Monday, September 9, 2019

Further reflections on Theodore Roosevelt: why you should never become good at just one thing

I’ve become a little obsessed with Theodore Roosevelt, ever since I began reading Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (a biography of Roosevelt's younger years). As I explained in last week’s blog post about Roosevelt’s study habits, the book is great (it quite rightfully won Morris the Pulitzer). It’s full of anecdotes about how extremely well-versed Roosevelt was in a wide variety of fields, which I rather enjoy. For example this one (also quoted in last week’s blog post):

A few weeks ago, when the British Embassy’s new councillor, Sir Esmé Howard, mentioned a spell of diplomatic duty in Crete, Roosevelt immediately and learnedly began to discuss the archeological digs at Knossos. He then asked if Howard was by any chance descended from “Belted Will” of Border fame—quoting Scott on the subject, to the councillor’s mystification. The President is also capable of declaiming German poetry to Lutheran preachers, and comparing recently resuscitated Gaelic letters with Hopi Indian lyrics. He is recognized as the world authority on big American game mammals, and is an ornithologist of some note. Stooping to pick a speck of brown fluff off the White House lawn, he will murmur, “Very early for a fox sparrow!” Roosevelt is equally at home with experts in naval strategy, forestry, Greek drama, cowpunching, metaphysics, protective coloration, and football techniques.

Roosevelt was a true Renaissance man - by the time he died, he’d written over thirty books and hundreds of articles, about topics as far removed as ornithology and naval strategy. That’s unique, and for me inspiring to read about.

Don’t get me wrong, though: for all his obvious greatness, I certainly don’t think we should idolise Roosevelt blindly. There are plenty of things about his character and his ideas that don’t work for me. Despite the fact that he was strongly in favour of equal rights for women (including the right to vote), he believed a woman’s natural role was to bear children and run the family home. He glorified war and violent struggle. He was a cultural elitist who fervently believed in the superiority of the values and norms of his own group, and appears to have looked down on the cultures of ethnic minorities. The jury is out on whether these ‘shadow qualities’ of Roosevelt are representative of him in his later years - Morris, for one, appears to conclude that they are mostly characteristic of Roosevelt as a young man, and claims that he became much more appreciative of other cultures and ethnicities as time went on. But in The Rise, which deals with Roosevelt’s younger years, those shadow qualities are sometimes on full display, which occasionally makes for some unpleasant reading. The book is also hard to read: it’s the size of a phonebook and contains LONG passages about American politics in the 1890s which for me are just not that interesting. Every time I think that I’m going to give up on the book, however, I’ll come across a passage where I’m suddenly hooked again, where Roosevelt practically leaps of the page and inspires me. I’ve come to realize that those passages all deal with a single topic: Roosevelt’s attitude to work.

Two things stand out for me here. One: his extreme aptitude at time management, a topic I covered in my previous blog post on Roosevelt. He was extremely disciplined, and very, very skilled at making the most of his time. But that’s not all I find inspiring. A second aspect of Roosevelt's attitude to work which I find fascinating is this: he didn’t put all his eggs in one basket. He had a wide range of interests, and he simply refused to focus on only one. After he graduated from Harvard in 1880 (where he did a classic, broad liberal arts and sciences bachelor program) he went to Columbia to study law. And here’s where things get a little odd: despite the fact that his law studies kept him busy, and despite the fact that he was recently married and increasingly involved in local politics, he decided to write a book on naval history.
Yes, you read that right: naval history. A topic that has nothing whatsoever to do with law or politics. Is that a little crazy? Yes, it is. But it’s also kind of cool.        

The book was eventually published as The Naval War of 1812, and covers the naval strategies and technologies used in the war of 1812 between the U.S. and the U.K.. Like anything Roosevelt did, he worked on it with conviction and intensity. He really, really put in the hours. He read hundreds of books and used every free moment of his time to write it after he had done his research. Morris gives the following anecdote which illustrates to which extremes Roosevelt went to find the time to work on his book:

Owen Wister has left an anecdote of this period which reads like the opening scene of a Victorian drawing-room comedy. It is the pre-dinner hour; Theodore, standing on one leg at the bookcases in his New York house, is sketching a diagram for The Naval War of 1812. In rushes Alice [Roosevelt, Theodore's wife, RR], exclaiming in a plaintive drawl, “We’re dining out in twenty minutes, and Teddy’s drawing little ships!”

The hard work paid off, though. The book was published in 1882 and received gushing reviews from most critics.  It went through three print runs in a relatively short amount of time. University lecturers adopted it as a textbook in their courses. Morris even goes as far as to say that the book remained the defining work on the topic for over a hundred years.

I’m not saying we should emulate Roosevelt’s every move here. I’m certainly not recommending you work as hard as he did, especially if you’re recently married (as a culture, I think we’ve become a lot less forgiving of our spouses’ obsessions than poor Alice Roosevelt was, which means you might find yourself being handed divorce papers faster than you can say ‘naval strategies and technologies’ 🙂). Nevertheless, I do think there’s a lesson to be learned here. Roosevelt never ever allowed himself to be pigeonholed, and I find that admirable. He never settled on having just one or two identities - lawyer, politician, husband. Instead, he allowed himself to have a wide range of different identities. He was, during his time at Columbia, a law student, politician, husband AND a researcher and writer on naval history. That’s a strategy he never abandoned, which means that by the time he became president he had written so many books that they provided him with a steady stream of income (it appears he used his modest presidential salary mostly to fund lavish banquets for his guests). Roosevelt, then, was an early adopter of what productivity writer Tim Ferris calls diversifying your identity, a concept I wrote about in a blog post last year. Ferris describes this concept like this:

When you have money, it’s always smart to diversify your investments. That way if one of them goes south, you don’t lose everything. It’s also smart to diversify your identity, to invest your self-esteem and what you care about into a variety of different areas — business, social life, relationships, philanthropy, athletics — so that when one goes south, you’re not completely screwed over and emotionally wrecked.

Ferris claims that this is not only a more fulfilling way to live, but also a way to deal with the sheer unpredictability of the future. If you don’t put all your eggs in one basket, you’re not totally screwed if one of your baskets breaks. If you’re trying to be a concert pianist but don’t manage to do well, it will help you feel better about yourself if there are other areas of life in which you’re doing well. That strategy only works, however, if you identify with all of those efforts. I think that was always Roosevelt’s secret: he never thought of himself as only one thing. Even when he was president he was writing books and papers on topics that had nothing to do with politics, and if you can find the time to do it, there’s a lot of wisdom in that way of living, I think. The world is a rich and endlessly fascinating place, and there’s so much to explore. Roosevelt simply refused to stop exploring.

I find that inspiring - it gives me the conviction to keep doing that in my own life. I’ve always had many interests, and I’ve never really picked a single one to focus on. I’ve always felt a little guilty about that. Reading about Roosevelt’s life takes away some of that guilt, and makes me feel better about my choices. Why shouldn’t I be a University lecturer, an academic researcher, a musician, and author of a book and a blog about how to organise yourself? Why not wear all those different hats? I’ll probably never write a classic scholarly work on naval strategy, but I’ll certainly have a more rich and rewarding life than if I only focussed on one area of expertise. Which means that I will now stop writing this blog post and focus on some other areas of life that demand my attention. I’m just not sure which one to focus on first: learn how to play blues guitar like Joe Bonamassa, work on my French so I can become as fluent as Bradley Cooper, or continue with my Theodore Roosevelt reading project? Or how about this: why not take a break and go running, or even do nothing? Argh, how to choose! Theodore oh Theodore, however did you do it? 🙂

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