Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the greatest and most influential architects of the 20th century. As a boy he used to spend a lot of time on his uncle’s farm in Spring Green, USA. It was there that he had one of the most formative experiences of his life.
He was nine years old, it was a winter’s day, and he and his uncle had just walked across a snow-covered field. Frank’s uncle stopped the young boy and pointed to the tracks they had left in the snow. Frank’s meandered all over the place, while his uncle’s went in a straight line from start to finish. “Notice how your tracks wander aimlessly from the fence to the cattle to the woods and back again,” his uncle said. “And see how my tracks aim directly to my goal. There is an important lesson in that.”
Years later the world-famous architect pointed to the important lesson he learned that day, but it was not the lesson his uncle had intended him to learn. “I determined right then,” said Frank Lloyd Wright, “not to miss most things in life, as my uncle had.”
I narrated this story in a speech a few years ago during a product launch by a digital advertising company. The founder of the company had interned in my department at Barclays Bank about ten years before.
When he first walked in for the job, he wore a shirt whose cuffs doggedly refused to go anywhere near his wrists, his trousers came in a few inches above his ankles and he sported a long, thick and very unapologetic afro that hadn’t seen a comb pass through since Kenya’s second liberation. But boy did the young man have a zest for life! He was very curious and willing to help anyone and everyone.
Once one got over his appearance and went to the heart of his proverbial matter, there lay a sharp mind and an extremely free spirit. He was the first person in my professional life to teach me that there existed people who worked so that they could fund their life, where work was simply a means to discovering what life had to offer. About six months into the internship he came and sat at my desk.
“Thanks very much for the opportunity, I have to leave now,” he launched. “Where are you going, do you have another job?” was my responsible-life-must-be-taken-seriously response. “Oh, I don’t have a job. I’m taking a career break.” Yes, you heard me right, a career break six months into an internship.
I stifled a life-must-be-taken-seriously laugh. “Why do you want to create a gaping hole in your CV? His response was one I will never forget. “Because I want to go on a backpacking trip abroad.” I now burst out into a life-must-be-taken-seriously guffaw. My prehistoric mind could not envisage a situation where one stopped working to see the world. How? And why couldn’t a Google street view search sate that curiosity?
This young man was not trying to be pinned down, not when life was there to be eaten in the tablespoonfuls. He went. He saw. He conquered whatever travel itches were blazing. He came back and started a small agency, and ten years later we were standing on a rooftop celebrating that agency’s achievements. He had a team of young, intense and fun loving employees, happy to sit on a retrofitted tyres that had cushions placed in the rim cavity. His offices were bright, and as colourful as his character and his client list contained a few enviable blue chip Kenyan firms.
Here is a completely random fact: Chinese bamboo produces little outward growth for the first four years of its life. Though it’s puny and pitiful, there’s something powerful happening underground. In the fifth year, the tree grows eighty feet!
The young intern started off small and turned out to be an entrepreneur, an employer and a contributor to the digital economy. And just like Chinese bamboo, he taught me that the root comes before the fruit. Some people water their roots with academics and serious office work, others water their roots with unapologetic sojourns that make sense only to them. Both paths can lead to fruition and I’ve now learnt to set aside those judgemental life-must-be-taken-seriously blinkers.