Here are three lessons I learned from reading The Devil in the White City, a book on the construction of the Chicago World’s Fair (juxtaposed with a suave, murderous criminal), on human psychology and project management.
1. You will always be compared to what came before
Four short years before the Chicago World’s Fair, the French had their turn. At the Paris exhibition of 1889, they unveiled the Eiffel Tower–a majestic display of creativity and ingenuity.
America’s pride was hurt. Everyone in America thought they were the most creative and ingenious country. To be outshone by the French was an embarrassment. Chicago would help reignite its spirits.
But trying to “out Eiffel the Eiffel,” as the goal came be to known, would not be easy.
Chicago had to either beat the extravagance of the tower or be humiliated, bringing disgrace and shame upon America.
An interview in the Chicago Tribune captures the consensus at the time:
The most marvelous exhibit of modern times or ancient times has now just closed successfully at Paris. Whatever you do is to be compared with that. If you equal it you have made a success. If you surpass it you have made a triumph.
If you fall below it you will be help responsibly by the whole America people for having assumed what you are not equal to. >
Lesson: If you try to imitate something that people have already experienced, you can’t just “build a taller tower.” Your product, your offering, your service, has to be as new and unique as anything that came before, lest it just be compared to just trying to build a taller tower in a race to “out Eiffel the Eiffel.”
Chicago’s big unveiling was the Ferris Wheel. It was something so different and new that it captured people’s imagination in a unique way. The Eiffel Tower, though it was still an amazing feat of architecture, didn’t spin 2,000 people around in a circle. Chicago had successfully out Eiffled the Eiffel.
2. Simple and done well is better than extravagant and rushed
Rain was a menace to the fair. It would wash away the wet paint on buildings and ornate plants of the landscape that were already in the ground.
Frederick Olmstead, the chief architect of the fair, gave sound advice to his crew:
Do not lay out to do anything in the way of decorative planting that you shall not be quite certain that you will have ample time and means to perfect of its kind. There be can little fault found with simple, neat turf. Do not be afraid of undecorated, smooth surfaces.
Lesson: When a deadline is looming, do the best you can with the time you have, and don't overcommit. There's nothing wrong with simple.
A good plan done well is better than a great plan done poorly.
3. When creating a scene or display, every detail matters
Olmstead, the landscape architect, insisted on not having steamboats on the fair’s waterways, even though they would be more efficient.
Put in the waters unbecoming boats and the effect would be utterly disgusting, destroying the value of what would otherwise be the most valuable original feature of this Exposition.
Lesson: Small details have a big impact. When they're done right, they create an extravagant scene. When ignored, they ruin it.
Sometimes, you have to bite the bullet and spend more, or take the less efficient route, to create a great atmosphere or product.