Words of Wisdom from the Greatest Showman on Earth

Thoughts True Yesterday and Today

The Greatest Showman on Earth and creator of the famous Barnum and Bailey Circus, P.T. Barnum, wrote The Art of Money Getting in 1880.  Considering his thoughts and a bit of connection to today’s world provides food for thought for entrepreneurs.

Choose Occupation Carefully
P.T. Barnum
Select an occupation suited to your interests.  Good parenting is noteworthy here. The expectation is often  for children to follow the footsteps of parents.  The thought is an admirable one if and only if the interests of the child naturally follow those of the parent. Thank goodness the world needs diversity and people have different likes and dislikes.  Daily life is drudgery for those who are unfortunate enough to have jobs in which they are not suited or interested.  The battle to excel in that occupation will be an uphill battle.

Choose the Correct Location

Some suggestions from the famed P.T. Barnum feel as if they are just common sense. He makes a point that once a person chooses a profession  the next crucial step is to select place from which to work.   Choose a place offering greatest potential for that line of work.  Modern-day examples prove this  true today.  Actors move to Los Angeles and New York to get their start.  Silicon Valley in California hosted the welcoming atmosphere for pioneers in technology.  To pan for gold, one must go to where the gold nuggets are in the stream.

Avoid Debt

Barnum stated that few things can bring a person down as fast and with a greater thud than debt.  Those words run true today.  Credit card companies bombard college students with cards for which they have no way to pay off should they charge them to their limits.   Life starts out in debt. Barnum’s exact words ring true and scary.  “Debt robs a man of his self-respect and makes him almost despise himself.”   He goes on to say that the person who is working to pay off food he has already eaten and clothes already worn out is “working for a dead horse.”  A farmer once told his son not to use credit for anything but manure because, as fertilizer for crops, it will pay him back via a bumper crop.  The author went on to say that land qualified as a good buy using credit.  Purchasing food and clothes using credit was a definitive no-no.  Broken promises about paying credit cards off today are what Barnum called living a falsehood. The circus business person talks about the creditor and debtor about how they awake in the morning.  The creditor has loaned money and of course interest grows on  that monThe Circus Clowney. He wakes up every morning a bit richer.  The debtor owes more and more because of interest and, therefore, wakes up poorer each day as the interest accrues against him. Money invested works for its owner and becomes a devoted servant.  Money owed is a terrible master and will own the person in debt.  Put it all in perspective in today’s world but look to philosophers of the past for an answer.  John Randolph once said to Congress that he had discovered the philosopher’s stone:  pay as one goes.

Be Persistent

Barnum makes note of some men who he describes as naturally lazy and not self-reliant and who thus are NOT on the “right” path.  He provides hope in saying that  perseverance is learnable. He invented a new word in his description of perseverance. That word is a formidable one, “go-aheaditiveness.”  It is a word that denotes taking action.  Do not let the horrors or blues presented by any situation take control.  Persevere to get the result.  Avoid thinking too long on any plan.  Make the best, educated choice of action and go ahead.  Make those intentions reality. Davy Crockett said at the Alamo:  “This thing remember, when I am dead:  Be sure you are right, then go ahead.” Show faith in yourself and do not lose determination. While  one hesitates, someone else with more bold intentions will take the lead.  Remember the adage of the glass being half full or half empty full? Some people borrow trouble as they look to the problems as insurmountable obstacles.  Be self-reliant.  Only through being so can one have true success.  Barnum notes the sadness of people who, due to financial troubles, commit suicide.  He says that he knew people who, through sincere perseverance overcame troubles far greater than those who gave up their lives to despair.  Think of the word “persevere” as being the synonym of “to succeed.”  The author warns the reader that reflection taking too long can lead to ruin.  Think of the people who want to build an online business, or be successful as a writer, but stay in research mode too long.  Do not let hesitation be the ruin of a great plan.

