“This is the story of seven men – a naturalist, a writer, a lover, a hunter, a ranchman, a soldier, and a politician – who merged at age forty-two to become the youngest President in history.”
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, book jacket
Chronic asthmatic since birth, taxidermist at age 9, published ornithologist at 19, published historian at 24, New York State Assemblyman at 24, rancher, cowboy and deputy sheriff at 26, federal Civil Service Commissioner at 30, New York Police Commissioner at 37, Assistant Secretary of the Navy at 39, founder and leader of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (the “Rough Riders”) at 40, Governor of New York at 40, Vice-President at 42, the youngest President of the United States at age 42, and prolific author of books on nature, politics, naval affairs, hunting and outdoor living and history throughout his life – reading about the early life of Theodore Roosevelt is probably the easiest way to develop an inferiority complex.
From the pages of Edmund Morris’s beautiful Pulitzer-winning masterpiece strides forth the towering, larger-than-life figure of a man who in just the short time allotted to him was able to redefine humanity’s standards of physical and mental accomplishment, and served as a visceral embodiment of the mind’s power to coax the body into performing feats of human effort that would leave most mortal men cowering. To poorly paraphrase Einstein, had we not been able to prove he actually existed, subsequent generations could scoff at our claims that such a person walked the face of the earth, lived, breathed and achieved his feats just a few lifetimes ago.
To think is to be alive
“Roosevelt’s range of reading is amazing. He seems to be echoing with all the thought of the time, he has receptivity to the pitch of genius… [he] has the most vigorous brain in a conspicuously responsible position in the world…”
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, prologue, 27
Indeed, a man widely known for consuming the equivalent of at least one book a day, Roosevelt’s ability to read and process information faster than the rest of his peers allowed him to remain a step ahead of everyone else, and armed him with a wider range of general and specific domain of knowledge which allowed him to pierce through the perpetual fog of ignorance and politically-inclined misinformation that always surrounds politics at the highest levels.
Moreover, it added to his intelligence, charisma and personal magnetism, which contributed directly to his informed views on nearly every facet of life that concerned Americans and international citizens. This helped him shape sound policy that lent him a popularity that no politician in the Western hemisphere has been able to match since.
Lessons learned, reading and writing extensively, having intellectual conversations with the eminent living, being careful and selective about the company you keep, being unafraid of displaying your intelligence and keeping a diary to help you discover yourself – every hour spent on these activities, even if late at night, can generate untraceable yet potentially powerful personal and professional returns down the road in your career.
Invest in shared experiences
“On winter evenings in Rock Creek Park, strollers may observe the President of the United States wading pale and naked into the ice-clogged stream, followed by shivering members of his Cabinet. Thumping noises in the White House library indicate that Roosevelt is being thrown around the room by a Japanese wrestler; a particularly seismic crash, which makes the entire mansion tremble, signifies that Secretary Taft has been forced to join in the fun.”
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,
prologue, page 23
How better to earn the respect and cooperation of people than to engage with them in physical activities that cut across social boundaries and the divisive influences of society? Of course, you don’t necessarily have to swim in an ice-cold river or be thrown around by a sumo wrestler, but you can certainly play sports, make music, drink or travel with friends and strangers – all of these activities cut across boundaries and help people connect with you, and one another, which enriches the cohesive value of the shared experience for everyone long after it has occurred.
This in turn provides opportunities for you to establish yourself as a team player and leader of men, and encourages your followers to guard your best interests and remain loyal to you. In everything that he did, Roosevelt sought to involve his friends and colleagues as part of the experience, both as teachers and learners – whether it was scaling the Matterhorn, or Mont Blanc with his friends and wife, leading hunting and exploration missions to Africa or the Brazilian rainforest, or personally leading the Rough Riders volunteer cavalry unit in frontline heavy assaults against entrenched Spanish positions in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. His irrepressible inability to allow the divisions of society to colour his relationships with others made him a beloved figure to rural ranch hands, backwater bayou-hunters, Ivy League college boys and Boston doyens alike.
Travel, experience, find yourself
“Recrossing the Atlantic in late October, Teddie turned fifteen. … He had been exposed to much of the world’s art and architecture, become conversant in two foreign languages, and felt as much at home in Arab bazaars as at a German kaffeeklatsch, or on the shaven lawns of an English estate.”
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, page 47
If there’s anything in common between genuine leaders across the ages, it’s their unabated appetite for travel. Travel pushes out the horizons of the mind, enriches one’s worldview and ensures that the staggering diversity of human and non-human life on this planet is thrown into high relief. It’s safe to say that the themes of travel, “the strenuous life” of physical exertion and rich intellectual immersion that dominated Theodore Roosevelt’s life were strongly interconnected and fed and nourished each other, in turn plumbing and fleshing out the depth of a character whose legacy remains unsurpassed even today.
The more travel conducted earlier, the better, but it’s never too late to start. Travelling helps break the grip that unspoken beliefs, conventions and assumptions unique to your place of origin or residence can exert on the mind, often without your knowledge. As Baltasar Gracian noted, it is important to “avoid the defects of your country”, namely embodying the worst aspects of the stereotype that your country and countrymen command in the minds of people you’ve never met. Travel will almost certainly help you in that goal by exposing you to the power of unique, nuanced and often undocumented perspectives about the way people view you and what you represent to them.
All in all this book makes for non-stop exhilarating reading, taking its readers on a joy-ride of unwavering, upward ambition and establishing that nothing less than pure determination is needed to make one’s mark in the world. Men and women who aspire be thermostats and not thermometers of world activity should begin reading this book and follow it up with the two other books that make up the trilogy of the Theodore Roosevelt experience.