How to Rise in the World: Advice on Hustling from Andrew Carnegie

by Brett & Kate McKay on March 28, 2012 · 58 comments

in Money & Career

This series is brought to you by TurboTax Federal Free Edition. What’s this?

Last month we explored the personal finance wisdom that can be gleaned from the life of Benjamin Franklin. Today we will uncover success lessons from a man who has much in common with his colonial counterpart: Andrew Carnegie.

Like Franklin, Carnegie was a self-made man who rose from humble beginnings to international eminence. Carnegie was born in Scotland in 1835 to a failed linen weaver and immigrated to the United States as a boy. With only a year or two of schooling, he moved from factory bobbin boy to railroad executive to iron and steel magnate, eventually becoming the richest man in the world.

Carnegie and Franklin both credited much of their success to self-education (both spent all their spare moments reading any books they could get their hands on) and their membership in mutual improvement groups. As a teenager, Carnegie started a debating club with five of his friends, and the boys traded hour-long speeches on topics such as, “Should the judiciary be elected by the people?” Carnegie would join other literary and social-minded mutual improvement societies throughout his life, and later said: “I know of no better mode of benefiting a youth than joining such a club as this. Much of my reading became such as had a bearing on forthcoming debates and that gave clearness and fixity to my ideas.”

Carnegie was also like Franklin in that he saw the amassing of wealth merely as a means to an end, an end the men shared—retiring early, becoming a man of culture and letters, writing, doing public service, and being an active citizen. Carnegie was not only a “captain of industry,” but a husband and father, an abolitionist and peace activist, a writer and world traveler. And he was one of the greatest philanthropists of all time. He determined early in his career to give away all of his wealth to benefit society, and followed through on his determination, donating close to $400 million (something like $5 billion in today’s dollars) for the building of libraries (3,000 in all), music halls, museums, universities, and pensions for former employees.

Of course Carnegie is a more controversial figure than old Ben. His wealth came from hustling, shrewd decisions, and keen foresight to be sure, but it was also made possible by insider trading and sweetheart deals. (Although it should be noted that such practices were not considered illegal or immoral at the time.) And his rhetoric about respect for labor never aligned with how he actually treated his workers.

But while his later days as a corporate titan may be checkered, the way in which he was able to maneuver himself into a position to even begin climbing the ladder of success bears clear and straightforward lessons that can apply to men in any situation or age.

Note: All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie.

Andrew Carnegie, age 16, along with his brother, Thomas

Always Be on the Lookout for Opportunities, and When One Arises, Grab It

Carnegie took his first job at age 13, working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and earning 20 cents a day as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill. He then moved over to working for another manufacturer, this time tending a boiler in the cellar and running a small steam engine—a job that proved highly stressful as he had to create enough steam for the workers above him, but not so much that the engine would burst.

He didn’t tell his parents about his anxiety though, choosing to “play the man and bear mine burdens.” Instead, he remained optimistic and kept his eyes open for a chance to move ahead:

“My hopes were high, and I looked every day for some change to take place. What it was to be I knew not, but that it would come I felt certain if I kept on. One day the chance came.”

Carnegie’s boss had to make out some bills, and since he didn’t have a clerk, he asked Andrew to do it. He performed the task well, and his appreciative employer kept finding Carnegie odd jobs to keep him from having to work on the steam engine.

To Carnegie this was just the first step in his pursuit of better prospects, and he took it upon himself to prepare for the next opportunity that might open up:

“Mr. Harris kept his books in single entry, and I was able to handle them for him; but hearing that all great firms kept their books in double entry, and after talking over the matter with my companions…we all determined to attend night school during the winter and learn the larger system. So the four of us went to a Mr. Williams in Pittsburgh and learned double-entry bookkeeping.”

In time Carnegie managed to get an interview to work as a messenger boy in a telegraph office—a great step up from his current position—and he did all he could to seize the opportunity:

 “The interview was successful. I took care to explain that I did not know Pittsburgh, that perhaps I would not do, would not be strong enough; but all I wanted was a trial. He asked me how soon I could come, and I said that I could stay now if wanted. And, looking back over the circumstance, I think that answer might well be pondered by young men. It is a great mistake not to seize the opportunity. The position was offered to me; something might occur, some other boy might be sent for. Having got myself in I proposed to stay there if I could…

And that is how in 1850 I got my first real start in life…there was scarcely a minute in which I could not learn something or find out how much there was to learn and how little I knew. I felt that my foot was upon the ladder and that I was bound to climb.”

