Because I write a personal finance blog, I read a lot of books about money. I’ll be honest: they’re usually pretty boring. Sure, they can tell you how to invest in bonds or how to find the latest loophole in the tax code. But most of them lack a certain something: the human element.
Over the years, I’ve found that it’s fun to read a different kind of money book in my spare time. I’ve discovered the joy of classic biographies and success manuals, especially those written by (or about) wealthy and/or successful men. When I read about Benjamin Franklin or Booker T. Washington or J.C. Penney, I learn a lot — not just about money, but about how to be a better person.
Here are some of the most important lessons that these books, written by and about great men of years gone by, have taught me.
“Anybody can be a halfway man, but the one who rises above this class is the one who keeps everlastingly pushing.” — J. Ogden Armour, Touchstones of Success (1920)
More than any other, one lesson stands out from the books I’ve read: Never give up. If you have a goal or a dream, pursue it. If there’s a cause that you truly believe in, then fight for it. That’s not to say that you should doggedly chase greed or gluttony, but that you should do your best to achieve those things that are important to you. Great men — and great women too! — struggle through daunting obstacles to reach their destinations. In everything that you do, do your best. And remember: The road to wealth is paved with goals.
“‘Tis easier to suppress the first desire, than to satisfy all that follow it.” — Benjamin Franklin, The Way to Wealth (1758)
Because he had very real trouble regulating his impulses, Benjamin Franklin famously attempted to codify his quest for self-control. As Brett wrote at The Art of Manliness, Franklin committed himself to thirteen virtues, and he developed a system for tracking how disciplined he was in his daily pursuit of these ideals. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional indulgence. But when the indulgence becomes a habit — or worse, a vice — this can affect your life. Even destroy it. If you have habits that prevent you from fulfilling your potential, find a way to boost your self-control. (You might, for example, use Joe’s Goals to track your progress, much like Benjamin Franklin did.)
Do the Right Thing
“To be truly rich, regardless of his fortune or lack of it, a man must live by his own values. If those values are not personally meaningful, then no amount of money gained can hide the emptiness of life without them.” — John Paul Getty, How to Be Rich (1961)
Have a code of honor, and live by it. Your code of honor might come from your faith, or from your education, or from your family. Whatever the source, live by these values. Life is filled with temptations. The more you accomplish, the more people will tempt you with offers for quick gains or passing pleasures. Many people succumb to these, but those who do rarely achieve what they might have if they’d stuck to their principles. The books I’ve read are filled with stories of folks who have resisted the urge to compromise, and who believe that this has been a key to their success. Don’t cheat. Be honest. Work hard. And embrace the golden rule.
Embrace the Golden Rule
“Good will is one of the few really important assets of life. A determined man can win almost anything that he goes after, but unless, in his getting, he gains good will he has not profited much.” — Henry Ford, My Life and Work (1922)
James Cash Penney — the man behind the J.C. Penney chain of department stores — believed that success could be measured by how a man treated others. In his book, Fifty Years with the Golden Rule, Penney describes his life-long adherence to this maxim: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Other great people through history have believed the same. They believed that their fortunes came not from pursuing money itself, but by producing something of value to others. But this principle also holds true outside of business. In your dealings with your friends, your family, and with strangers, treat others as you would like to be treated. Doing so builds social capital, strengthening the fiber of the community.
Pay Yourself First
“Many a man is poor today, although he has worked like a slave, simply because he could not save.” — Orison Swett Marden, The Young Man Entering Business (1903)
Another common thread in most of these books — and in personal-finance classics like The Richest Man in Babylon — is the importance of saving. “Pay yourself first,” the old adage goes, and it’s great advice. If you will set aside ten or twenty per cent of all that you earn, your fortune will grow far beyond that of your peers. Some of this money should be invested in a manner that makes you comfortable. (You should learn about the concepts of asset allocation and diversification, if you haven’t already.) But some of your money should also be set aside in an emergency fund. When you save — when you pay yourself first — you are using the strength of your youth to insure your uncertain tomorrow.
“Be assured that it gives much more pain to the mind to be in debt, than to do without any article whatever which we may seem to want.” — Thomas Jefferson, Letter to his daughter Martha (14 June 1787)
Many young people struggle with debt — I did so myself. But those who are not able to overcome their spending habits are likely to find themselves always poor. When you pay interest to someone else, you cannot earn interest for yourself. When you’re in debt, your options are limited. You cannot choose, for example, to take a month off to travel across the country with a friend. You cannot quit a job you hate. If you did, how would your bills get paid? To be sure, a certain amount of debt is useful in business, but make it a policy in your personal life to never borrow for something that will decrease in value. (And if you’re already behind, make it a priority to get out of debt as soon as possible.)
