What the 1850s
Can Teach You
About Being an
Entrepreneur Today

What the 1850s Can Teach You About Being an Entrepreneur Today

5 years ago · 5 min read

Think back to your high school English class. Do you remember the Transcendentalists? Thoreau, Emerson, Louisa May Alcott—these New Englanders gave us classic literature like Little Women and Walden, advocated for the abolition of slavery, and explored unusual and progressive (for the time) lifestyles like vegetarianism and utopianism.

They also, it turns out, gave many of us our very first lessons in entrepreneurship—even if we didn’t quite realize it at the time. This is the premise for a new book I’ve been loving, called The Self-Reliant Entrepreneur: 366 Daily Meditations to Feed Your Soul and Grow Your Business by John Jantsch.

Jantsch, a 30-year veteran of the entrepreneurial world and best-selling author of Duct Tape Marketing, has written this book as a kind of daily devotional. Each day offers a quote from one of the great authors of this period in American literature, along with a reflection from Jantsch inspired by his own business journey and a challenge-question to spur the reader’s own reflective process.

I’ve been reading Jantsch’s book daily, and what has struck me the most is how relevant and timely these 170-year-old quotes still are today.

After reading, I intentionally take a few minutes to sit with the ideas Jantsch poses and think about the challenge question—and I invariably come away with a new perspective, clearer purpose, or more thoughtful take on whatever issue I may be thinking through.

Self-reliance: as relevant today as it was in 1850

The title for Jantsch’s book comes from Emerson’s famous essay “Self-Reliance.”

This is the Transcendentalist essay you might remember from high school—it’s required reading in many American lit classes.

The essay reads like a series of maxims:

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”

“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”

In other words, in “Self-Reliance,” Emerson lays out the vital importance of trusting in one’s deeper purpose, following one’s own convictions, and embracing the abilities and strengths that make each of us unique.

Coincidentally, these are all crucial characteristics of being a successful entrepreneur.

Building a brand purpose

So how is this book making readers better entrepreneurs? Why should we read a book of reflections by 19th-century writers?

Because being a great entrepreneur requires an incredible amount of self-knowledge, self-awareness, and a sense of purpose.

Succeeding as a business owner requires pushing yourself past your limits, being resilient in the face of failure, and always being ready to evolve your mindset as you learn new things. (Everything, in short, that was so important to this particular group of writers at this particular moment in American literature.)

Without this self-knowledge and personal sense of purpose, there’s no way entrepreneurs can create an authentic brand purpose. As Jantsch says himself, “Perhaps the simplest theme of this entire work is— build a better you and you’ll build a better business. I think that’s the most authentic way possible to develop a true brand purpose.”

Timeless, yet still timely

Something Jantsch mentions that I also find fascinating is that the state of the country in 1850 bears certain similarities to the state of our country today (thankfully without the threat of a civil war!).

In the 1850s, the country was deeply divided on the issue of slavery, not to mention the cultural divides that existed between the rich and poor and Northern and Southern states.

As Jantsch says, “The writings and teachings from this era were an attempt to encourage massive social reform that could only begin with individuals who believed in themselves enough to make choices and decisions that were right for them.”

Today, our country is again deeply divided, both culturally and politically.

And while the quotes and ideas expressed in the daily meditations are certainly timeless, because they are truly concerned with the human condition and how we create a better self and a better world, they’re also particularly timely for the challenges of our current conditions.

There’s a reason that Thoreau, the Alcotts, Emerson, Walt Whitman, and the other brilliant authors included in this book are still being read today. They have powerful lessons to teach us about how to live lives that are true to ourselves, while creating work that matters and makes a difference—and that, in essence, is precisely what it means to be an entrepreneur.