Lessons in Manliness: Theodore Roosevelt On Living The Strenuous Life

by Brett and Kate McKay on February 21, 2008 · 43 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness

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I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph. – Theodore Roosevelt

In our last post, we discussed the way Theodore Roosevelt threw off his sickly nature and through willpower and hard work became a strapping young man. His dedication to living “the strenuous life” became the guiding principle of his life.

His hard work and enthusiasm allowed him to accomplish all of the following things during his 60 years of life:

1. Work as state legislator, police commissioner, and governor in New York

2. Own and work a ranch in the Dakotas

3. Serve as Assistant Secretary of the Navy

4. Fight as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War

5. Serve as President for two terms, then run for an unprecedented third term

6. Become the first President to leave the country during his term in order to see the building of the Panama Canal

7. Write 35 books

8. Read tens of thousands of books-several a day in multiple languages

9. Explore the Amazonian rainforests

10. Discover, navigate, and be named after a completely uncharted Amazonian river over 625 miles long

11. Volunteer to lead a voluntary infantry unit into WWI at age 59.

In addition to all of these tangible accomplishments, Roosevelt infused vitality into every aspect of his life. He practically bounded from room to room, giving hearty handshakes, slapping backs, and grinning ear to ear. Even as he got involved in politics, he exercised regularly and took up boxing, tennis, hiking, rowing, polo, and horseback riding. As President he took visiting leaders and dignitaries on long hikes and up rock faces in the parks around DC. As governor of New York, he boxed with sparring partners several times a week, a practice he regularly continued as President until one blow detached his left retina, leaving him blind in that eye. Thereafter, he practiced jujutsu and continued his habit of skinny-dipping in the Potomac River during winter.

One of the best examples of Roosevelt’s unflagging enthusiasm came when he was campaigning for a third term as president. In Milwaukee, WI, he stood in the back of a railway car waving to the crowd. A man shot him in the chest, knocking him back into the car. Three presidents had been assassinated in his lifetime and TR had always prepared for such a moment. He put his fingers to his lips and since blood was not coming out of his mouth he knew the bullet hadn’t perforated his lung. The bullet, slowed by a steel eyeglasses case and a copy of a speech, lodged in his rib. Roosevelt insisted on proceeding to the auditorium where 10,000 people were waiting to hear his speech. Mounting the stage he showed the audience his bloody shirt and said:

“I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”

TR then talked for 90 minutes, before finally consenting to be taken to a hospital.

Clearly, Theodore Roosevelt did not just spout platitudes about living the strenuous life; he absolutely embodied and lived the principles he espoused.

Why Live The Strenuous Life

The strenuous life gives you confidence

A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life, and, above all, it is a life which ultimately unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world.

Taking on responsibility and overcoming challenges is the best way to increase your manly confidence. Don’s sit on your butt all day playing X Box. Get out of the house and look for challenge. That’s how TR built up his confidence. He actively sought hard tasks and took them on.

Start living the strenuous life today and increase your confidence by taking on a challenging goal. Do something that you have often thought about, but have never followed through with.

The strenuous life makes you a better husband and father

The man must be glad to do a man’s work, to dare and endure and to labor; to keep himself, and to keep those dependent upon him.

Sadly, many men are shirking the responsibilities of family. The strenuous life requires that you be the best husband and father you can be. Work so you can provide a comfortable living for those who depend on you. Give the emotional support your wife needs. Be an active participant in your children’s lives.

The strenuous life makes your country stronger

In the last analysis a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and risk.

Americans have gotten lazier and dumber. The success of a democratic republic like the United States depends on an educated and engaged citizenry. Sadly, most Americans don’t know what’s going on in the world, let alone their own country. Fewer American are engaged in their community. Shirking our civic duties will only make our country weaker.

Take on the challenge of being an engaged citizen. Keep up with current events not only in America, but also the rest of the world. And don’t just settle with watching the fluff news on Fox and CNN. Check out publications like The Economist or The Atlantic Monthly. They provide far more in-depth analysis of what’s going on in the world today. Also, get involved in your community. Attend town hall meetings. Join a civic group like the Rotary Club or a young professionals organization. Will it be hard to find time to do these things? Of course. But that’s what living the strenuous life is all about. Taking on challenges and overcoming them.