“The foundation of success in life is good health: that is the substratum of fortune; it is the basis of happiness. A person cannot accumulate a fortune very well when he is sick.” — P.T. Barnum, The Art of Money Getting (1880)
Your health is your greatest asset. If you lack health, you cannot work, and cannot produce an income. Health allows you to engage in productive activities, at work and at play. It allows you to enjoy the company of your friends and family. And it allows you to live with vigor. Guard your health. Do not neglect your body. Eat well. Exercise regularly. If you drink or smoke, do so in moderation. You will not live forever, but with some care and foresight, you may get a little closer!
Do Not Covet
“By wishing to be what he calls ‘up-to-date’ as his friends or boon companions, many a young man mortgages his future.” — Orison Swett Marden, The Young Man Entering Business (1903)
It never pays to compare yourself to others. For one, you can find yourself longing to own the same things they do. Your best friend buys a new Ford Mustang, and suddenly you want one too. Your co-workers go out for drinks on Friday evening, but you’re broke — the temptation to join in, to have what others have, can be unbearable. Focus only on yourself and how the things you own and do relate to your goals. Don’t be jealous of others. (This is one message in the famous essay, “Acres of Diamonds”: Instead of looking elsewhere for wealth, look at your own life.)
“This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth…To set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or arrogance.” — Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth (1889)
This is the flip side to “Do Not Covet”. Just as you should not allow the behavior of your friends to influence your spending decisions, so too be conscious of your influence on them. If you have money, don’t flaunt it. And if you don’t have money, don’t pretend that you do. It’s fine (even good) to buy quality products, but don’t be flashy. Live simply and well.
“No matter how great the talent or the effort, some things just take time: you can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.” — Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway Annual Report (1985)
Too many people want to “get rich quick”. They’re on the lookout for fast money. They also want to lose weight now, to be a great writer now, to be in management now. This obsession with “now” is a problem. In his new book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t is 10,000 hours. That is, those who achieve mastery have patiently practiced their craft for at least 10,000 hours — the equivalent of five years of full-time work. When people ask me why Get Rich Slowly has been successful, one of my responses is that I’ve worked at it 60+ hours a week for the past fourteen years. Practice may not “make perfect”, but it certainly breeds success.
“Thrift does not end with itself, but extends its benefits to others. It founds hospitals, endows charities, establishes colleges, and extends educational influences.” — Samuel Smiles, Thrift (1875)
I wasn’t raised in a culture of giving. It’s only something I’m beginning to learn in middle age. But as I read about the choices of those who have come before me, it’s clear that they have derived satisfaction (and have done a lot of good) by giving generously — not just of money, but also of time and knowledge. Do not hoard the things you have. Share them so that others might profit, too. Think abundance, not scarcity.
Embrace an Abundance Mindset
“I learned the lesson that great men cultivate love, and that only little men cherish a spirit of hatred. I learned that assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong; and that oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak…I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.” — Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery (1901)
Look, people are people. Each of us is trying to make our way through this life the best way we possibly can. I may not agree with your approach and you may not agree with mine, but that does not mean we can’t peacefully coexist. I don’t have to hate you for what you believe; you don’t have to hate me for my worldview. There’s too much hate in this country (and this world) right now. Hate stems from a lack of patience, a lack of empathy, a lack of spirit. Fundamentally, hate is the scarcity mindset in action: “There’s not enough for me, so there’s certainly not enough for people like you.” I don’t buy it. I believe there’s plenty for everyone, and that it’s our responsibility to help others share in the abundance. Sounds cheesy, I know, but I truly believe it.
Learning from the Average Joe
Over the past decade, I’ve enjoyed reading the real-life stories of how great men became great. (And great women too!) But I’ve also found it enlightening to read about the experiences of the average everyday person — people like you and me.
One book I strongly recommend (especially considering the state of the economy) is Hard Times by Studs Terkel. Hard Times is an oral history of the Great Depression. Terkel interviewed scores of men and women about their experiences during the 1930s. Their stories are amazing, and they offer great insight about how we can live better lives today. (I wrote more about this book in the thick of the Great Recession.)
Go forth, my friends, and do great things.
Note: This article originally appeared at The Art of Manliness in a slightly different form. Also, for Mother’s Day, Tanja Hester from Our Next Life shared a companion piece profiling Great Lessons from Great Women. Check it out!