The Ability to Memorize Is a Powerful Tool

“My good Uncle Lauder justly set great value upon recitation in education…In our little frocks or shirts, our sleeves rolled up…with laths for swords, my cousin and myself were kept constantly reciting Norval and Glenalvon, Roderick Dhu and James Fitz-James to our schoolmates and often to older people…

My power to memorize must have been greatly strengthened by the method of teaching adopted by my uncle. I cannot name a more important means of benefiting young people than encouraging them to commit favorite pieces to memory and recite them often. Anything which pleased me I could learn with a rapidity which surprised partial friends.”

Carnegie’s ability to quickly memorize anything came in handy throughout his life, starting when he first landed the job as the telegraph messenger boy:

“I had only one fear, and that was that I could not learn quickly enough the addresses of the various business houses to which messages had to be delivered. I therefore began to note the signs of these houses up one side of the street and down the other. At nights I exercised my memory by naming in succession the various firms. Before long I could shut my eyes and, beginning at the foot of a business street, call off the names of the firms in proper order along one side to the top of the street, then crossing on the other side go down in regular order to the foot again.

The next step was to know the men themselves, for it gave a messenger a great advantage, and often saved a long journey, if he knew members or employees of firms. He might meet one of these going direct to his office. It was recounted a great triumph among the boys to deliver a message upon the street. And there was the additional satisfaction to the boy himself, that a great man (and most men are great to messengers), stopped upon the street in this way, seldom failed to note the boy and compliment him.”

Carnegie memorized not just addresses and names, but passages and quotes from books of philosophy, poetry, history, and literature and from journals on a wide variety of topics. This allowed him to, as his biographer David Nasaw notes, “enter any room and engage anyone in conversation. College presidents, theologians, philosophers, university professors, industrialists, or politicians.” Later in his life he encouraged young men to not only read material related to their jobs, but very broadly as he had, arguing:

“Nothing will bring promotion—and better still, usefulness and happiness–than culture giving you general knowledge beyond the depths of those whom you may have to deal. Knowledge of the gems of literature at call find a ready and profitable market in the industrial world. They sell high among men of affairs as I found with my small stock of knowledge.”

Exercise Initiative by Taking Appropriate Action in the Absence of Orders

The above heading is part of the creed for the Army NCO’s. And it was a maxim that Andrew Carnegie always followed. He understood that the man who sits and waits to be told what to do in critical situations will never get ahead—that it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Taking the initiative was how Carnegie started to work his way from telegraph messenger boy to telegraph operator:

“Having to sweep out the operating-room in the mornings, the boys had an opportunity of practicing upon the telegraph instruments before the operators arrived. This was a new chance. I soon began to play with the key and to talk with the boys who were at the other stations who had like purposes to my own.

Whenever one learns to do anything he has never to wait long for an opportunity of putting his knowledge to use.

One morning I heard the Pittsburgh call given with vigor. It seemed to me I could divine that someone wished greatly to communicate. I ventured to answer, and let the slip run. It was Philadelphia that wanted to send a “death message” to Pittsburgh immediately. Could I take it? I replied that I would try if they would send it slowly. I succeeded in getting the message and ran out with it. I waited anxiously for Mr. Brooks to come in, and told him what I had dared to do. Fortunately, he appreciated it and complimented me, instead of scolding me for my temerity; yet dismissing me with the admonition to be very careful and not to make mistakes. It was not long before I was called sometimes to watch the instrument while the operator wished to be absent, and in this way I learned the art of telegraphy. “

Carnegie not only taught himself the art of telegraphy, he was also one of the first to learn how to take down messages by ear; formerly the telegraph operator looked over the slip of paper as it arrived, interpreted the code, and read it to a copyist who transcribed the message. Being able to take the message down directly was a distinct advantage, and when a position as operator opened up, Carnegie, then just 16 years old, was chosen to fill it. Carnegie made such an impression in his new job that just a year later, Thomas A. Scott, the superintendent of the western division of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, asked the precocious young man to be his personal telegraph operator.

In this position, Carnegie again found an opportunity of gaining attention and respect by stepping into the breach in the absence of orders.

At the time, absolutely no one but the superintendent was allowed to issue orders to the trains, which ran on a single line of tracks. But one day when Carnegie arrived at work, he found that an accident was delaying numerous trains and traffic had come to a standstill. He looked for Scott but couldn’t find him anywhere. Carnegie felt a pit of fear in his stomach, but went ahead and sent out the orders himself, clearing up the snarl and getting the trains moving again. He nervously waited for Scott to arrive, afraid of how his boss would react. But Scott, just like his former boss in the telegraph office, didn’t reprimand him, and from that day on he pretty much handed over order-giving duty to Carnegie. The tale of Carnegie’s “train-running exploit” made its way throughout the company and all the way up to the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

And so it was that at age 24, Andrew Carnegie was made superintendent of the railroad’s Pittsburgh Division.

