Man, through the ages, has sought two things which always seem a little bit out of his reach: one is the fountain of youth; the other, the secret of success. The first has spawned billion-dollar industries on health and beauty. The second has produced thousands of best selling books on how to achieve success.
The most popular of these success books is “Think and Grow Rich” written by Napoleon Hill. For 20 years, he searched for the secret of success by interviewing 500 successful people upon the prodding of Andrew Carnegie, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. Even after its publication almost four decades ago, thousands of people are still reading his book hoping to gain the wisdom that propels men to great wealth and achievement.
Many success books after, another success book is published, “The Book of Business Wisdom,” that provides a link to the lives and success secrets of more than fifty business legends in the US from the 18th to the 21st century. It contains 54 essays by leaders of commerce and industry such as Benjamin Franklin, a well-known newspaperman and printer in the 18th century; Andrew Carnegie, founder of Carnegie Steel Company which provided 25 percent of the US steel requirements in the 1900s; John B. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil Company which controlled 90 percent of the US oil refinery business in 1880; Harvey S. Firestone, maker of Firestone tire; Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the incandescent lamp; Henry Ford II, the man who inherited Ford Motor Company; Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., president of General Motors for 30 years; J. Paul Getty, the oil billionaire; Malcolm S. Forbes of Forbes Magazine; Lee Iacocca, savior of the bankrupt Chrysler Corp., Estee Lauder, founder of Lauder cosmetics, and Peter Lynch, the man who made millions in stock investing.
The essays are arranged according to eight categories: how to get ahead, character, leadership, management, selling and customer service, individuality, entrepreneurship and investing. Each essay is accompanied by a brief summary of the author’s life and career.
Words of Wisdom
The book contains lessons the authors have learned in their lifetimes and lots of words of wisdom. Who can argue with the undisputed success of these respected leaders of their time? However, if there is such a thing as surfeit of wisdom, this book does have too much wisdom to be digested in one sitting. One has to read the essays one at a time, with enough time in between to ponder and mull over the advice of these business greats.
The book also gives an intriguing glimpse of the minds of the authors. It provides an inkling of the mechanisms which the authors used to achieve their own successes. Each writer though has his own particular brand of advice.
For example, Andrew Carnegie, in his essay on “The Road to Business Success” emphasizes that a man who performs his work beyond the call of duty will rise rapidly in the world. On the other hand Thomas Edison, in his piece, “They Won’t Think,” believes that for a person to make the most of himself, he has to cultivate the habit of thinking.
Henry Ford II has his own formula in “Business: An Introduction” where he claims that a man can be an asset to a business if he is proficient in his field, is socially competent, can analyze well, is curious and has integrity. In “The Art of Individuality,” J. Paul Getty takes a different view and stated that the successful executive is not a conformist, except in all his adherence to his own ideals and beliefs.
John Rockefeller pursues the high road to success and notes in his “The American Business Man” that the fist step on the highest road to a large success is knowing where one fits an d is most effective in advancing the general interest.
Apparently, the authors went about achieving success in their respective unique ways. Some were geniuses, like Edison, some ere not, like Henry Ford II. Some had a head start with a lot of inherited wealth, like Malcolm Forbes; many started with barely nothing. Several were autocratic managers, like Estee Lauder; a few knew how to motivate people like Lee Iacocca. Some were men of great principle like Benjamin Franklin but others were considered very shrewd like Andrew Carnegie.
It seems that there are as many ways to success as there are authors in this book. With so many mechanisms for success being espoused, what really is the formula that would assure success?
Will to Succeed
Well, the secret to successfully reading this book is not only the essays but more importantly, to read the short biographies of the authors which are really more interesting.
There, one will learn that though the ways to achieve success are many, these men would not have been successful if they did not have the will to succeed. For many of them were born with handicaps (Edison was labeled as “retarded” as a young boy) and with limitations (for those who were born poor, no money; for those who were born rich, plagues with lavish spending habits). Yet, despite these obstacles to success, they managed to succeed.
From the biographies, one leans that Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was born of an Scottish immigrant family and worked as a telegraph operator at a railroad company for 12 years. He left the railroad to start a company making steel bridges. Later on, he branches out to steel production which became Carnegie Steel Company.
It is also interesting to note that Harvey Firestone (1868-1938) was a traveling medicine-extract salesman before he founded the Firestone Company. This company lost money in its first few years and almost closed. It started earning money when Henry Ford ordered 2,000 sets of tires which brought to the attention of the market Firestone tires’ excellent design.
One is surprised to find out that Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a poor student who failed math and, at the age of 12, had to work as an apprentice to his older brother, a printer. Leaving home, he went to Philadelphia where he started his own newspaper and printing shop.
Reading the biography of J. Paul Getty (1892-1976), one is astonished to know that he made his fist million in oil drilling at age 24. His father was an insurance lawyer who got caught up in the oil boom and followed in the footsteps of his father.
One appreciates how Lee Iacocca (1924), the some of Italian immigrants and product of the working-class neighborhood of Pennsylvania, rose to the top of Ford Motor Co. Fired from Ford in 1978, he accepted the presidency of the ailing Chrysler Corp. which he turned around in record time. His saga is told in his best selling book, “Talking Straight” which made his name a by word in American households.
One discovers that Peter Lynch (1944), who lost his father a a young age, caddied on weekends as a young boy to bring in extra money for his struggling family. Because of this, he got to attend Boston College on a scholarship awarded to caddies. While studying, he make his first stock investment, the profits from which funded his schooling at the famed Wharton School of Business. The rest is stock investing history.
“The Book of Business Wisdom” may indeed contain sound advice on how to succeed in business. But it is wise to read the various essays in the context of the period in which the essays were written. Although the editor, Peter Krass, says the essays were chosen based on their timelessness, the events of the period have affected the perspectives of the writers.
For example, Thomas Edison valued thinking power because innovation was important in that age of invention; Lee Iacocca preferred “plain and simple” talk because a tough management style worked in an atmosphere of corporate crisis; Peter Lynch placed importance on swift decision making even with incomplete information in a period when stock investments can make a person a millionaire or a beggar overnight.
The book provides a window of possibilities through the lives and words of the authors. More than merely business wisdom, it gives valuable insights on how to succeed in the more important business of life and perhaps, leave a mark on humankind for a brief moment in eternity.
The Book of Business Wisdom Edited
by Peter Krass, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.,
USA 1997, 489 pages
Author: Regina Galang Reyes. First published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer March 16, 1998.
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