The Frank Lloyd Wright secret to creative problem solving

FLWHints to the solutions for problems that vex are all around us. We either don’t know where to look or the negotiation’s been so painful that the loss of hope blinds us.

I tell my conflict resolution grad students that mediators and negotation coaches aren’t smarter or better than our clients, though we may look damn brilliant on occasion. It’s an illusion, I tell them, so don’t let your ego run away with you. We only look smart because we’ve trained our eyes and ears to notice the hints whispering to us.

Frank Lloyd Wright knew how to notice those whispers, too.

Years ago I facilitated a meeting of architecture school deans from throughout the U.S.. They’d come together because they cared about sustainability and green design and wanted to see if they could reach agreement on how to green the traditional architecture school curriculum.

Inside the Johnson Wax BuildingWe were very fortunate to have the gathering at the Johnson Foundation’s Wingspread, the 14,000 square foot home Wright designed for Herbert Fisk Johnson, and to tour, on a morning’s break, the spectacular Johnson Wax Building, also designed by Wright. We were also fortunate that one of the architects at the gathering was a relative, by marriage, of Wright’s.

He told us that Wright had no formal schooling after 8th grade. Wright learned through apprenticeships and often turned to nature for help in resolving complex architectural, design, and physics challenges. Wright had used the idea of a forest’s canopy, for instance, in the Johnson Wax Building’s famous ceiling. The saguaro cactus’ structure led him to develop a new type of column that could hold an enormous amount of weight on a narrow base.

He said that when Wright was nagged by a tough design problem, he’d go for long walks in nature because he knew nature had already solved some of the same problems and he could learn from that.

Maybe the story stuck with me because my husband and I are Wright architecture fans who’ve visited his designs all over the country. Maybe the story stuck with me because I, too, go for long walks or runs in nature when I’m working my way through a nagging problem.

But I think the real reason the story stuck with me is that I realized Wright was a kindred whisper listener. He knew how to tune his ears and eyes to possibility. He knew that when a problem seemed insurmountable or stuck or crazy-making, the best thing to do is lean into it gently, opening our hearts and minds and ears to the quiet whispers we’ve been too busy or angry to notice.