Carnegie believed that his ability to initiate action in the absence of orders was a key to his success, and throughout his life he advised young men who wished to rise in the world to do likewise:

“The question now is how to rise from the subordinate position we have imagined you in, through the successive grades to the position for which you are, in my opinion, and, I trust, in your own, evidently intended. I can give you the secret. It lies mainly in this. Instead of the question, “What must I do for my employer?” substitute “What can I do?” Faithful and conscientious discharge of the duties assigned you is all very well, but the verdict in such cases generally is that you perform your present duties so well that you had better continue performing them. Now, young gentlemen, this will not do. It will not do for the coming partners. There must be something beyond this….The rising man must do something exceptional, and beyond the range of his special department. HE MUST ATTRACT ATTENTION…

One false axiom you will often hear, which I wish to guard you against: “Obey orders if you break owners.” Don’t you do it. This is no rule for you to follow. Always break orders to save owners. There never was a great character who did not sometimes smash the routine regulations and make new ones for himself. The rule is only suitable for such as have no aspirations, and you have not forgotten that you are destined to be owners and to make orders and break orders. Do not hesitate to do it whenever you are sure the interests of your employer will be thereby promoted and when you are so sure of the result that you are willing to take the responsibility. You will never be a partner unless you know the business of your department far better than the owners possibly can. When called to account for your independent action, show him the result of your genius, and tell him that you knew that it would be so; show him how mistaken the orders were. Boss your boss just as soon as you can; try it on early. There is nothing he will like so well if he is the right kind of boss; if he is not, he is not the man for you to remain with–leave him whenever you can, even at a present sacrifice, and find one capable of discerning genius. Our young partners in the Carnegie firm have won their spurs by showing that we did not know half as well what was wanted as they did. Some of them have acted upon occasion with me as if they owned the firm and I was but some airy New Yorker presuming to advise upon what I knew very little about. Well, they are not interfered with much now. They were the true bosses–the very men we were looking for.”

-From “The Road to Business Success: A Talk to Young Men”



Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie (read it online for free!)

Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw

The Road to Business Success: A Talk to Young Men” by Andrew Carnegie


{ 58 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jim McFarland March 28, 2012 at 3:11 pm

“Carnegie believed that his ability to initiate action in the absence of orders was a key to his success…”

There are 2 paths in any life:

1.) Passively accept orders from those around you, and even take those orders indirectly in the form of influences from the environment, or…

2.) Actively make your own choices in each and every moment. Those choices are the building blocks of your entire experience of life. Ever more alert for opportunity; ever more in-charge,and constantly training yourself to consider every single moment as an opportunity to grow by asking: “What’s here, right now, that I can build on, learn or enjoy?”

Looks like Carnegie was “on” to the second path!

Excellent writing and research Brett and Kate!

2 Eviano March 28, 2012 at 3:27 pm

A kick up the butt for every young man like myself out there.

3 Todd Kuslikis March 28, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Carnegie also wrote a very influential guide on philanthropy called “The Gospel of Wealth”.

In it, he shares that the wealthy must strive to help those less fortunate and that to die with one’s wealth is a disgrace.

Great article!


4 Glenn March 28, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Unfortunately for today’s young boys, minimum wage laws make most of these activities illegal. Boys today should be free to work develop manly skills just as Carnegie was, and firms should be free to allow them.

5 Ty March 28, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Hard work along with keeping an eye for advancement. Good lesson. Also, notice that Mr. Carnegie did not have an attitude of entitlement. So many men of my generation feel entitled and expectant of everything in life right out of college. Starting at the bottom and working up the ladder yeilds life’s greatest learning experiences…just with less stuff at first.

6 LukeS March 28, 2012 at 4:28 pm

I, too, love stories about self-made men who create empires, but, unfortunately for me, Carnegie’s later philanthropy doesn’t measure up to how many lives were lost in his factories due to deplorable working conditions.

Sure, I get it was a different time: OSHA didn’t exist and life was considerably harder, especially for immigrant workers, but it isn’t entirely through rose-colored glasses that one can make the case that Carnegie was ruthless in his pursuit of wealth and power and building a few libraries doesn’t wash that away.

7 Dane M. March 28, 2012 at 5:42 pm

What’s very ironic about Luke’s comment is that I am nearly 100% sure he wrote it on a computer that was made in a Chinese factory that has the exact same kind of working conditions that existed in Carnegie’s factories! And yet it’s a hundred years later! That’s the modern man for you, criticizing the men of the past for things that were common place back then, while still supporting the same things today with his wallet.

