Phineas Taylor Barnum (P.T. Barnum) once said, "A salary was not sufficient for me."

I love P.T. Barnum.  Yes, he was  bit of a scoundrel, a scalawag, and a con man.  But he also was prescient in his seminal and practical thinking about business.  Perhaps the first modern entrepreneur.

I was reminded of this watching Meet The Press back on January 10.  Host Chuck Todd, interviewing Donald Trump, recited a litany of unflattering comparisons sometimes used to describe The Donald, as he interrogated Trump.  The list included "Kim Kardashian, Biff (from Back to the Future), George Costanza, and P.T. Barnum."  Said Todd, "Any of those you consider a compliment?"  Trump's immediate response?  "P.T. Barnum."

Trump has a point.

P.T. Barnum wrote the most wonderful essay back in 1880 entitled The Art of Money Getting, or Golden Rules for Making Money.  In 20 very short chapters Barnum limns a remarkably useful philosophy of business that anticipates the cutting-edge business insights of now.  It is simply and clearly written, almost like a contemporary self-help book, full of aphoristic wisdom, as well as sound, day-to-day business advice.  The book deals with fundamental human well-being, as much as the amassing of wealth.  The roster of short chapters in this essay neatly sum up Barnum's thinking and advice.  They are:

  • Don't mistake your vocation
  • Select the right location
  • Avoid debt
  • Persevere
  • Whatever you do, do it with all your might
  • Depend upon your own personal exertions
  • Use the best tools
  • Don't get above your business
  • Learn something useful
  • Let hope predominate but be not too visionary 
  • Do not scatter your powers
  • Be systematic
  • Read the newspapers
  • Beware of "outside operations"
  • Don't endorse without security
  • Advertise your business
  • Be polite and kind to your customers
  • Be charitable
  • Don't blab
  • Preserve your integrity

It is impossible to go through all of Barnum's insights in a short essay like this, but here are a few that struck me as remarkably modern.  

  1. Barnum anticipated the current warnings of neurological science, which have pretty much disproved the efficacy of "multi-tasking" in the age of social media.  Barnum says, "When a man's undivided attention is centered on one object, his mind will constantly be suggesting improvement of value, which would escape him if his brain was occupied by a dozen different subjects at once."
  2. Barnum understood the dignity and the non-monetary value of autonomous creative enterprise, saying, "There are many rich poor men, while there are many others who have never possessed so much money as some rich persons squander in a week, but who are nevertheless really richer and happier than any man can ever be."
  3. He understood the value of through-branded culture and a servant's heart, a trope passionately espoused currently by exemplars like John Mackey, Danny Meyer, Bo Burlingham, Kip Tindell, Tony Hsieh, etc.  Barnum says, "Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business.  Large stores, gilt signs, flaming advertisements, will all prove unavailing if     you or your employees treat your patrons abruptly.  The truth is, the more kind and liberal a man is, the more generous will be the patronage bestowed on him."
  4. Barnum understood that creating something out of nothing is basically a commitment to the impossible.  He understood that achieving achieving the impossible is what entrepreneurs do. "If I shoot at the sun I may hit a star."
  5. He learned from failure.  He was undiscouraged by his several bankruptcies.  

I don't mean to wax hagiographic about Barnum.  He was a merry hoaxer.  A cheery fraudster.  A great and brilliant showman, not unlike Donald Trump.  Certainly a con man not unreminiscent of L. Frank Baum's Great and Mighty Oz, the man behind the curtain.

But he was also a truly great and passionate businessman, an unapologetic capitalist, saying, " getters are the benefactors of our race."  He was a courageous risk-taker---a Randian hero and an ur-entrepreneur. The Steve Jobs of the 19th century.

His little book The Art of Money Getting... is a wise compendium of practical moral philosophy and human life lessons, as well as a wonderful guide to creating a salubrious font of everyday business health.  He understood and celebrated business' ability to create meaning, as well as money.      

He commented, "Money is in some respects life's fire:  it is an excellent servant, but a terrible master."   Many thanks, P.T. Barnum.