Q&A with 101 Things I Learned Author Matt Frederick

Books Education Engineering Geek Culture Technology


Matt Frederick is an architecture and design geek. As an architecture student and later a teacher, he found the important lessons of architecture constantly getting lost in the shuffle. So he turned his frustration passion for design into a book series of what he called “clear lessons to hold onto in the midst of the chaos.” Those lessons, from how to sketch a one-point perspective to the color and emotive effects of daylighting, became his first book, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (MIT Press), which went on to become a bestseller. It’s now in its ninth printing.

The book was such a success, Frederick decided to turn the 101 Things I Learned idea into a franchise, and it now has over 500,000 books in print. To date, he has coauthored, edited, and illustrated six additional books with Grand Central Publishing, including 101 Things I Learned in Business School, 101 Things I Learned in Culinary School, 101 Things I Learned in Fashion School, and 101 Things I Learned in Film School, all released in 2010, and 101 Things I Learned in Law School and 101 Things I Learned in Engineering School, both released in May of this year. Read more at www.101thingsilearned.com.

I’ve known Matt for some years as a fellow writer in the Boston literary scene, as a teammate on “The Wordslingers,” the softball team at Boston’s Grub Street, (the second largest independent center for creative writing in the United States), and through our mutual literary agent, Sorche Fairbank, who is also Matt’s life partner. Recently, on the occasion of the publication of the Engineering School book, I had the chance to ask Matt about the origin of his geeky series, how he got up to speed on the topic of engineering, and the advice he gives to aspiring designers, architects, and engineers.

Ethan Gilsdorf: What was the genesis for this 101 Things I Learned book series?

Matt Frederick: Back around 2005, Sorche saw a handout I had prepared for my architecture students, something like “24 lessons from Architecture 101.” She saw a book in it, which I had already considered. That became 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.

I often point out that when the idea for the book arose, I wasn’t making much money in my architecture practice. There are too many architects in Boston, and they were all taking work away from me! But the irony is that when my book came out, those architects bought it and helped turn it into a bestseller.

I probably should point out that the book didn’t come about easily; it grew out of a deep well of pain experienced over many years. Architecture school is incredibly difficult, and instructors are clear about very few things. Students are asked to “masterplan” third world cities without being taught much at all about how to do it. It’s learning by doing. But everything the student learns seems to be undone or mitigated or qualified by the next thing. Very little stands still. This was enormously frustrating for me as a student, and later as a program head trying to get instructors to be more clear in their lesson plans and teaching methods.

Gilsdorf: So did you apply that principle to the other books in the series?

Matt Frederick.
Matt Frederick.

Frederick: In doing all the books, the key is finding the source of the student’s confusion or pain. Engineering students often have an experience opposite that of the architecture student: There’s too much specificity and very little context. So much of it is abstractions—vectors, forces, math, physics, chemistry. So, many of the lessons in the book are introduced through context. For example, instead of discussing harmonic resonance in the abstract as would be done more typically, the lesson begins, “Soldiers should not march across a bridge.” From there, we “back” into the abstract engineering lesson.

Gilsdorf: What is the deciding factor for what subject area in the series you’ll tackle next?

Frederick: Sorche and I do some objective research (student body size, general audience size, etc.), but there’s a lot of intuitive guesswork as to which titles are likely to work. We consider everything from where the book might be sold (not just bookstores, but museum shops, historic sites, home goods stores, and so on) to how illustratable the subject is to the likelihood of attracting a suitable co-author. And we have to determine whether the book will be likely to benefit the beginning college student. Then, after I carefully tabulate the results of our study, the publisher tells me to do something else.

Gilsdorf: So you must have some great rejected ideas. Tell me about your plans for 101 Things I Learned in Cosmetology School? 101 Things I Learned in Prison?

Frederick: Ha! Those are on our longterm list–seriously. I get suggestions all the time for things like Sex Therapy School and Gemology School and subjects I’ve never heard of. But for now we’re inclined to stick with fairly conventional, intellectual areas of study. We want to be sure we establish a clear identity for the series, and then somewhere down the road we’ll look at topics that require us to stretch the format. Some topics will require us to alter the format slightly, so we have to put those off a little while until the identity of the series is clear. 101 Things I Learned in Photography School would require photographs instead of drawings, for example. 101 Things I Learned in Interaction Design School would be a great title, but we want to be sure we are prepared to do a great e-book version. A few titles might need color.

I struggle with what to do with some topics that are non-creative. Down the road I’d like to take on titles such as Prison, the Military, Living Abroad, etc.

Gilsdorf: Talk about 101 Things I Learned in Engineering School. Are you an engineering geek?

Frederick: Most architects have a geeky side. I know how to build things and I like figuring out how things work. But in general, I’m more attracted to the conceptual aspects of engineering. If it’s a project that’s important to me I love working out the engineering particulars. But there’s always a point at which engineers can go on and on and I get lost.

When I was a kid, like six or seven, I pretended I wanted to be an engineer. I knew I wanted to be an architect, but I thought there was something effeminate about being an architect… after all, those house plans I loved to pore over were in my mother’s magazines!

Gilsdorf: For 101 Things I Learned in Engineering School, you partnered with John Kuprenas, a civil engineer. What were some of the criteria you used to “audition” the candidates for this book?

Frederick: I use the same general process for selecting all my authors: I contact a few hundred to a few thousand college professors. Then I have the candidates — there might be five or ten — create some lessons. Very few “get” it right off the bat, so we push things back and forth to see how we work together. Some candidates don’t take well to the criticism–they’re the experts, after all, and I am not. But with others I find a synergy, where each idea for a lesson leads to more ideas.