The interesting thing is that if you read the Nasaw biography linked to in the article, you’ll find that the reason Carnegie was so ruthless in pursuit of power and wealth was that he wanted to get as much money to give away as possible. Today’s corporate CEO’s are amassing as much wealth and power as possible and not giving it back in any form. I’ll take a Carnegie any day over the modern robber barons of today,

8 LukeS March 28, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Thanks, Dave M. In one fell swoop you showed how inane assumptions can really make you look poorly. You know nothing about me, how I select my purchases nor the computer I use, yet think that somehow I completely endorse – directly or indirectly, the entire Apple supply chain.

Firstly, I did read the article as well as being fairly well-versed in economic history of post-Civil War to pre-Depression America, thank you. Second, the mere fact that the argument of being “ruthless…to give as much money away” is still doesn’t jive. You’re basically saying that killing and maiming scores of poor, immigrant workers was acceptable, because he built a library. And third, there are many, many CEOs contributing vast sums of money (Bill Gates, Ted Turner, Warren Buffet, Philip Berber, Stanley Druckenmiller, Stephen Schwarzman…shall I continue?) to humanitarian efforts and the arts.

9 Dane M. March 28, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Larry, most computers are made in China, and most factories, if not as bad as Apple’s, are about as bad as those in Carnegie’s time. If you have anything Made in China in your home, then you do endorse the same kind of labor practices that you condemn in Carnegie.

I never said there weren’t any CEO’s giving away money (interestingly, many of them have said they were inspired by Carnegie in doing so), just that many of today’s CEO’s are both exploitative and greedy, so I’m inclined to have a great deal of respect for a man who did things that were in line with the standards of the time AND gave away his fortune.

10 Brent Pittman March 28, 2012 at 7:14 pm

Great summary. I should like to read the full autobiography! thanks for the free book link.

11 JJ Oxman March 28, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Luke and Dane,

Don’t be too quick to judge factory work. It’s not the least bit clear that OSHA has helped anyone. Here is some sound thinking about “job safety:”

And, by the way, the Apple story was blown up here:

My questions for anyone who thinks the Chinese shouldn’t be forced to work in factories: what would you have them do? What do you think they were doing before the factories were built? Why do you think the Chinese are economically so far behind North Americans and Europe, Australia, and New Zealand (and many others)?

12 LukeS March 28, 2012 at 9:40 pm


Ah, so, by the mere fact that I’ve used a product, in any sense, at any time, that is even remotely related to Chinese manufacturing, I have to wholeheartedly endorse the labor practices of a dirtball of a man? Brilliant.

I suppose, by extension, because I drive a car that uses an oil-based product, or otherwise have plastic in my house, that I have to take tacitly endorse the BP oil spill?

And by your statement “man who did things that were in line with the standards of the time…” how does that even make it right? Are you saying that EVERY business operated in this manner? Are you saying that slavery was acceptable only because it was “in line”? Hey, let’s high five Pol Pot since ethnic cleansing was quite in fashion at the time in SE Asia! Oh, and BTW, your computer probably has a component manufactured in that general area of the world, so it looks like you definitely are all for the Khmer Rouge.

13 Nate March 28, 2012 at 10:33 pm

A defining mark of maturity is your response to criticism and insult thrown your way, warranted or not.
Just food for thought.

Brett and Kate–as always, great work.

14 Bryon March 28, 2012 at 10:54 pm

I’m not sure how the “boss your boss” philosophy would go over in today’s business world. There are many bosses today who feel their position in the company must be hostilely defended sometimes to the detriment of the very organization that provides them employment.

15 Brent March 28, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Great. But he was a ruthless man. None of us, including our children, would want to labor in a Carnegie company. It is a touchstone of American dogma that obscene wealth washes away all crimes.

Would the esteemed writers venture consistency to outline Hitler’s rise to power and the “manly” virtues to be gleaned thereof?

Somehow I doubt it.

16 Kade March 28, 2012 at 11:39 pm

You need to keep in mind the rest of that philosophy – “Boss your boss just as soon as you can; try it on early. There is nothing he will like so well if he is the right kind of boss; if he is not, he is not the man for you to remain with–leave him whenever you can, even at a present sacrifice, and find one capable of discerning genius.”

You’re certainly right that many will react with hostility toward that, however they are not the right kind of boss.

17 Kade March 28, 2012 at 11:45 pm


Carnegie may have been a ruthless businessman with questionable ethics, but I can’t imagine how you can compare him to Hitler. It was never Carnegie’s intention to take the lives of his workers, it was simply to do what he could to limit and reduce his business’s costs. Hitler’s goal was the annihilation of the Jewish people, and world domination through force. That being said – he did have some awesomely manly virtues – he was an amazing leader, a brilliant war strategist, and a exuberant public speaker (he however had one of the least manly mustaches of all time) – no one could deny those traits. Both men were certainly not “good men” but they were definitely “great men” in their own fashion.

