Gordon Dean was an American lawyer and prosecutor whose distinguished career was fairly typical for Washington types. He went to work for the Justice Department under President Franklin Roosevelt, and taught in the law schools at Duke University and the University of Southern California. He was appointed one of the original commissioners of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1949 by President Harry Truman, eventually becoming its chairman from 1950 to 1953. 

In short, he's hardly the usual suspect to offer entrepreneurs advice in 2012. Stick with me. 

When Dean died in a plane crash in 1958, it’s said that among his personal effects was an envelope with nine life lessons scribbled on the back. These lessons aren’t about the law, or atomic energy, or foreign relations. Rather, they represent wisdom that should be shared and used by people everywhere. 

These are his superb lessons:

  1. Never lose your capacity for enthusiasm.
  2. Never lose your capacity for indignation.
  3. Never judge people. Don’t type them too quickly. But in a pinch, never first assume that a man is bad; first assume that he is good and that, at worst, he is in the gray area between bad and good.
  4. Never be impressed by wealth alone or thrown by poverty.
  5. If you can’t be generous when it’s hard to be, you won’t be when it’s easy.
  6. The greatest builder of confidence is the ability to do something--almost anything--well.
  7. When confidence comes, then strive for humility; you aren’t as good as all that.
  8. The way to become truly useful is to seek the best that other brains have to offer. Use them to supplement your own, and be prepared to give credit to them when they have helped.
  9. The greatest tragedies in the world and personal events stem from misunderstandings. So communicate!

The reason I’m so impressed with Dean’s lessons is that--besides being written on an envelope--they apply across the board, to all ages in every profession. They are simple yet profound. 

Perhaps you remember Robert Fulghum’s runaway best seller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, which the author says reminds us that the most basic aspects of life bear its most important opportunities. Again, the life lessons contained in Fulghum’s book are not complicated. It is their simplicity that makes them universal. 

You may have noticed that I end every column with a moral--a life lesson of sorts. Some of those morals resulted from experiences that taught me I still have plenty to learn. We have all learned some lessons along the way, including plenty from the school of hard knocks.  

Mackay’s Moral: We are all students of life--pay attention and take notes!