pay checks, they’d be managing ~$2 billion in assets instead of $40 million, but the result would have been very sub-optimal.

Our pursuit of growth beyond a certain point often ensures that one of the biggest forces in the world, time, is working against us. “What is missing,” writes Jeff Stibel in BreakPoint, “is that the unit of measure for progress isn’t size, it’s time.”


Other books in the series:
101 Things I Learned in Culinary School
101 Things I Learned in Business School
101 Things I Learned in Law School
101 Things I Learned in Film School