Some of the engineers I interviewed couldn’t communicate in terms a beginner could understand–even though they thought they were being clear and basic. They couldn’t talk about one thing without talking about six things. One candidate couldn’t talk about engineering at all without getting into Schmidt Numbers and probability theorems and… well, this is important stuff, but it can’t be where you engage the beginner!

Gilsdorf: Can you give us a sample engineering lesson from your book? What’s an easy-to-grasp concept that anyone — geeks and non-geeks — might relate to?

Frederick: Oh, wow, I find it hard to give just one. I love the lessons that are counter-intuitive. Like friction is the enemy of a rolling object, yet it is what allows it to roll. Accuracy and precision are different things. Concrete and steel are ancient, not modern materials. More inspections and fewer inspections both produce more errors. Perfect reliability in an engineered product isn’t always desirable. A masonry arch gets stronger as it does more work. Buildings want to float and automobiles want to fly. Equilibrium is a dynamic, not static state.

But there’s one lesson I think does a really neat job of showing how an engineering perspective can help us understand things outside engineering. It’s called “the engineering of satisfaction” and it shows how an engineering model and a little math explains our motivations and relationships with other people. [See below.]

(Image: Matt Frederick)
(Image: Matt Frederick)

Gilsdorf: What advice would you give to aspiring designers, architects, and engineers — especially young ones?

Frederick: My co-author, John Kuprenas, has said that even though most engineers were good at math and science in their childhoods, engineering wasn’t a profession they sought immediately, but one they evolved toward. As for the ones that know early on that they want to work in engineering, the field is so vast that it can take a long time to find the area of engineering that most appeals to them. So I guess the advice there is to be patient, because even though the skills and aptitude can be quantified, the choice is ultimately a very personal one.

Something common to all the fields you mentioned is that anyone going into them has to have an affinity for identifying and solving problems. Not math problems, but human problems. A bridge is built in response to human needs, and if you don’t understand those needs at a very deep level you’ll design the wrong bridge. Same for fashion design, architecture… you might be drawn into them because of an affinity for physical things, but ultimately you are solving human problems.

Gilsdorf: What’s a typical misconception of engineers held by laypeople?

Frederick: One misconception is that engineers are not creative. The unimaginative, bottled-up “enginerd” is a common image in our culture. Some engineers aren’t creative, but some so-called artists aren’t creative either. I think an important difference is that the engineer creates to provide a specific solution to a problem, while the artist creates to pose a question, prompt a shift in perspective, or perhaps simply to provoke. So perhaps engineers create answers, artists create questions… although they’re not necessarily having the same conversation.

John likes to point out that there aren’t a whole lot of engineering role models in popular culture.

Gilsdorf: I know you teach seminars about how to help hone your central idea or concept for a nonfiction book project. What advice do you typically give to would-be writers of high-concept books like yours?

Frederick: Most people can recognize a book concept when they hear one, but they have trouble bringing a clear concept to the book they are writing. Although ironically when I did the architecture book I’m not sure I was conscious of striving for a high concept. I arrived at the format intuitively…. it was the necessary way for me to present my ideas to an audience I knew well. So maybe there was a purity of intent there that is not present in all works. That’s not to disparage them; it just means an author’s position relative to a writing project can vary a lot.

A writer should be able to explain a concept for a book in no more than two sentences. Those two sentences locate the book in its external context—it’s for the struggling architecture student, the confused voter, the conscientious environmentalist; and “contain” the entirety of the book—it’s structure, argument, feel, sensibility, format, etc. “This book shows that voter confusion is due to our society having reached a place where the traditional liberal-conservative paradigm is no longer relevant. In this book I will show how this problem has played in American elections from the local to the national level, and suggest new paradigms that might help our political environment align with our culture.” OK, that’s not gold, but…

Some books can explain their concept through the title alone. Careers for Your Cat… that’s a real book, and you probably can guess who it’s for and what its sensibility is. 1491 is another; it’s about the Americas before and upon the arrival of Columbus. Drinking: A Love Story. And so on.

Gilsdorf: So these 101 Things I Learned books are no brainers, right? Anyone can do them?

Frederick: They are simple in their final form, but they are really hard to do. I get proposals all the time from people who say, for example, “I’d like to do Medical School, it would be really easy.” But it never is. It’s pretty grueling. My coauthors have to learn a lot of new things and unlearn others. They have to figure out things about themselves and why they chose their profession. They tend to understand their calling differently after doing the book.

Gilsdorf: Has your thinking changed about these books, now that you’ve churned out seven of them?

Frederick: More recently I’ve begun to think that 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School isn’t about architecture; it’s about how to think like an architect. 101 Things I Learned in Engineering School isn’t about engineering; it’s about how engineers view the world. Ditto for the others. Well, it’s pretty damn hard and sometimes impossible for many professionals to explain how they view reality, because this assumes they are cognizant of where their thinking diverges from that of other professionals. Many can’t do this. They have been immersed in their way of thinking and doing things for many years, and maybe even in childhood had a predisposition toward their field that makes it difficult for them to see the world in other ways. It’s like asking a fish what he thinks about the water. And then they have to break down everything they know into these little lesson-chunks, each of which can only be about one thing… well, it’s really, really hard to do. Maybe I’ll never completely figure out what they are; that might be what makes it interesting. If I do figure it out, that might be when I stop making new books.

Read more about the 101 Things I Learned series at www.101thingsilearned.com.

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2 thoughts on “Q&A with 101 Things I Learned Author Matt Frederick

  1. I went to Va Tech to become an engineer. Had been told since childhood “You’ll be an engineer someday!” because I was always tinkering and spending my money at Radio Shack. I eventually switched majors so I could teach engineering in K-12 (I have a BS in Technology Education). Due to some volunteer experience while in college I realized I loved working with kids. I plan to make Matt’s book available in my classroom! Thank you Matt for your great work!

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