18 Tony March 29, 2012 at 12:09 am

We can find good and bad with the entirety of Carnegie’s life but his advice on how to get ahead by taking initiative in spite of the strong scripting taught in school and the business environment to follow the rules and procedures is valuable. His advice will give anyone a distinct advantage over the timid employees currently working in today’s industries.

19 jaklumen March 29, 2012 at 12:28 am

I am puzzled by the drifts on Chinese labor and questions of Carnegie’s ethics.

I have learned that many great men of history have had deep and very human flaws, so I am not surprised Carnegie has some warts. But I do think the fine points mentioned are indeed laudable. I would also agree that while some of particular political persuasions would cheer on this message of “hustle and hard work”, they are nearly silent about The Gospel of Wealth. There are indeed too many stories of executives who show no honor, loyalty, nor compassion… they loot and plunder for themselves, and sometimes for their shareholders, with a total absence of consideration for their rank and file workers.

There are many fair comparisons of the Gilded Age to now… and I do hope that more powerful leaders of the modern-day Merchant’s Guild heed these messages, or risk the consequences history bore out, again.

20 Brent March 29, 2012 at 1:06 am


Your apologetic for Carnegie claiming that he only sought to “limit and reduce his business costs” shows again how fabulous wealth trumps all.

Had you or yours had to slave and then die in one of his temples to capitalism, your tune would be different.

What we so endearingly call the “Gilded Age” was nothing more than a Holocaust of the American worker. That we can so easily gloss it testifies to willful ignorance (everyone “needs” heroes, after all) and acceptance that it endures today as a common fact of life.

21 Brent March 29, 2012 at 1:20 am

There is, I think, an inherent problem with hero worship—that Cult of Great Men. These individuals are, a priori, Great. And so their actions on their way to their destined Greatness are left, if not unexamined, then simply ignored or even justified.

It is the Fuhrer principle enabled by ample Memory Hole.

And Humanity continues.

22 Brent March 29, 2012 at 2:10 am

Most “heroes” are there for us to project our own potential for virtue and shirk responsibility.

Hero Worship is then, necessarily, infant boys quaking before the Great Fathers and mewling for the teat of consensus—

Recoiling from that courage which makes us Men.

23 Brent March 29, 2012 at 2:51 am

If Carnegie had not been rich and powerful beyond imagination, his banalities would today be unknown along with those of the great mass of humanity.

But because he had “success”, on the cracked backs of thousands to partly control an economy of millions, we compliment his knack for stenography.

24 Peter March 29, 2012 at 8:23 am

It seems like everyone is getting off the point with this article. Yes Carnegie had poor working conditions, and yes many of the choices that he made were bad. On the other side of things, he clearly knew how to work hard, and how to rise to greatness. What he did once he achieved that greatness should be left up to the historians to debate. The fact of the matter is that Carnegie was a very hard worker. Even if a person does not follow what they preach, that does not mean that what they are preaching is wrong. Some of the worst people in history have had some of the greatest talents. Hitler was an incredible orator, and I respect his talent in that area. In no way, shape, or form does that mean that I condone or respect his political actions. Another example would be Henry Ford. He was an incredibly innovative businessman, but many of his ideas on Jewish people make no sense. We can easily apply this same principle to Carnegie.
There is something to be learned from all great men. To simply dismiss them because of a flaw in their character, is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

25 Brian March 29, 2012 at 10:24 am

I disagree. The best way to amass wealth is to get the governments to write laws in your favor, such as eliminating competition or giving favoritism to your company. See: Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Edison, the Bushes, pro sports leagues, the Federal Reserve.

26 Tony March 29, 2012 at 10:36 am

I bet J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller lobbied heavily for the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

27 K.Lollius March 29, 2012 at 11:27 am

Great Article, I myself am 13 and I learn Alot from this website. ^_^
Keep up the great work! :3
- K.Lollius

28 Chase Christy March 29, 2012 at 11:52 am

Men like this blow my mind.

Do you think our modern world is as hospitable of an environment as Carnegie’s for this type of rise to the top?

29 Jim McFarland March 29, 2012 at 12:11 pm

This is an absolutely fantastic discussion gentlemen, with points well-founded from many sides of the argument that need to be further fleshed out…

Brent, your prose are remarkable! “…mewling for the teat of consensus” was incredibly well-written, and hysterical! Your points about hero-worship and capitalistic mindset were well thought out, and well-argued.

Luke S and Dane M, excellent arguments and insights from both sides…Well-written and well supported through your excellent examples!

