While You’re Laboring, Others Will See Genius. Let ‘Em.

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Today, January 11, is Alexander Hamilton’s birthday.

Last year, I read Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life by Jeff Wilser. It was a Father’s Day gift from my son. Great gift – and I’m gonna’ tell you why.

Hamilton never wrote a guide to life – he was much too busy creating America (little things like the Treasury Department, the American banking system, The New York Post, the United States Coast Guard, and more things than any of us have time to discuss in one sitting), but – true to Wilser’s astute insights and wickedly funny approach to writing history – this could well be the way Hamilton would have done it.

Section I of the book deals with self-improvement, and it verifies that Alexander Hamilton was so much better at all the things he did than anyone else was, that the only person on this earth who could have improved Hamilton was … Hamilton himself. So, it’s fitting that Wilser starts with that.

Wilser quotes Hamilton: “Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this, when I have a subject in hand I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. I explore it in all its bearings. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort that I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.”

Of course, there’s the inescapable triviality that Hamilton really was a freakin’ genius! But if you pay attention to what he said about himself, you put stuff like that in perspective.

Are you getting better at what you do?

Pretty simple, isn’t it? I’ve run columns in which I challenged readers by asking, “Are you getting better at what you do?” Here are three examples of people who could answer that in the affirmative:

“And now they call me a genius?”

Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) was one of history’s legendary violinists, and although most of his life was in an era in which great musicians and orators weren’t recorded, Sarasate’s fame was widespread and his reputation preceded him. He was so masterful at what he did, so impossibly nimble while strikingly precise, that audiences swore he was either divinely or satanically gifted. He was a genius, many said. Saraste’s response? “For 37 years I practiced 14 hours a day, and now they call me a genius?” (Late in his life, recordings were made, one of which I heard at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, and we have them for posterity, happily.)

“I think I’m making progress.”

Pablo Casals (1876-1973) was one of the greatest cellists of all time, living a long and productive life of performing and recording. When he was 90, he was asked why he still practiced every day. His matter-of-fact answer was, “Because I think I’m making progress.” At 90!

“A guy that throws what he intends to throw”

Sandy Koufax was, for the last six years of his career, the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball ever to take the mound. Period. As an old Brooklyn Dodger fan, and then Sandy Koufax fan in Los Angeles, I won’t even listen to an argument that anyone else was greater – for two reasons: (1) No one was, and (2) That’s the end of discussion.

Why, though, did Koufax go from being less than mediocre in his first six years (he lost more games than he won) to the greatest ever? Koufax explained it himself, in his typically modest way, “I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it.” Notice that he called himself good, not great. Typically modest. What Koufax didn’t say but left for us to understand, was that he worked diligently sad endlessly on turning his talents (he was physically gifted) into blazingly sharp skills. It took an epiphany and a lot of work. But, as a result, when he said, five years after he retired, “A guy that throws what he intends to throw, that’s the definition of a good pitcher,” he had already proved it.

And a word from the hardest worker of them all

This business of working hard is nothing new. Thomas Edison used to say, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

Hamilton died in 1804 because he couldn’t keep his thoughts about Aaron Burr to himself – or his big mouth shut, for that matter – and was challenged by Burr to an honor duel. Guess who lost?

“The heights by great men reached and kept…”

Anyway, the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wasn’t born until 1807, never saw Hamilton’s blazing presence, so when he wrote his epic, immortal poem – “The Ladder of St. Augustine” in 1858 – which includes this verse – “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight. But they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.” – it was well more than a half century past Hamilton’s heyday.

Goes to show you: some truths are eternal. Sarasate, Casals, Longfellow, Edison, Koufax. And, of course, today’s birthday boy, Alexander Hamilton.

They’re all lessons in labor and thought labor and thought.

Others will consider you a genius.

Let ‘em.



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