No country can long endure if its foundations are not laid deep in the material prosperity which comes from thrift, from business energy and enterprise, from hard, unsparing effort in the fields of industrial activity; but neither was any nation ever yet truly great if it relied upon material prosperity alone.

Overcoming the fear of failure and criticism

In your quest to live the strenuous life you will undoubtedly meet failure and criticism. Don’t let this hold you back from living the life of vigor. Failure and criticism are just obstacles for you to conquer as you seek to live a life of greatness. We leave you with a famous portion of TR’s speech, “The Man in the Arena.”

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

1 ELK February 21, 2008 at 10:31 am

I may be biased, since Teddy was already my favorite president, but I LOVE that “badass” photo from the last post about him. I keep it up at work now, I find it very motivating.

2 Raphael Sisa February 21, 2008 at 1:21 pm

What a bad-ass! He got shot and continued to speak. I agree with your post McKay, you have to step out of your comfort zone…especially to become a leader. I’ve been trying to do that lately: went on a 30-mile bike ride with Crank Mob: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oM8tKJPQOcA

3 Chris Cree February 21, 2008 at 5:31 pm

TR makes me tired just reading about him. Regan was cracking jokes after being shot. But give a 90 minute speech? With no PA system??! Dang!

That last quote is one of my all time favorites. Truly inspiring.

4 amy February 21, 2008 at 8:19 pm

I fully support your deceased-celebrity death crush on Theodore Roosevelt.

5 Kate February 21, 2008 at 8:44 pm

I personally call it a history crush. But I like you name much better pamy. Remember our promotion of the non-sexual friend crush? It’s like that only, um, the person is dead. And they were never your friend.

6 Ron February 22, 2008 at 7:47 am

A real man. A man of the ages.

7 Nate February 22, 2008 at 5:20 pm

The role of men has been in a dangerous decline for decades, so I am very grateful for a site that can so clearly and honestly resurrect all the fading truisms of what it is to really be a man. I hope this site becomes a sensation and a lot of boys and young men learn what their true potential is and change from their feminized paths.

8 Bob February 22, 2008 at 8:36 pm

Great post. Can anyone make a recommendation on a TR biography and/or collection of writings? There are so many out there. Advice appreciated.

9 Kate February 23, 2008 at 7:43 am

Bob-

Edmund Morris’s “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” and “Theodore Rex” are 2 of the best books on TR. The former deals with his pre-presidency days and the latter his time in the White House.

10 Julie February 23, 2008 at 5:01 pm

Your blog is fascinating! I don’t know if you might be interested, but there is a man who totally brings Teddy Roosevelt and all his “manliness” to life for thousands of people every year. I’m a HUGE fan of his and have blogged about how to meet James Foote. We were lucky enough to meet him by accident as a guest at a really great party, but I feel like I know Teddy Roosevelt now because I have been around James Foote.

11 Santa February 23, 2008 at 6:26 pm

He was a REAL man. I wish we could vote another president like that into office today.

12 Clark February 24, 2008 at 12:18 am

Bob…I would recommend “T.R: The Last Romantic” by H. W. Brands. I really enjoyed it. Amazing how much he accomplished in his lifetime….most of it before he was 40.

“If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.”
— Theodore Roosevelt

13 Jeff February 25, 2008 at 2:49 am

Good show, good show! My full, exhastive thanks are extended to you and this blog. This is a powerful resource to which i frequent at the sign of any update. Keep writing!

14 Brett and Kate McKay February 25, 2008 at 8:03 pm

@Jeff:

Thanks for the kind words Jeff! We hope to see you commenting here more often!

15 JAMes February 27, 2008 at 12:46 pm

He really needs a good bike!

16 sam April 3, 2008 at 4:44 am

sounds like bs to me. i guess some historian will dream up more bs and make gwb look like a fucking hero too – pity the web wasn’t around then, there may have been a very different story – all politicians are lying hypocrites – there are no exceptions ever!

17 Jordan April 18, 2008 at 10:13 am

sam, it’s not bs.
They have the copy of the speech that was in TR’s pocket when he was shot and the bullethole is clearly visible. It’s in some museum somewhere.

And film was around by that time. There are plenty of videos showing TR greeting people, making speeches, etc. that are clear proof of his vigor.

Theodore Roosevelt is by far the greatest president in my opinion, both in terms of personality as well as [most] of his policies. Not to mention, he is the greatest example of a man that I can think of.