This is the type of discussion where we can ALL learn a lot…the challenge is keeping our emotions bridled, being reasonable and respectful to each other, and looking through a bigger lens that can honestly see that two opposing sides of anyone’s “story” can both be true simultaneously…

Yes, Carnegie was a ruthless, wealth-hungry Titan, and yes he provided a lot of good work and value for those of his time…yes, he put children to work, and yes, he was merely following the norms of the time…yes, there are those who use less-than-savory means to wealth now, and yes, they are absolutely still providing incredible value and well-being to many many others’ lives…

And if someone were to point to you on a bad day, and say “yep, see, he’s an asshole!” or to you on a great day, and say “yep, he’s the greatest man I’ve ever known!” which is “The Truth?” Well, neither and both. We always want to categorize, black and white it, or pigeonhole what we see…we want the solid, definitive ground to stand on, but the real truth is a lot more complex and gray than we wish it would be…

The challenge is this: do you have a big enough perspective to know that all of these views, and others not even mentioned, are only part of the full truth of Andrew Carnegie? And can you use what you learn from everyone here, even those you “know” are wrong, to be a better, brighter, wiser, more virtuous man yourself?

30 ohiofudu March 29, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Great Article Keep the Great men Article Coming.

31 LukeS March 29, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Brent: Exactly my thoughts – albeit with much more precise and better language. Kudos.

32 Bill March 29, 2012 at 3:52 pm

I think that “Boss your Bosses” can certainly be done today provided you have an intelligent boss. I have had some who were total control freaks and wouldn’t allow break without their consent. These would be the types that Carnegie advises to get away from.

The best bosses I have ever had have been very hands off manager types. They see the work being done well and don’t interfere.

Carnegie himself says that his best employees told him what to do because they knew better. What a great attitude.

33 Dane M. March 29, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Brent and Luke’s comments are truly some of the most poorly argued I have ever seen on this site.

Luke argues equates buying a product made with sweatshop labor, a product actually touched by the hand of exploited labor, with buying something plastic…and the BP oil spill. Sure, those are equivalent.

Brent argues that making workers work in conditions that were standard for the time is the same as the systematic killing of 6 million Jews! Truly sickening. Not to mention incredibly small-minded. What mature man resorts to “Reductio ad Hitlerum” to support his arguments.

Further, ‘If Carnegie had not been rich and powerful beyond imagination, his banalities would today be unknown along with those of the great mass of humanity.” is a real head scratchier.

-If John Glenn had never orbited the earth, people would not know anything about his life.
-If George Washington never was president, we wouldn’t know anything about his childhood…..

What does that prove exactly?

And since Thomas Jefferson made his fortune on the backs of his slaves (not even exploited workers–actual slaves!), we should not be able to say anything good about him?

I really do not understand such thinking.

34 Brett McKay March 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Ahem. I’d like to just stick my head in here for a minute to kindly ask folks to keep their comments in line with our comment policy, which means eliminating the sarcasm, snark, ad hominem insults, and general stabbiness. Some of the above comments–on both sides of the debate–do not meet our standards and had I been on top of things I would have deleted them earlier. But now there has been so much back and forth, they cannot be easily excised. But moving forward I will wield an iron fist in deleting comments that are not eminently calm and civil. Commenters are usual quite gentlemanly around these parts, so I am sure it can be done.

For my part, I am a big believer in the idea that you can extract the good lessons from almost any man’s life (short of someone who committed outright evil, ala Hitler), even when he wasn’t perfect (nobody was), while still being cognizant of the man’s faults, and that this ability is a sign of intelligence, maturity, and the ability of to view things with nuance, not the other way around. But we laid out this argument in the article below, and I will simply leave it at that:

Carry on.

35 Noah Shinabarger March 29, 2012 at 6:05 pm

Great Article! Carnegie was quite some man… thanks for another great post!

36 Paul March 29, 2012 at 10:11 pm

Great article as per usual

*onward to the Menaissance*

37 Brew March 29, 2012 at 10:43 pm

Late in my college years, I asked a highly successful uncle for career advice. His suggestion sounds like one of Carnegie’s: “Show up on time and do your work. When you’ve done it, find something else to do. This habit will put you ahead of 90% of the workforce.”

I bounced this suggestion off four more wise and successful men; each immediately agreed.

I’ve worked multiple blue- and white-collar jobs over the last several years. My numerous coworkers and supervisors in that time proved the 90% rule on hundreds of occasions.

Work like you appreciate the mere opportunity. Any supervisor with the sense of a rock will vault you to a position with more responsibility and more opportunity to prove your worth.

38 Rafeeq March 29, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Thanks for the upload. Very helpful and inspiring piece..not to mention I’m going to read the book now

39 Aaron March 30, 2012 at 12:30 am

When everyone sees something as good, that is evil. Without good there can be no evil. Without evil there can be no good. The idea here is to take the good that can be learned from a great man and apply it to your own life so that you may become a better man. Look at the negatives from great men — even evil men — and excise that from your own life so that you may become a better man.

