Productivity Hints from Booker T. Washington
When life gets hard, when things don’t go my way, when a project doesn’t quite work out the way I planned, or when I want to sleep but can’t—like right now—I think of thinkers and leaders from the past and I remind myself that things could be much, much worse.
Friedrich Hayek had to flee when the London School of Economics was moved to Cambridge during World War II (his friend and intellectual rival John Maynard Keynes apparently helped him find accommodations).
Ludwig von Mises was chased out of Europe by the Nazis.
The Apostle Paul was beaten, shipwrecked, stoned, imprisoned, and all sorts of horrible things.
Millions of people have lived as slaves.
One of those people was Booker T. Washington, who would have been 155 this month.
Washington’s Up From Slavery is one of most inspiring books I’ve ever read ($0 version here). It tells Washington’s story of going from slavery, poverty, and illiteracy to a position of intellectual and moral leadership in the United States and the world.
It includes an interesting chapter entitled “The Secret of Success in Public Speaking.” In it, Washington details the habits that made him a successful educator, public speaker, fundraiser, and leader. Principles of “effective leadership and action”—which is one of the key clauses in my institution’s Vision statement—are evident throughout. Here are a few highlights from a very rich chapter in a very rich book:
1. Do what you believe in, and believe in what you’re doing.
Here’s Washington: “I believe that one always does himself and his audience an injustice when he speaks merely for the sake of speaking. I do not believe that one should speak unless, deep down in his heart, he feels convinced that he has a message to deliver.”
Have you ever been in an audience where it was clear that the speaker wasn’t passionate about his subject matter? Bored speakers create bored audiences; if the speaker doesn’t care about what he or she is saying, why should the audience? Also, your time and energy are very scarce. Devote them only to tasks that deserve them.
2. “The number of people who stand ready to consume one’s time, to no purpose, is almost countless.”
In a series of entertaining examples Washington discusses some of his dealings with people who want to consume his time and attention with schemes for saving the world by closing all the national banks, for example, or by adopting a particular process for cultivation of a particular type of corn.
I’m sure we all have story upon story about how we have wasted others’ time or had our own time wasted. That such a thing would occur should not be surprising. Over time, however, we learn how to install the right filters that increase the signal-to-noise ratio in the information we receive.
3. Success involves inspiration, perspiration, and delegation.
Here’s Washington again: “I am often asked how it is possible for me to superintend the work at Tuskegee and at the same time be so much away from the school. In partial answer to this I would say that I think I have learned, in some degree at least, to disregard the old maxim which says, ‘Do not get others to do that which you can do yourself.’ My motto, on the other hand, is ‘Do not do that which others can do as well.’”
In short, Washington anticipated one of Timothy Ferriss’s most important principles by about 100 years. Washington writes that, at the time, “the organization is so thorough that the daily work of the school is not dependent upon the presence of any one individual.”
In the language of modern-day business books, by surrounding himself with trusted, talented people, and by integrating them into effective workflow processes, Booker T. Washington was able to leverage the talents of those around him and create value for himself, his organization, and his organization’s stakeholders.
4. Staying organized and on top of things.
His is a routine that might work for some people but not for others; the fact of the matter, though, is that he did what needed to be done. Washington also found dignity in his work. In this respect, it’s worth quoting him at length:
“As far as I can, I make it a rule to plan for each day’s work—not merely to go through with the same routine of daily duties, but to get rid of the routine work as early in the day as possible, and then to enter upon some new or advance work. I make it a rule to clear my desk every day, before leaving my office, of all correspondence and memoranda, so that on the morrow I can begin a new day of work. I make it a rule never to let my work drive me, but to so master it, and keep it in such complete control, and to keep so far ahead of it, that I will be the master instead of the servant. There is a physical and mental and spiritual enjoyment that comes from a consciousness of being the absolute master of one’s work, in all its details, that is very satisfactory and inspiring. My experience teaches me that, if one learns to follow this plan, he gets a freshness of body and vigour of mind out of work that goes a long way toward keeping him strong and healthy. I believe that when one can grow to the point where he loves his work, this gives him a kind of strength that is most valuable.”
Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery is an inspiring tour de force from an American hero. Among other things, it shows how someone who started with nothing—not even a right to his own person—was able to change the world. He still has much to teach us, and his lessons on productivity remain relevant even today.
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