Do Tasks with All Your Might

Procrastination and lack of attention to details are the killers here. Get the job done even if doing so requires  working both early and late.    Never defer for a single minute what is doable now to inch towards a goal.  If something is worth doing at all, then do it well.  Some make a fortune because of the detail they show in their business endeavors.  The poorer neighbor is not so dedicated to the specifics.  Indispensable qualities for success include perseverance, energy, ambition, and industry.  All of these prerequisites for success tell a story of doing everything to succeed. Barnum notes that some people are not self-reliant and wait for something just to turn up.  His observation is that they often “turn up” in jail or the poor house.  He notes that there is enough money for all people in the world if everyone merely goes after their share with gusto.  Successful people must depend upon themselves for success.  An intriguing point made by Barnum has to do with a person totally understanding his or her business.  How many CEOs today do not understand every aspect of their business as they came in closer to the top than the bottom of the business?  No one has the right to succeed if they do not thoroughly know their business.  Know every aspect from the simplest task to the most complex.  Companies sometimes need  management trainees to work in every job in the company before promotion to a management position occurs.  Personal application and experience are the keys here.  Study your profession.  Study your company.  Study your job.  Here, is the paradox.  Be careful and yet bold.  Research your path but be bold about forward motion and put the research into immediate application. Exercise caution in planning but boldness in execution.  Far too many people plan forever and never fully execute.  Few falling into that group succeed.  Do not be all about caution.  Be cautious also of going totally bold without any plan or research as recklessness can lead to failure too.  The message is the successful person must have a careful mix of caution and boldness.  Avoid negative naysayers advises Barnum.  He warns that there is no such thing in the world as luck. His thought process is a straightforward one.  A person might happen upon a situation that appears as luck, but the benefits of that in most cases will be short-lived.  When a person adopts the right attitude and actions, success will happen.  If someone is bright but continually fails, there is a reason although possibly not clear.

Get the Best Tools

Perhaps the most compelling part of P.T. Barnum’s work was the section on tools.  By tools, the reader discovers that he is referring to human capital, living tools, employees.  Comments therein address business owners.  None of it is rocket science and quite logical but at the same time stimulating.  The advice is clear. The most valuable tool in a business is people.  As a business owner, invest in people in terms of building their work experiences and skills.  Their experiences become the gain of the  business owner.  Provide fair salaries and advances in salary to keep the best employees happy.  All of that is in-line with pretty much any current business book.  There is a departure in Barnum’s message though that can serve as entertaining fodder for conversation in today’s world.  The minute an employee demands more money thinking he or she is indispensable and irreplaceable, Barnum says to get rid of them immediately.  Now that is interesting!  He does, however, go on to say that he would try to keep people around with the most brains and experience.  The best employee is the one that works with his hands and head.  It is the worker willing to do the hard work with the hands and the smart work and planning with the brain who is the most valuable.  Such an employee grows in value year by year to the company owner.

Do Not Get Above Your Business

Fascinating would be a fitting description of what Barnum has to say here.  The thought is, his story could tell the true tale of many lottery jackpot winners today.  The money came through luck of some sort, and little is to show for it later.  He says that after a young person receives business training, he or she should have to start his or her own business or earn his way without benefit of someone giving them money to get them started. Be no mistake that Barnum believed that a young man would not succeed with borrowed money.  His explanation was clear.   He talks of the lad waiting for the elderly aunt to die to get seed money for a business.  Wealthy businessmen who did not inherit money say that it is the first thousand dollars that was the hardest to get.  Money would be useless without understanding the value of it by earning it.  He  makes the point  by speaking of  a boy, given  twenty thousand dollars to put him in business.   Barnum maintains that he would most likely lose the  money and not be successful.  He compares it to “easy come, easy go” lottery winnings.  With earning the money to start, Barnum says lessons in economy, self-denial, perseverance, and patience occur. Barnum showed true disdain for what he called those who are “waiting for dead men’s shoes” in terms of being expectant heirs verses making their own money through exercising virtuous habits. The “rags to riches” success stories of John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt present themselves as examples.  The advice on someone desiring wealth is to study the rules for becoming so and then go with confidence and independence towards that end. Interesting examples  give the comparison of two types of children with wealthy parents.  In one case, the offspring helped earn the money that made the patriarch rich. In passing the torch on to those children, they tend to invest their inheritance in the business, continue to work hard, and grow even wealthier.  Those who live with a silver spoon in their mouths but are never made to work for the riches of their family show a pattern.   They are less likely to use inheritance wisely and judiciously build the business left to them.   Amusing is the fact that P.T. Barnum wrote his book so long ago, and yet it seems so valid today.

Learn Something Useful

Barnum spoke to parent on this one.  Make sure your children enter an occupation or trade to which they aspire and show true interest.

Be Visionary, But Not Overly So

Barnum points out that some men are poor because they are overly visionary.  Such action could cause a person to jump from one idea or business to another, never completing a vision or path on one thought.  The author relates it to the adage of counting chicks before hatching of those chicks.

Be Wary of Scattered Powers

Pick one business, and stick with it until success occurs or until it proves an impossible attempt and is abandoned.  Diversification of business is not a theory espoused by Barnum.  He cites many fortunes lost by people having too many varied business irons in the fire at one time.  Some notably would argue the opposite viewpoint today.

Have a Work System

Surely organization was harder back in Barnum’s day, but he was a prominent proponent of such.  He warns of problems for the man without a place for everything and everything in its place. His rules are straightforward.  Follow a task to completion.  Avoid jumping from one task to another.  Being punctual is essential. With all that said, Barnum did say that common sense had needed using  to keep a happy medium.  After all, there are those who shop in July for Christmas presents but then can not find them by December.

