Great Lessons From Great Men

by Brett & Kate McKay on March 8, 2009 · 24 comments

in Money & Career


This is a guest post from J.D. Roth, who runs and writes for one of the biggest and best personal finance blogs on the net: Get Rich Slowly. Be sure to check out Get Rich Slowly for lots of solid advice on saving money and living a financially sound lifestyle.

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.

Recently I’ve begun 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 thrifty men. When I read about Benjamin Franklin or Warren Buffett or J.C. Penney, I learn a lot — not just about money, but about how to be a better man.

Here are twelve of most important lessons that these books, written by and about great men of years gone by, have taught me:

Be Tenacious
“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 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.

Exercise Self-Control
“‘Tis easier to suppress the first desire, than to satisfy all that follow it.”Benjamin Franklin, The Way to Wealth (1758)
Benjamin Franklin famously attempted to codify his quest for self-control. As Brett wrote last year, 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 men 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 men 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 men 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 a high-interest savings account to act as an emergency fund. When you save — when you pay yourself first — you are using the strength of your youth to insure your uncertain tomorrow.

Avoid Debt
“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)
Debt is slavery. When you owe money to another man, you are obligated to work for his benefit, not yours. Many young men 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.)

Keep Well
“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. The guys from work 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.)

Live Modestly
“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.

Practice Patience
“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 men want to “get rich quick.” They’re on the lookout for fast money. They also want to lose weight now, to be a great golfer 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 my personal finance blog is so successful, one of my responses is that I’ve worked at it 60+ hours a week for the past three years. Practice may not “make perfect,” but it certainly breeds success.

Give Generously
“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 was not 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 men who have come before me, it’s clear that they have derived satisfaction (and 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.

Learning from the Average Joe
Over the past few months, I’ve enjoyed reading the real-life stories of how great men became great. But I’ve also found it enlightening to read about the experiences of the average day guy — the fellows 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.

Go forth, my friends, and do great things.

At Get Rich Slowly, J.D. generally writes about things like how to choose a credit card and how to find the best savings account. From time-to-time, he also shares motivational articles on topics like how to build confidence and how to beat procrastination.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jason March 8, 2009 at 9:27 pm

Great article! I too have been focusing reading more biographies of great men. Much more useful than self improvement books by business gurus.

2 mythago March 8, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Great post, J.D. I particularly appreciated seeing the emphasis on generosity. Sharing doesn’t just give you a warm, fuzzy feeling, but it comes back and rewards you in ways you never expected.

3 Mr. Jones March 8, 2009 at 10:57 pm

I appreciate the strong admonition against debt. It’s funny because as a college history professor each semester for years when I’d talk about the history of consumerism, I’d show my students a graph of the national savings rate. At the end of the graph the bars would dip below the zero line and I’d explain that the country now had a negative savings rate–on the whole, Americans we’re spending more than they were taking in. And I’d say something like, “Of course this isn’t sustainable. We’re heading for a disaster because there’s eventually going to be a day of reckoning.” And here we are sadly.

4 Robert March 9, 2009 at 6:45 am

This is just what I needed to read this morning. Thanks, JD.

5 Steven Copley March 9, 2009 at 7:40 am

I thing this article is great. It’s clear we can learn things that are still applicable from those who have gone before. Just one thing though.. You mentioned debt being useful in business and I have to disagree here. Businesses are defined as people according to our laws and as we shouldn’t as people, seek debt, businesses should likewise not seek it either. Debt is a scourge on the last few generations of Americans. As the professor above me said, the day for reckoning has come. Debt in all forms is bad.

6 Art Gonzalez March 9, 2009 at 8:16 am

I would rephrase rules “Pay Yourself FIrst” and “Give Generously” by following the Biblical model for financial stewardship:

1. Pay God First. God doesn’t need our money but is a sign of obedience. And it must be 10% (tithe) of your income given to the purpose of evangelization. Malachi 3, 8-10.

2. Pay your three yearly offerings. See Deuteronomy 16:16

3. Pay yourself second. Save and be dilligent. Utilize Joseph’s model of saving for a rainy day. Save 20% of your income. Genesis 47, 26

Many blessings,

Art Gonzalez
Quantum Knights

7 Amber Warren March 9, 2009 at 9:42 am

What we’re going through as a nation has been something you’ve been warning us against for years. I’m grateful for your insight and helpful tips on Get Rich Slowly. And I love this post. What a great reminder of the things that really matter. I love the quote by Henry Ford. We often neglect trying to be good in our efforts to be rich, successful, powerful and inspirational. Being good and having good will towards others is the only thing that will make any of these other things matter.

8 Jsthegr8 March 9, 2009 at 10:30 am


9 Harold Shaw March 9, 2009 at 5:19 pm

Great post and a lot of useful information to remind us of things we should have been and should be doing especially in these “interesting” times. Many of the things that are mentioned here are things that in the last 8 years, my wife and I have tried very hard to practice. I especial liked the link to Joe’s Goals, I have been looking for a training log that is simple yet powerful and this looks to cover what I want it to do.

Thank you for your posts, they are excellent and yes this blog is one that I actually stop and read, not skim.

10 Not sure about generosity... March 10, 2009 at 3:22 am

I recently turned 20 and from this vantage point, generosity seems like the quick way to the poor house. If I’m generous with knowledge, people pick my brain for free. If I’m generous with emotion, people abuse that generosity. If I’m generous with money, people continue to be lazy. Why should I be generous?

