Friday, March 21, 2014

Andrew Carnegie, Struggle, and Failure

On spring break, I found a hardcover copy of Professor David Nasaw’s biography of Andrew Carnegie in a Boone, NC thrift shop for $1.  (Good books and good deals are two of my favorite things).  A New York Times book review is available here.

I only made it about 200 pages into the fascinating 801 page biography before returning to work.  I am currently on page 293, but already have some thoughts to share.

Before digging into this book, “failure” was one of the last words I would have associated with Andrew Carnegie.  Carnegie is well known as one of the “captains of industry” (in the steel business) and as an extremely generous philanthropist.  Even the word “struggle” is not a word I would have associated with Andrew Carnegie; from a distance, everything seemed to come easily for him.

But, like most of us, Carnegie experienced failure, and his life was marked by numerous struggles.

[More after the break] 

Andrew Carnegie was born poor in Dunfermline, Scotland and watched his father struggle (and fail, repeatedly) as a weaver.  Carnegie received relatively little formal education and started working fulltime at age 13 when his family moved to Pennsylvania.  

Carnegie became wealthy and powerful before he was thirty, through use of his quick mind and well-chosen connections. By age twenty-nine, however, Carnegie seemed “burned out”.  He took off for a year-long trip to Europe, and afterward he escaped to the countryside, New York City, and back to Europe often.

Like all businesses, Carnegie’s ventures were subject to booms and busts, and he probably lost more money than most make in a lifetime.  His companies dealt with labor issues, and Carnegie had to reinvent himself and his companies a number of times.  He went down the wrong path on some of the steel-making processes and on various investments.  He dealt with significant criticism in the press.

While Carnegie’s experienced some business difficulties, ultimately, he was extremely successful from a professional standpoint.   In many respects, he had a professional life to be envied.   

The rich and powerful, however, are not immune from personal struggles, and I do not envy Andrew Carnegie’s personal life.  His sister (Anne) died before her second birthday, and his brother Thomas died of pneumonia at age 43.  Andrew Carnegie’s father died relatively young as well.  Andrew Carnegie was self-conscious about his height (reported to be between 5-0 and 5-3) and rarely let himself be photographed standing next to someone.  Carnegie did not marry until after his fiftieth birthday.  At times, he was pathetically lovesick, and battled with insecurities often.

Andrew Carnegie is often seen as one of the most successful people of his time, but I think it is helpful for us (and our students) to remember that everyone deals with struggles and failure.

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