Read the Newspaper

Barnum would never have dreamed of the myriad of ways to complete this task today!  It is almost old-timer now to see someone with a real newspaper versus listening to the news on an iPod or reading it on an electronic reading device.  He promoted the business man always reading the news to stay a part of his species.  He warned of the man and his business left out in the cold should this task be ignored.

Beware of Outside Operations

By outside operations, Barnum was referring to the things that could bring down a successful business person.   Wow, times do not change much on this one listening to the news.  He reminds the reader that all too often successful men sink to the ranks of the not so successful by influences of these outside operations.  What are they? Sometimes the successful person begins to believe that  he or she has the “Midas touch.”  Everything they touch will turn to gold.  They lose sight of what they know and understand and begin to invest in that which they do not understand.  ices enter the picture. Gambling is  an outside operation.  Barnum suggests making only moderate investments when it comes to areas where the investor is not himself an expert.

Always Secure Dollars

Here, Barnum speaks to the person who is successful and begins loaning out money  to family, friends, or strangers.  Unless the money loaned is of no consequence and  without a thought, his view is that the loan should always be secured.  It sounds as if  Barnum were  a bit of a banker-type himself! The results of money too easily borrowed are disastrous. The scenario presented by the author almost follows the Ponzi scheme of money investment prevalent in the news today.


Barnum could have written the text for an advertising firm on this one. In convincing text, he tells his readers to advertise their product and continue doing so.  His theory was that only with sustained advertising did the world become aware of a great product.  He quotes a French writer.  The reader of a newspaper does not see the advertisement on the first read of the paper.  On the second read, he sees the advertisement but does not read it.  On the third sighting of this ad, the reader reads it.  On the fourth read, the reader notices the price. He then speaks to his wife about the ad on the fifth read.  By the sixth sighting of the advertisement, the buyer is ready to buy.  The reader purchases after seeing the advertisement a seventh time.  Yes, that is a long-winded way Barnum had of telling the business person to stay the course on advertising. Presentation to the reader follows as  the “reap what one sows” thought.

Attract Customers in Unique Ways

The circus mogul talks of  a hatter in New York who once got his name out there by merely going to an auction and bidding on something. The name of his business was front and center when the bid winner name announced.    From there, the crowd knew the name of the hatter.  That is interesting and food for thought on just getting the name of a business out there in the marketplace for recognition.  Online social networking sites come to mind as modern-day examples.

Honor Thy Customer

Advice given by Barnum here is common sense-based but serves as a reminder.  The customer is first. Honor the rule of the customer always being correct if possible.  If not correct, they are at least in the cat-bird seat of being the person paying out versus receiving money for goods or services.

Be Charitable

The advice here is pure.  Misers are not rewarded in the end.  Help those who in turn are going to help themselves when chosing charitable causes.

Do Not Blab

Barnum reminds the reader that “loose tongues sink ships.”  He warns the business person about being too open about his hopes, expectations, aspirations, and plans.

Preserve Integrity

Of all of Barnum’s thoughts, this arguably is the most compelling.  The advice given in this last section serves witness to Barnum's overall thought process.   He states that integrity is the most valuable possession a person can own.  Cited is advice that a miser might give to his sons.  He might say to get money honestly if possible but at all cost to get money.  Barnum points out stupidity in such advice. He writes that dishonestly getting money is the most difficult thing in life.  Prisons are full then and now of men who attempted to follow that advice of the miser.  No man is dishonest without exposure as such eventually.   The public shuns those who they see as having no integrity. Honesty lies at the heart of all true success in life, financially and otherwise.  No substitute exists for personal integrity. Peace and joy belong to the man who achieved success honestly.  Barnum remembers and quotes the famous lines, “honesty is the best policy.”


In Summary

 A favored part of this last advice given by Barnum serves as a great summary of his piece, The Art of Money Getting.  He says that being rich is not equal to being successful.  There are poor, rich men.  There are men who have had less money in their lives than that squandered by some in a week.  Nevertheless, they are richer and happier than many with fat bank accounts. That said,  Barnum is telling the reader that money is a “handy thing to have in the house.”  It is hard to find the man who does not want wealth.  It is a universal desire. Accept responsibility for obtaining and using money wisely.  See it as a friend deserving of respect.

Commerce is the history of money-getting as presented by Barnum. Society is a benefactor of those who are successful at the art of obtaining money.  Society depends on  them for institutions of art and learning, colleges and universities, and all arts. There are money hoarders who want no more from money than what it can do for them personally.  Then there are others who use their art of money-getting for personal benefit and that of society.