11 Sarah March 10, 2009 at 4:21 am

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


12 Peter March 10, 2009 at 4:22 am

Generousity isn’t necessarily giving everything you have to others in sacrifice of yourself. It can mean helping someone who is struggling, particularly when you are in a position to lend a hand. I helped a friend talk out problems he was having with his business, threw him some ideas just to break the logjam he was in and get his thoughts flowing. If he suddenly started coming to me weekly, then I might accuse him of “picking my brain” or I’d start mentioning he had to put me on his payroll, but that didn’t happen. Similarly, taking time to help folks out via volunteering some of my time to a charity is fine. Having some of those folks show up on my doorstep expecting me to provide for them is abuse. You need to draw those lines, people take from you what you’re willing to give them. If you never say no, people will continue to ask and demand more from you and then you really do end up in the poor house.

13 Garry, Ontario ,Canada March 10, 2009 at 7:47 am

I find it ironic that the quote in the ‘Avoid Debt’ section is from Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was an accumulator of stuff – a shop-aholic of sorts. Spending sprees and constant upgrades and renovations to Monticello eventually lead to heavy debt. In his dying days he was planning a state lottery to help pay off creditors. Upon his death, Monticello, his remaining landholdings, and slaves were sold off in order to recoup his $100,000 plus owings.

14 Joel M March 10, 2009 at 10:29 am

Very nice. Thanks for the insight. I think many of us know of these principles, but being reminded/encouraged is almost as powerful as learning them in the first place.

Earlier this year I got my tithe/offering statement from my church, and I couldn’t believe how little I gave to the on of the things in my life that is so important. I’m committed this year to giving more than I ever have. I encourage others to do the same… and not necessarily to a religious organization, but any cause you have a heart for.

If you want a true layman’s account of monumental events in US History, Studs Terkel can’t be beat. He will change the way you see these events.

Hard Times (Great Depression)
Good War (WWII)
are my favorites. He has so many others:

15 Michael March 10, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Please send this article to Obama and all the other maniacs bankrupting us.

16 Rod Newbound March 10, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Well compiled JD. My personal favorite is the Golden Rule, but that doesn’t make any of the others of less value.

I’ve noted in some movies, including the recent on about John Adams, that Ben Franklin is portrayed as a heavy drinker and a womanizer. Given his commitment to his thirteen virtues, I suspect this is another case of Hollywood trying to bring down the memory of great men.

Thanks for writing this. I’ll pass it on to my children, grandchildren, nieces & nephew.

17 mythago March 10, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Rod – it’s well-documented that Ben Franklin was something of a hedonist, though I don’t doubt that Hollywood exaggerated. This doesn’t really make him any less of a great man. I’m willing to be corrected, but I’m not aware of any source that suggests he treated women poorly or thought of them as conquests.

Not sure about generosity….: If every time you’ve given to others they genuinely abuse that gift, then I’d gently suggest you take a hard look at yourself to find out why you choose the friends/acquaintances/significant others that you do. I’m not saying that it’s your fault or that you ‘deserve’ bad treatment in any way; only that you may be exercising poor judgment in friends or partners, and need to direct your generosity elsewhere. As Peter wisely noted above, generosity doesn’ t mean “give it away until you hurt”; it means sharing of yourself, particularly when you are blessed and others are not.

18 Pinny Cohen March 22, 2009 at 5:06 am

JD, fantastic article – I particularly liked your warren buffet quote about patience – that’s one true fact of life explained in a very funny way.

19 Ares Vista June 23, 2009 at 9:43 am

These men understood how to think for themselves, and to recognize how we can all do our part to better the places we live and produce. We should all strive to do good for the sake of doing good, not for any religion or law. If we do things we know to be wrong by following the law or religions, we are not doing good.

20 Idowu dare December 7, 2012 at 11:47 am

U̶̲̥̅̊ can’t eat your cake a̶̲̥̅̊п̥̥d̶̲̥̅̊ have it. This article are facts of life. Ɣ☺ΰ make use of it Ɣ☺ΰ get T̶̲̥̅̊h̶̲̥̅̊e̶̲̥̅̊ result.

21 Ibukunoluwa January 12, 2013 at 5:45 am

Warren has spoken wisely. Patience induces some wisdom in me as far as wealth-making is concerned. That, of course, has not watered down the other important attributes. But, it is also noteworthy that in making wealth, focus takes the lead: You cannot delve into all ventures at a time, especially, as a starter-up. Being committed to a course for a while will broaden your base for sustainable diversification. That is why, the young hearts who are exposed to these ‘diamonds’ of information and who are passionately following the course are at great advantages. Tenacity is also invaluable as it has been observed through the ages, that not all who really wanted to be wealthy ended up being one, they seemed to lose interest. That’s why it is pertinent to ask a crucial question of why you really want it. If it is for personal gluttony, then cogitate on the maxim: If every time you look, all you can see is you, though you can see, you are still very blind.
Thanks to all
I am informed!

22 ebenezer ebo yawson June 29, 2013 at 2:49 am

that is good .i am boy from Africa and i want to make it big in life .so i think is good to be reading somethings like this

23 Emmanuel November 6, 2013 at 3:11 am

I copied the article and sent it to every one on my email contact.
Hope I won’t be sued for copy-write? (lafs…)
Many thanks for being so generous with this wealth of knowledge.
More power to you elbow Sir!

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter