Andrew Carnegie

“A sunny disposition is worth more than fortune.” – Andrew Carnegie

Lessons learnt: Wealth is there to be distributed, not hoarded. Being focused pays. Being kind pays.

Whilst reflecting on his life, Andrew Carnegie (in his autobiography) inspires his readers with an abundance of life-lessons. He describes how his family moved to the United States. He plainly describes how he took on responsibility early on in life. He isn’t boastful of the steel corporations he helps build. And in the end, he shows gratitude and ends up giving away almost his whole fortune. In his autobiography, Andrew Carnegie never gets too personal, but we can still learn a lot from his life.

Youth: Always learning, always working

As a kid, Carnegie already understood two big life lessons (lessons that many people never seem to grasp). The first was that you should work hard to start earning. As a deliverer of messages, he made it his job to learn everybody’s name. When moving up the (corporate) ladder he learned on the job, wasn’t afraid to ask for advice and grew to become one of the richest men in history. The second lesson is that he knew to learn when he was not working, reading books in the evening and keeping in good company. In his own words “There was scarcely a minute in which I couldn’t learn something or find out how much there was to learn and how little I knew.

When speaking about his upbringing I believe we get the best insight into the person who Carnegie was. Always a sunny disposition to life, he describes how he has benefited from having poor parents. His parents fulfilled all the roles a kid looks up to (nurse, cook, teacher, saint, exemplary, guide, friend). He shows great gratitude for their support and starts contributing to the family at a very young age. In later chapters, they are rarely mentioned, but it’s hard to imagine that they weren’t taken good care of.

Business: Keep your focus and listen to people

When Carnegie proved himself very resourceful and capable in his first few jobs he soon rose to high positions. First, he moved up the ladder in the railroad business and then switched to become a business owner in production (most famously steel). For me, he portraits that even in those early days an honest and kind person can always win from the cheating and deceiving kinds. When he speaks of his workers he is apt to name names and attribute positive traits to them. Even when in conflict with others he knows that first listening is more important than being heard.

One thing Carnegie is quoted for a lot is the following “Put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket! In the following sentences, he argues that this doesn’t mean you can’t pursue multiple goals, nor to miss opportunities because you weren’t looking beyond your own reach. He states that you should be fully committed and have single-minded focus on your core business to make it a success. Looking at what he did you can see that this is true, he became big by focussing on steel. In his free time however, he was very busy distributing his wealth, shortly engaged in politics and more generally used his power for the good.

Charity: Give it all away

His autobiography almost never mentions how much Carnegie has given away. In his lifetime Carnegie gave away more than 350 million dollars (giving away the remaining 30 million in his will). He used this money to build over 2,000 libraries, fund universities and promote world peace. One thing that is genius in the way he distributed his money is that he made sure the institutions he erected would stand for centuries to come. Municipalities were asked to maintain the libraries and each fund had very qualified boards.

In the essay, The Gospel of Wealth, Carnegie writes more about his giving philosophy. He states that it’s a disgrace for rich people to die rich. He argues that the capitalist system can work because smart rich people can best distribute that wealth back to the people. He uses the example of a library as something that can better society, but if that money would be evenly distributed would be lost to trifling matters (i.e. booze or other excesses). Carnegie states “In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves.”

“People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents.” – Andrew Carnegie

The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie is one of the best biographies that I have read to date. It reflects on a great career, has a human touch and is packed with timeless lessons. It may forget to go into depth about his personal feelings or fail to expose flaws in his character. These miscomings are however forgiven when you consider the amazing legacy Carnegie has left behind. Please take your time to read this book when convenient and in the meantime indulge in the lessons shared below.

Lessons: Timeless wisdoms (in alphabetical order)

  • (challenges) “Never go in where you couldn’t wade.
  • (conflicts) “The main root of trouble is ignorance, not hostility.
  • (friendship) “If we truly care for others we need not be anxious about their feelings for us. Like draws to like.
  • (hate) “We only hate those we do not know.
  • (heroes) “True heroes think not of reward.
  • (holiday) “It is when the merest trifles become the most serious events of life.
  • (honor) “Mr President, no man can dishonor me except myself. Honor wounds must be self-inflicted.
  • (humor) “Men of action should learn to laugh at and enjoy the small things, or they themselves may become small.”
  • (judges) “Only experience teaches the supreme force of gentleness.
  • (kindness) “Slight attentions or a kind word to the humble often bring back reward as great as it is unlooked for.
  • (negotiations) “When one party to a bargain becomes excited, the other should keep cool and patient.
  • (optimism) “A wise man is the confirmed optimist.”
  • (stocks) “Speculation is a parasite feeding upon values, creating none.
  • (teachers) “Of all professions, that of teaching is probably the most unfairly, yes, most meanly paid, though it should rank with the highest.
  • (thinking for others) “To perform the duties of this world well, troubling not about another, is the prime wisdom.” – Confucius
  • (wanting) “Our air castles are often within our grasp late in life, but then they charm not.