18 Todd Schafer June 30, 2008 at 5:52 am

Funny how when something comes into your universe, you run across blog posts like this.
I had just been exposed recently to the greatness that was TR.
His picture is going up on my vision board along with Abe and Churchill (who are already there).

19 David Zent September 14, 2008 at 9:24 pm

If you guys want to have the night of your lives, catch Clay Jenkinson performing Theodore Roosevelt at various venues around the nation. He is well-known for portraying Thomas Jefferson, but Holy Crap! He is astounding as Roosevelt, who was Jefferson’s polar opposite in politics and personality. I met Clay and enjoyed his recent performance here in Bakersfield CA. The room rose as one in a standing ovation, after he had performed for over two hours in character. I’ve never seen anything to match it, and I’ve made my living in live theatre for twenty-five years now. It was inspiring and awakening. Go see him if he performs anywhere in a five hundred mile vicinity of you – more than worth it.

20 Hasnain September 15, 2008 at 3:42 pm

An amazing man! I must read up more on him. Its so humbling how much a person can accomplish in life. Staggering! Makes me feel like an ant.

21 The Baltimore Babe September 28, 2008 at 5:15 pm

What beauty…

22 Nisfris Wedsa October 8, 2008 at 5:41 am

Hi i am Nisfris from Albania and i also like america and men

23 Larry W. Phillips October 19, 2008 at 4:48 pm

Hi – I’ve got a question maybe one of your readers can help me with. I had a photo of TR shaking hands with 8,150 people on the day he got inaurgarated and now I’ve lost the photo and can’t remember where I saw it. Help! Anybody know where I got that from? Thanks,
Larry Phillips

24 Peter March 1, 2009 at 6:08 am

Amazing…I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t already know much of what was shared in this post, but I sure am glad I learned! What an incredible guy. I now have the perfect spontaneous gift idea for a friend who is facing tough times or a daunting task ahead — a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Any that you guys would recommend?

25 Alton Marcello March 28, 2009 at 8:15 am

Tuffness is sooooooo necessary

26 Luke October 5, 2009 at 3:28 pm

Fantastic website! I enjoy reading your fantastic blog and this is probably my favorite. Additional reading besides the two biographies mentioned above would be “the strenuous life” by Theodore Roosevelt; it is exceptionally quotable and epitomizes his ideals that allowed him to achieve so highly.

also i would like to add that to live the strenuous life, it is not only to work harder at what is already being done, but to spiral out and attempt a vast array of new things, to attempt to further one’s self through experience and accomplishment, to toil and risk while fulfilling the doctrine of the strenuous life for greater personal happiness and greater value to one’s cohorts.

27 Thomas Gray December 16, 2009 at 9:52 pm

Wonderful site! TR is such a great a great role model. I am interested in learning more about how his personality and attitude drove his skills and acheivements.

28 Nathan January 5, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Teddy was truly something. I second the recommendation of Edmund Morris’ books. However, I don’t believe he ran for a third term as stated.

29 Andrew McCormick January 20, 2010 at 1:45 am

L-O-V-E all these TR posts! Reading “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” changed my life and I instantly fell in love with a guy that had been dead for decades.

30 Nate March 21, 2010 at 12:47 pm

I’m loving all the posts about T.R. I want to read about the man so I ask, what would you suggest as the best book about him and his life? Thanks!

31 CyrusTab March 21, 2010 at 5:53 pm

T. Roosevelt was an extraordinary man for sure, talented and driven. However, he was not exactly a saint nor someone we should seek to emulate in every way. For one, he was a warmonger who, among other things, pushed the American war in the Philippines and consistently shrugged at the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in that war, considering it a small price to pay to “civilize” them. Not least, he was quite racist, although that was not too unusual given his time and social status. When learning that black heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson had knocked out “white hope” Jim Jeffries in their extraordinary 1910 bout, Roosevelt allegedly yelled out a racial epithet in frustration over Jeffries’ loss. Perhaps most notoriously, despite the overwhelming evidence (and Roosevelt’s undoubted knowledge) that black regiments had fought (often valiantly) on the side of the U.S. in Cuba during Roosevelt’s time there, he consistently refused to give any credit to black fighters nor to support giving them medals for their valor in Cuba. Certainly, these soldiers had embodied many of the qualities Roosevelt claimed to admire, but Teddy still refused to acknowledge them.