Sure, Carnegie did not treat his employees the same as he would have liked to have been treated, but arguing about how terrible Carnegie was for all the harm he did is ignoring half the lesson that can be learned from him. Work hard, use initiative, be industrious, create wealth so you can enjoy life and be independent, BUT be generous with your time, be generous with your money, and, most importantly, follow the golden rule.

40 Bran March 30, 2012 at 1:38 am

I’m surprised people are discussing the deplorable conditions his employees had to work in, because, in reality it’s very possible he had to work in even worse conditions that had a higher risk of death.

41 Cody March 30, 2012 at 11:30 am

As a History teacher I am always torn on Carnegie. Where his methods to union busting and employee treatment unethical and deplorable? Yes. However, when you consider the raw amount of wealth that he gave away to improve the living conditions of those very workers. . . . . over 200 billion dollars in today’s money. It could be argued that Carnegie is the largest reason we made such a jump educationally. I live in Idaho and we have several Carnegie libraries still in use. Think of all those lives touched by books because of him.

Another thing to consider is that the United States was basically a third world country when Carnegie was a boy. By the time he died it had started to become a world power. Its almost like we needed men like him to push us onto the world stage.

42 jeff March 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm

“Why should a man’s death endow him with virtues he didn’t have in life?” Really does apply with Carnegie.

43 Claude March 30, 2012 at 2:39 pm

I don’t understand some of the negative comments about Carnagie. Its wrong to attempt to emulate the great things he did because he did some negative things? We can’t recognize his greatness, because he had flaws?

Would you say the same things about MLK Jr, or JFK or , hell, ANYONE in history? You can find dirt on anyone. What could be your motivation for doing so?

44 Brew March 31, 2012 at 1:19 am

A nod to Claude. You can admire some facet of a person without declaring him perfection incarnate.

45 Dan March 31, 2012 at 11:19 am

Stimulating article followed by interesting and innovative opinions. Thanks. To all of you I recommed Will Durants book “Hero’s of History”.

D. A.

46 Aaron April 3, 2012 at 12:46 pm

This is very motivating!

47 Lex April 3, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Most of the article here are top notch, but this is one of my favorites. His accomplishiments and flaws, there is much that can be learned from Carnigie’s life.

48 Diocletian April 5, 2012 at 12:09 am


Oh, really ?

Carnegie exercised the virtues of focused hard work, productive ambitiousness, thrift, and generosity, to name just a few essential ones.

Which virtues can YOU honestly claim, Jeff ?

49 Scott April 5, 2012 at 12:45 am

These men that are purported as “great” also thought the same of themselves and invented a pseudo science to support it. Eugenics is still a huge part of our global zeitgeist and is more dangerous than ever as it has been mainstreamed. i.e. most reality tv. I recomend Henry Makow as a more cutting edge exploration of culture and, as you say “manliness”

50 Dane S. April 6, 2012 at 6:15 pm

“…that it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

Now THAT is something worth remembering! This was quite a motivating read; can’t expect to have life given to you on a silver platter.

51 Mr. X April 8, 2012 at 7:23 am

Andrew Carnegie was a man of his time. It is all well and good to sermonize 19th century attitudes in the 21st century. The object of this article is to examine and celebrate his rising from abject poverty to a very wealthy man. That in itself is inspirational.

I seriously doubt that any any one of us reading AoM are perfect either, and when we are looked back on in the 22nd century, there will be plenty of armchair critics analyzing the the horrors of 21st century attitudes.

52 Zack April 16, 2012 at 2:20 am

Of all the Robber Barons, Carnegie was by far the worst in terms of manipulating the public, and in terms of manipulating those around him. That being said, he did a lot of good, and he wasn’t all bad. Without him, there would have been no American steel industry. The principles in this article were very good, and I enjoyed reading it. I would love to see another one that focused on John D. Rockefeller. He was by far the most savvy of the robber barons and for the most part, he was a very honest businessman and a good person. However, anytime you have a wealth of business knowledge the likes of Andrew Carnegie, you would be foolish not to listen to what he had to say.

53 Socrates April 16, 2012 at 12:13 pm

@Kade Comment 17

First of all both men were brutal, one was brutal for the sake of brutality, the other was for the sake of money and either one does not inspire, except that Carnegie does because we value the rags to riches myth central to American identity. As to Hitler other than being a raving lunatic whose ramblings about nationalism and strength came at a crucial moment in German and Global history (aftermath of the First World War, Hyperinflation, Great Depression, and a persistent political deadlock in Germany) so as to touch upon a sensitive nerve of a people that only 15 years prior were a Great Power.

