Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810 – 1891) was a consummate showman above all else, a commercial powerhouse. He lives in history for launching Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1871, a roaring success until 2017. He also founded a landmark museum and was widely known as a politician, including mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, public speaker and philanthropist. His life was a shooting star. A rocket ride.
His 1880 book, “The Art of Money-Getting,” featured many memorable quotes which I proudly resurrect and comment on today. Here are my favorites.
“The noblest art is that of making others happy.”
Agree, PT, what could possibly be better? There are endless ways to accomplish this—fine arts high among them—but how many of us can look candidly in the mirror each morning and say, ‘yeah, that’s me’? Whether it’s making great deli sandwiches, designing green buildings, selling peanuts at a ball game, or nearly limitless other endeavors, let’s just all go for it. What better tribute to any of us when we reach the end of our lives?
“There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Based on my personal experience, this one is pretty much on the mark. I will confess right here to having tested this proposition with ‘field research’ if you will. Now, I’m a sociable social psychologist by training and love meeting new people. Sometimes, I will launch into a ridiculous story about my fairly successful career in the bank robbing business. If any customers or tellers were killed when we blew up a vault, my man Tony would always place a single red rose on the chests of the fallen… just to be polite. Ultimately we were apprehended and sent to prison. I was a model prisoner, working my way up through the garment shop to maintenance supervisor and eventually (heavens to Betsy, PT!) warden. From there I pardoned myself after a congratulatory call from the governor and went back to the straight and narrow.
About 80% of my listeners sit there in awe, with an occasional “seriously?” or “wow” tossed in. Eventually I fess up to the baloney factor of this autobiographical nonsense and they usually say something like they knew there was something fishy there. Sure you did!
The same result usually accompanies my other preposterous tales. But the prison yarn remains my go-to malarkey.
“Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung.”
Indeed. Who doesn’t love a clown, a great comedian (hello Robin Williams! Kate McKenna!), or just a good laugh with the gang.
“There is no greater picture than that of 10,000 smiling children. No brighter music than their clear-ringing laughter. That I, with my small amusements, have created such precious art is my life’s proudest achievement.” … “To me there is no picture so beautiful as smiling, bright-eyed, happy children; no music so sweet as their clear and ringing laughter.”
Right on, Phineas. I love kids, with two and three year olds my perennial favorite. Taking a bunch of them to lunch is a blast, assuming I have at least one other adult helper. The messier they get the better. Each time they laugh or talk with their mouth full I am paid back tenfold for the price of the meal. I can just hear my darling Jane saying “Oh how cute!” from the heavens. If a playground full of little kids scampering about doesn’t cheer you up, you may have a genetic impairment. Or maybe your socks are wet.
“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
Sorry, PT, I flatly disagree. While that may well have been mostly true 140 years ago, and where on earth did the time go, bad publicity today travels around the world in multiple media in literally seconds. True or false or somewhere in between, it doesn’t matter and fact checkers are nearly as rare as hens’ teeth, to borrow a metaphor ole Phineas might appreciate. Reputations can be ripped to ribbons torn from Scarlett O’Hara’s flowery hat on Tara’s porch. Most Americans retreat to their right and left wing media corners and there usually ain’t no referee.
“Money is in some respects life’s fire: it is a very excellent servant, but a terrible master. The desire for wealth is nearly universal, and none can say it is not laudable, provided the possessor of it accepts its responsibilities, and uses it as a friend to humanity.”
I’m all in on this one. Said better than I probably ever could. For far too many people, enough is never enough. Got to have that third summer home. A bigger place in the Hamptons. Give the largesse to charity instead? Ah nuts. Maybe surprise my sixteen year old with a Jaguar. Let her mom pick the color even!
“Whatever you do, do it with all your might. Work at it, early and late, in season and out of season, not leaving a stone unturned, and never deferring for a single hour that which can be done just as well now.”
Amen, brother Phineas. I have tried, albeit with mixed success, to follow this beacon for most of my life. In the University of Chicago’s graduate programs it was do it or they’ll sweep up the pieces and mail them to your parents (collect). In corporate America it was no less true. Want to avoid being laid off and indeed prosper? Simple. Work your butt off every single day. James Patterson and Matt Eversmann’s gangbuster “Walk In My Combat Boots” (Little, Brown 2021) reiterates this theme in blazing and often painful color.
“Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business.”
Agree, again. Would that it was more universally true. While we do have the Bill Gates’s and Warren Buffets of the world along with tens of millions of lesser known charitable people, we also have plenty of scammers and crooks, and indifferent if not overtly rude salespeople and servers, cops and a certain pillow manufacturer.
“Every man’s occupation should be beneficial to his fellow-man as well as profitable to himself. All else is vanity and folly.”
Oh how I agree. Especially having recently devoured Sheelah Kolhatkar’s blistering account of cutthroat, take no prisoners insider trading on Wall Street, “Black Edge.” This is the primer for learning to distrust hedge fund traders, even if very few Americans have much of an idea what they actually do. I will hazard a hunch that most Americans consider those who work themselves nearly to death on Wall Street while neglecting their wives and children are on a par with shady used car salesmen. On a good day.
OK, Mr. Barnum, I’m off to the circus. Do you have any room for someone who guesses people’s ages and weights? An old guy who can sell programs? How about an extra clown, an arthritic one who gimps along slowly with a smile for all? Hooray! Sign me up