6 Uncommon Lessons About Success and Happiness from Theodore Roosevelt

By Tom Meitner

June 2, 2014   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

The Internet is in love with Theodore Roosevelt. Whether it’s a photo of him riding a moose or admiring his impressive facial hair, millennials have put him up on a pedestal.

And yet, despite all of the admiration, few seem to really take to heart much of what Roosevelt had to say about the world – and about life.

Roosevelt lived a life worth admiring, it’s true – he read thousands of books, wrote a bunch of books himself, served in various levels of government (including, of course, the role of President of the United States), fought in wars, and nurtured a lifelong love of nature.

And that’s just a taste of what he accomplished.

But what lessons have we learned from him? If you look deeper into what he had to say during his life, you’d see a handful of valuable lessons that we can apply to our everyday lives.

Take Action

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

Whether you are dealing with the dreaded “Paradox of Choice”, or you struggle with just plain laziness, Theodore Roosevelt had one simple request: do something. Anything.

Searching for a career path? Pick one and take a shot. Want to date that “dream girl”? Approach her and say something. Want to get in shape? Find some form of fitness that looks interesting and get cracking.

It seemed few things in life bothered Roosevelt as much as laziness. He maximized his time and he expected you to do the same.

Why It’s Uncommon: We’ve built a shrine to busy-ness in today’s world. Nothing seems to please people more than saying that they’re too busy to do something. Any time you bring up a goal or pursuit, you’ll get a parade of peers eager to explain why they wish they had the time to do that.

Think you don’t have the time? In Roosevelt’s day, the typical day lasted 24 hours. As far as I know, days today still clock in at 24 hours. You have the same amount of time that he did – what are you going to do with yours?

Let Your Actions Speak for Themselves

“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”

One of Roosevelt’s most popular phrases, “Speak softly and carry a big stick” implies that you keep your trap shut while you focus on taking action.

In today’s social world, everyone is clamoring for likes and retweets. Nothing seems to make us feel better than posting a comment about how great you’re doing at something so that the world can appreciate you.

With Roosevelt, talking incessantly about your goals and your work was pointless. Instead of seeing how great you can sound, you ought to focus on looking good through actions. Nobody cares about that business idea of yours – they care about its execution.

Why It’s Uncommon: Few people subscribe to this attitude anymore. But the next time you get the urge to post on Facebook or tweet about what you’re going to do, think to yourself: “Would my time be better served actually doing the thing I’m talking about?”

Go Ahead and Fail
“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

Failure is frustrating. It’s exhausting. And it can irritate you to no end.

But that didn’t matter to Theodore Roosevelt. Instead, he felt the avoidance of failure was much worse. He also knew a valuable truth about life: you can’t have success without failure at some point.

Ask any successful entrepreneur about their past, and they’ll tell you all the businesses that didn’t take off, or the decisions they made that blew up in their face.

Or, on a more personal level, ask anyone with a successful marriage or happy relationship, and they’ll explain that they learned the most lessons from the failed relationships that came before that one – the nightmare dates or the mistakes that caused nasty breakups.

Why It’s Uncommon: As we raise kids today, we seem to be careful not to let them taste failure. When they trip and fall, we are right there to calm them down. If they play a sport and lose, we still want to hand them trophies so they feel they accomplished something.

However, the side effect of this is that they never taste failure – or learn from it. How do we get better if we don’t stop making mistakes? And how can we learn from mistakes if we don’t feel their sting?

Often, failure isn’t as bad as it looks. The worst case scenarios rarely play out. But if you want to fly, you need to jump out of the nest and give it a shot. Otherwise, you’re doomed to a life of averageness.

Be Polite to Others

“Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.”

Cutting others down has become an art form in today’s society. Stepping on others to make ourselves feel better is second nature to us.

But what Roosevelt knew was that any decent human being follows the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. That’s the kind of attitude that breeds peace and happiness among others.

Why It’s Uncommon: We live in a sheltered world today. Now, we can communicate with anyone from a distance. You can throw insults on a post or a blog’s comments section freely, without the inconvenience of watching the hurt in someone’s face or ducking a punch.

Insults are easy, and they give us a nice feeling of superiority inside. But that feeling is fleeting, and all it does is make other people feel like garbage. Work on building a more peaceful and polite existence, and you’ll see wonders both in your own attitude and the attitudes of others.

Earn Your Keep

“Big jobs usually go to the men who prove their ability to outgrow small ones.”

Another complain among millennials is that they want big-paying jobs with plenty of benefits handed to them out of college. Roosevelt scoffed at that idea.

If you don’t know how to handle a few hundred dollars, why should you be tasked with handling thousands? If you can’t manage to flip burgers responsibly, in what scenario should you be trusted with managing multi-million dollar clients?

Why It’s Uncommon: We continue to preach the idea that a college degree is the ticket to a prosperous life. But with mounting debts and a crowded professional market where nobody is willing to start small anymore, that dream is dead.

Instead, look to build a career by starting out in the proverbial mail room: take small gigs and knock them out of the park. Then, let your career gradually build while those around you notice how irreplaceable you really are.

Be Self-Sufficient

“The worst lesson that can be taught to a man is to rely upon others and to whine over his sufferings.”

That job isn’t handed to you. The dream girl doesn’t just fall in love with you while you sit in the corner. No gadget or pill gives you a healthy body while you sit on the couch.

Roosevelt always preached about the virtues of the “strenuous life”, and the best lesson from this is that your happiness and the quality of your life is in your hands. It’s your choice. It’s based on your decisions. You control your destiny, in a way.

Sure, things happen along the way. But more often than not, your unhappiness comes from the effects of your own decision-making and inaction.

The beauty of this is that you now have the control to become happier and more successful. But you have to take that chance and put in the work.

Why It’s Uncommon: If we’re handing out participation trophies and telling everyone that college degrees result in good jobs, why wouldn’t everyone expect to be handed success?

We’ve glorified success in this society so much that everyone only focuses on the “overnight” nature of success. It’s a romantic idea that simply doesn’t occur in real life. Overnight success only comes from work. Nobody hands you success and money over a good idea. They reward you for rolling up your sleeves and building something.

In short, Theodore Roosevelt believed that happiness and success is a product of your actions and effort. Take the time, be patient, and work hard – you’ll see the results you’ve always wanted.

But it’s up to you – nobody is going to give it to you.

Tom Meitner

Tom Meitner provides road maps and life hacks for the post-grad man every week in CuffLinked Magazine (http://cufflinkedmag.com). You can also follow him on Twitter (http://twitter.com/TomMeitner).

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