Furthermore, nothing really about Hitler makes him great unless if you are referring to scale of his crimes, as he was a piss poor strategist (his determination and poor planning led to Stalingrad and the annihilation of the 6th Army). As for his leadership abilities they are questionable at best, without the his personal advisors he would have been nothing and already he did not have the best eye for them. He was nothing more than small man thinking he was a mastermind.

54 Zack April 17, 2012 at 1:54 am

Going back to the statements about cost cutting and labor practices, what could he have done better? There was little technology that aided in safety, the plants were dirty, hot and the equipment was dangerous. We also have to realize that these workers were free individuals who made a conscious decision that the wage they earned was worth the risk they took by working for Carnegie. If their opportunity cost was minimized by working in the factory versus other opportunities, why blame it on Carnegie when they didn’t have to be there? Carnegie paid a market price for labor, if the conditions were really that bad, they could go elsewhere. What I don’t like about Carnegie was that he was a pathological liar. The book Tycoons called him by far the most narcissistic of all the robber barons as well as the most dishonest. He often read “love letters” from his employees publicly claiming they came from random employees when he or people close to him had actually written them. It also has been said that his wife was the one who was behind his charity work, not him. He had no desire to do it according to family members and those around him. That being said, one can learn a lot from him. His problem wasn’t that he was a bad businessman, but rather that he was a pitiful man in how he conducted himself publicly. The book The Tycoons said that he was the worst kind of pathological liar, one who lied to himself and was so good at it, he actually believed lies he told himself.

55 Socrates April 17, 2012 at 9:40 am

I feel like the first bit of your reasoning is extremely problematic. First it assumes that there were better conditions to work in, and in that time period there really weren’t. Next you assume that safety provisions are only available through technology, well escape exits and doors that weren’t locked would have saved many people in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Also the multitude of strikes in this period shows that people were not happy with the conditions they worked in, they did not believe the wages were fair, as seen by strikes (note this has to be on a more case by case basis, but I still feel it offers a good insight to the general mood of the time). Strikes were also being brutally repressed (not all) by hired vigilantes and thugs. Really we can take your argument and apply it to say prostitutes they are free to chose their line of work, but to do so would be glossing over the whole host of reasons and situations that force many women against their will into that line of work. Or how about we just tell a drug addict to stop doing drugs? I mean they all have the same individual freedom like the worker’s to say no, but like the worker’s they can’t. Dr. Gabor Mate’s “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” can shed some light on drug addictions and how certain social policies will push them farther into addiction instead of stopping it. In the same way the policies of the 19th c. gave worker’s the option to either starve to death or work in appalling conditions were there is the constant threat of injury and death.

Returning to your point about technology, in the textile industry they would make small children run in between the machines collecting the cotton and fabric while the machines were running. This was extremely dangerous but it was cheaper than to stop the machines. At this point technology plays no role into this, it clearly illustrates the value these people place in making money and in another human life. And they view human life as cheap and easily replaceable. Also, you cannot really argue that they did not know any better since for 1800 years there was Christianity that at its core favoured the poor and all human life. Albeit, this was warped around from day one of passing it down.

56 Niklaus Bouzine December 25, 2012 at 9:23 pm

A totally captivating read. The path which I’ve chosen is to wait for orders, and that is what is holding me back according to Carnegie. Tomorrow at work I will no longer wait rather do everything I can do.

57 Manuel Berazaluce December 31, 2012 at 9:02 am

This is pure business and manliness wisdom. The action of not only waiting for orders but acting under given circumstances is now called “stepping up”, which is exactly what Carnegie meant.

He confirmed what I always thought: Following orders and doing everything for your boss will certainly give you stability and possibly a raise in your job. You´ll become so useful to your boss that you´ll become the last person that he wants to promote.

Great article.

58 don mario November 10, 2013 at 11:55 am

the thing about carnegie is he believed in the principle of going the extra mile, and doing more work than for what you are paid… if you want to advance.

so to work on the bottom rung and stay there -in his principle -you are basically doing the work you are paid for and nothing extra. i am not saying it is right but he obviously had a system, it’s not right to just paint him all black.

he also gave men opportunity to rise up through the ranks who were willing to do more work for than what they were paid. infact he shared his sucess philosophy with his workers and made something like 20 millionaires out of guys who worked for him. infact he commisioned napoleon hill to put his philosophy out there to the world and who knows how many millionaires have been made from his books as a result of that..

the guy knew that sucessful people need to help others rise up and he did just that, but he also knew that you can only help someone out who wants it. a man who is only willing to work the minimum wage and do just the work for that is going to get just that and i think that’s something we need to realise in the world today, in our mass minimum wage working culture.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter