Andrew Carnegie: The Road to Business Success…A Talk to Young Men

Why His 10 Tips from a 130-year-old Commencement Address Still Makes Sense Today


You’ve probably heard that Andrew Carnegie built hundreds of libraries all over the United States.  Some years ago, my wife was a librarian in one of Carnegie’s first branches.  In the back stacks where the public never gets to go, I found a book written by Carnegie and published by Doubleday in 1902.  It included a commencement address given to students of the Curry Commercial College on June 23, 1885.  His insights still apply today.  I’ve reread this speech dozens of times since then.  Here’s a link to the full text if you would like to read it.


Some context:  Carnegie started out broke, but ended up being the wealthiest man on the planet when he sold all of his steel works to form United States Steel.  His career began over a dart game that his uncle was playing in their basement with the superintendent of the telegraph office who asked where he might find a good “runner” to help deliver messages.  “Andy” came to mind. From the telegraph office, he moved to the railroads.  Then once he eventually established steel production, the railroads became his biggest customers.  Like anyone doing anything important, some people admire Carnegie while other despise him.


Since it is graduation season, I thought you might find Carnegie’s suggestions interesting, insightful and useful, either for yourself or a young graduate you might know.  I’ve grouped them into 10 categories and rewrote them more to the way we talk today.  I’ve also included a few quotes as call outs.


1.  Start at the bottom.


Part of Carnegie’s first job was sweeping out the telegraph office along with three other young colleagues, who also did well in their careers:  David McCargo (superintendent of the Alleghany Valley Railroad), Robert Pitcairn (superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad and brother of John Pitcairn who started Pittsburgh Plate Glass [PPG]) and Mr. Moreland, City Attorney.  When you start by occupying the most subordinate positions, you a more complete respect for the value of every job in the organization, plus it helps keep you humble.



2.  Aim high.


See yourself as a partner, even if it’s still several jobs away.  Why settle for a good job, when you could one day have the top job?



3.  Guard your reputation: Never drink too much.  Never speculate (make risky bets with your money for quick gains).  Never indorse (sign for
others with money you don’t own).


Carnegie described these as essential conditions of success, because all three were significant problems of this time—and continue to be today.  Drunkenness, drugs and other over indulgences make it almost impossible to be successful.  If you were going to drink, Carnegie suggested only at dinner and in moderation.


Wild gambling on stocks and other going for broke strategies made it difficult for someone to trust the person who does this.  They might be a millionaire one day, but broke the next.  Because credit is so important for many businesses, when it’s discovered that you speculate, banks and investors get nervous.  Successful businesses are built over time, not overnight.


With indorsements (similar to endorsements), Carnegie is talking about lending your name, as a friend, to support someone else or vouch for them.  His problem with this concept is that when you’re young and don’t have very much money, you’re basically using someone else’s name, reputation and money to make that indorsement, not your own.  You’re risking someone else’s credit, not your own.


4.  Attract positive attention as you climb the ladder of success.


Do something exceptional, beyond your department and job description.  Carnegie said, “Instead of the questions, ‘What must I do for my employers?’ substitute ‘What can I do?’”  When you hear someone saying something disadvantageous about your firm, stand up.  When you have a chance to express a new idea on how to operate more efficiently or generate more money, say it.  Even if you’re wrong, you’ll stand out and be thought of more than an employee who is here only to collect a paycheck.



5.  Boss your boss.


Not to be obnoxious or insubordinate, but because you are a leader, proving that you can think and operate effectively on your own.  If you think something “isn’t right” about a decision or plan, speak up and clearly lay out your case.  A great employee will always know more about their job than their boss.  If not, it’s time to start looking for another job and boss to go work for.


6.  Earn more than you spend. Save early.  Save often.


When you manage your money, save it and invest in sensible opportunities, you prove you have the self-discipline to be trusted with even greater responsibilities.  There’s plenty of money in the world.  What’s in question is how you will deal with that money—especially if someone lends you some.  By proving you know how to save, you define yourself as a more serious individual who is ready to move to the next step.



7.  Save because you want a better life, not because you want more money.


Don’t spend what you don’t have.  But don’t spend all of your money on saving.  There has to be a balance.  And the balance has to do with deciding what’s really important in your life and using the money that you’ve saved to help create that life.


8.  Be patient. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t climb the ladder as fast as you think you should.


There’s always plenty of room at the top.  You always have a chance, but not if you take a defeatist attitude and are always looking around to blame someone else.  When you work hard and focus on your ability, honesty, habits, associations, temper and disposition, these things are noticed by others.  If you’re passed up for a job, it’s not because you “never had a chance” but perhaps in the way you’ve applied—or not applied—these principles.


9.  Favorites and relatives are no match for someone with brains and talent who gets results.


Some people worry that the companies they are associated with have limited opportunities because the boss has favorites or there is a family member who gets preferential treatment.  Carnegie says this is nonsense.  Finding a talented person to lead a firm is way more important and valuable than the favorites or family members, and every business worth its salt thinks the same way.  Finding the right person to run the operations is a huge challenge.  When Carnegie eventually found Frick, his operations really started to get successful.


10.  Put all of your eggs in one basket…then watch that basket.


When your head and focus is all over the place, it’s difficult to be successful.  Instead of carrying too many baskets—and trying to watch all of them at once—Carnegie says that focusing is a lot better and leads to greater success because all of your energy is focused there.