I recently re-read Moby Dick and have to say that I was stunned by how vivid and modern it seemed. I felt transported to the streets of New Bedford, Mass., in the 1820s and to the decks of the whaling vessel Pequod. The clarity of the writing and its vibrancy are among the many reasons why Moby Dick is considered one of the Great American Novels, and Herman Melville, a giant among great writers.
Aside from English majors, very few people know the book did not sell well initially. From the time it was written in 1851 until 1891, when Melville died, the book never sold through its initial printing of 3,000 copies. His net pay for the book in his lifetime was $5,500. So Melville kept his day job, working customs in the port of New York City.
Melville’s story is one of determination. He wrote the book in a farmhouse in Pittsfield, Mass., over the course of a single summer. He wrote prolifically on and off for the remainder of his life, but he never knew in his lifetime the success his work would ultimately achieve. In 1891, when he died, the newspaper obituary about him was less than 50 words. In fact, it was not until 1922 that Moby Dick and Melville were re-appreciated and better understood for their greatness. Melville was ahead of his time; yet that did not stop him from writing, nor did it stop him from taking the time and energy necessary to produce other classics such as Billy Budd.
A college commencement speaker I heard this spring made a point that is likely understood by many successful people, including Melville. He told the graduates that most of the time, when you are really doing your best work, you often are too immersed in the details to know if you are having any impact at all. The key to success is to be “in the moment” and to do the best you can on the work you have in front of you.
The builder Joseph Eichler likely understood this point. Today his California Modern production homes, built by the truckload in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, are wildly sought-after on the resale market. Unlike Melville, his work also sold well right away. Here was a builder who did not follow convention. He brought high design concepts to the average new-home buyer of his day. That is an accomplishment in and of itself. But the lasting value of those homes over time is particularly impressive.
To be a good builder, you really have to be “in the moment.” You have to know what key buyer groups want. And the details matter. In this issue we are grateful to nine architects and designers who submitted ideas for what is happening now, ideas that relate many buyer segments, including an emerging group—the Millennials.
The hard part is figuring out how to be more like Eichler, whose particularly great work sold well right away, and less like Melville who, despite his greatness, was too far ahead of his time. By listening to the research and focusing on the drivers that are motivating today’s buyers, you have the opportunity not only to sell a lot of homes, but also to build homes and communities that stand the test of time. And if you find yourself a little too immersed in the details of this work, that is probably a very good thing.