32 Mike McC. March 24, 2010 at 9:08 am

This article is just bully! You can never run out of good manly material with TR, keep ‘em coming!

Am currently reading “T.R.: The Last Romantic” by H.W. Brands, about half way through and loving every minute of it. Covers his entire life, not just presidency, additionally it discusses his personal life as well. Very in-depth and quotes TR’s letters and diaries frequently, which is great. I highly recommend it.

Cyrus: You could use that argument for almost every man of that time, he was no more racist than every other person during his time period despite that being post-civil war. He was simply a man of his time despite being wrong in that respect, although it is important to consider.

33 Lee June 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm

hmmm T Roosevelt??

He was a Progressive Socialist hiding in the Republicans, looking like a Conservative, then trying to create a new party, the Progressive movement…….not my favorite Pres.

New Nationalism was Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive political philosophy during the 1912 election. He made the case for what he called the New Nationalism in a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in August 1910. The central issue he argued was human welfare versus property rights. He insisted that only a powerful federal government could regulate the economy and guarantee social justice. Roosevelt believed that the concentration in industry was not necessarily bad, if the industry behaved responsibly. He wanted executive agencies (not the courts) to regulate business. The federal government should be used to protect the laboring men, women and children from what he believed to be exploitation. In terms of policy, the New Nationalism supported child labor laws and minimum wage laws for women. Roosevelt supported graduated income and inheritance taxes, workers’ compensation for industrial accidents, regulation of the labor of women and children, tariff revision, and firmer regulation of corporations.

That is sick socialist ways folks

34 Daniel July 8, 2010 at 2:51 am

Damn sicko socialist what with his trying to protect women and children. It’s unamerican, I tells ya!

35 Chuck November 25, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Teddy Rooseveldt undertook “the strenuous life” because he was sickly as a child and it was the only way he could overcome it. Well, it seemed to have worked!

As for his policies, I don’t see anything wrong with them! God forbid we guys should protect women and children! Horrors! Look how absolutely (but predictably) disastrous our policies of the last 30+ years have been! Deregulation of banks is (PREDICTABLY!!) going to lead to nothing but bank scandals, bank failures, bank closings, S&L scandals and failures, etc. This has ALREADY happened! Poor people voting for “trickle-down theory”? How STUPID!
Deregulation is nothing but UNMITIGATED DISASTER, but it makes rich thieves richer! ENRON! Added tax breaks for the already wealthy have lead to our increased national debt! We went from PLUS $500 BILLION to MINUS $16 TRILLION! With the Chinese (formerly the RED CHINESE!!!) holding 1/3 of OUR DEBT! THEY OWN US! What DISASTER! Chuck

36 Chuck November 25, 2012 at 4:44 pm

P.S. I am sorry that top hats and handle-bar mustaches and other accoutrements went out of fashion. Men’s fashions were quite good at the turn of the century. I, myself, wear a beard and mustache. I have been wearing it since 1975. Chuck

37 Holly June 28, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Though the “strenuous life” highlights are true, I think you’ve missed or dismissed the most important part of Theodore Roosevelts success – God in his life. He wanted to be a “brave Christian gentleman”, like his father, and that is what he became. All of those characteristics mentioned in your article are about a man laying down his life and accepting the position God made him to be.

38 Sylvia Catalina Cruz June 30, 2013 at 11:13 am

I agree with Chuck’s analysis.
I disagree with Lee.
We should all live strenuous lives like Theodore Roosevelt.
As a former foster child my life was nothing but personally strenuous but I still dedicated my life to public service.
Sylvia Cruz

39 Lewis July 1, 2013 at 12:37 am

@Brett, He didn’t “Discover, navigate, and _be named_ after a completely uncharted Amazonian river over 625 miles long”, I’m pretty sure the river was named after him ;)

40 Cody July 23, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Like Lee I disagree with Roosevelt the 1st policies. He fundamentally misunderstood, or purposely undermined, the American tradition (as different as it was from the rest of the world). The trade was of property rights and self-responsibility in exchange for paternalism and top-down control. State control of the rules so as to create the appearance of equal ends, even while this new power to write rules is in fact commandeered and designed for the use by big business.

Nevertheless I believe that most everyone in the world has something to teach. For TR it is the method of living, the determination, the strenuous life of effort. While his actions severely undermined the American societal features that created these virtues in our people, he nevertheless embodied Americanism in his personal life habits and mastery of self.

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