By Ken Lizotte
Actuaries familiar with transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau likely know the author best for his influence on environmentalism, writing, travel, war and peace, politics and rebellion, philosophy and introspection.
His studies of nature, for example, without scientific equipment or modern technology, continue to serve as the underpinning for such annual events as the Walden Pond spring species census in Thoreau’s hometown of Concord, Mass. And his essay on civil disobedience has influenced millions through the century and a half since he wrote it, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Frank Serpico and anti-war protesters in the 1960s.
What you might not know about is Thoreau’s impact on business and entrepreneurialism. Thoreau and business? You might chuckle at the very idea of those two words in the same sentence. After all, Thoreau spent much of his adult live holding a “real job” only when he had to.
But in business too, Thoreau offers worthy lessons to entrepreneurs and innovators. Consider four such lessons below:
- When founding your business, envision what you want, and then go after it. In our era, companies are continually being told they must have a “vision” and/or mission statement. Often the path to such a vision/mission is traveled in a backward direction, trying too hard to be practical or reasonable rather than shooting for lofty or (to quote Jim Collins in his book Good to Great) “big hairy audacious goals.” They justify this by insisting that a “pie-in-the-sky” vision cannot be effectuated in the cold, dog-eat-dog world of business. Yet leading thinkers today disagree, instead following Thoreau’s dictum that “if you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be,” adding, “now put the foundations under them.”
- When confronted with a problem, research and brainstorm your way through it. Thoreau was acclimated to business at an early age, growing up as he did amid the family business, his father’s pencil factory. Of all his siblings, he spent the most time working in the factory and learning the ropes of a going concern. But at Harvard, he chiefly studied the classics and languages, like Greek, Latin and Italian. In the process of these studies, however, he also learned the more applicable skill of how to conduct effective research. So, after graduation from Harvard, he rejoined his family in Concord to dutifully carry out humdrum business functions unrelated to his Harvard degree. Pencil manufacturing at the time was rather competitive, given that many pencils lacked the sort of reliable quality we are accustomed to today. Drawing from his college research skills, he decided to return to Harvard for a week or so and engage in an “independent study” project to see if he could formulate a pencil “recipe” that would transform Thoreau pencils into a product everyone could love.
Through his research, he discovered that the solution, in fact, had already been found. Pencil factories in Europe regularly churned out high-quality pencils made of graphite and bound with clay,1 allowing for writing devoid of the skipping or messiness that characterized pencils produced in the U.S. As a result, this popular product was literally transformed, thanks to Thoreau’s willingness to research, brainstorm and think his way through a challenging business dilemma.
- Measure what you can ... by keeping records. Another widespread misconception of Thoreau is that his thinking was so anathema to materialism that the mere mention of bookkeeping would send him sauntering back into the woods. Yet when visitors to Walden Pond today pass by the replica of the cabin he built, they also pass by a plaque commemorating the painstaking accounting he made listing every single cost involved in this building project. To wit:
- Boards: $8.03 1/2, mostly shanty boards
- Refuse shingles for roof and sides: $4.00
- Laths: $1.25
- Two second-hand windows with glass: $2.43
- One thousand old brick: $4.00
- Two casts of lime: $2.40. That was high.
- Hair: $0.31. More than I needed.
- Mantle-tree iron: $0.15
- Nails: $3.90
- Hinges and screws: $0.14
- Latch: $0.10
- Chalk: $0.01
- Transportation: $1.40. I carried a good part on my back.
In all: $28.12 ½
Thoreau ends with this notation: “These are all the materials excepting the timber, stones and sand, which I claimed by squatter's right.”
- When running your business, do it your way—even at the cost of failure. The “Thoreau School” in Thoreau’s hometown of Concord, sometimes referred to as Concord Academy, was founded and managed in defiance of many of the standard education principles of the time. Rote memorization, for example, was out—as was corporal punishment. Instead, the brothers’ vision of their school was based in a humanistic philosophy of building character, fostering innovative thinking, and a love of lifelong learning.
For a few years, the Thoreau School thrived, though it ultimately ran out of steam. One might attribute the death knell of the school’s closing to its unorthodox approach, but if this indeed was the case, Thoreau apparently had no regrets. To force himself to upend his values just for the sake of profit would have left him unfulfilled. Yet more than 150 years later, his notions for running his business are now accepted as the norm. Thoreau’s message might, thus, be: Consider your own values, and have the courage to live them in your personal and also professional life.
Thoreau and the entrepreneurial spirit are far from at odds with each other. Putting Thoreau’s independently-arrived-at concepts under a microscope offers us a business perspective that can guide our own business lives to levels of success every bit as satisfying as his other pursuits. In business too, Thoreau’s legacy has endured.
Ken Lizotte, CMC, is president of the board of trustees at Thoreau Farm, the birthplace of Henry David Thoreau, as well as chief imaginative officer and founder of Emerson Consulting Group Inc. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 How the Thoreau Pencil Wrote, and Paid for, Walden. New England Historical Society, http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/thoreau-pencil-wrote-paid-walden/ (accessed April 12, 2019).