Why You’ve Never Heard of Edwin Barnes (And Why You Need To!)

BarnesIn his book Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill tells the story of Barnes, who made up his mind that he was going to go into business working with Thomas Edison – whether Edison liked it or not.

Despite having no money and no relationship with Edison, Barnes hopped a freight train and managed to get an audience with the famous inventor.

Hill recounts that first meeting:

Mr. Edison said, “He stood there before me, looking like an ordinary tramp, but there was something in the expression of his face which conveyed the impression that he was determined to get what he had come after. I had learned, from years of experience with men, that when a man really desires a thing so deeply that he is willing to stake his entire future on a single turn of the wheel in order to get it, he is sure to win.”

Barnes had no money to begin with. He had but little education. He had no influence. But he did have initiative, faith, and the will to win. With these intangible forces he made himself the number one man with the greatest inventor who ever lived.”

It should be noted, it took Barnes five years of nonstop effort, hustle and tenacity to get his chance to finally work side-by-side with Edison.

Notes Hill:

Barnes did not say, “I will work there for a few months, and if I get no encouragement, I will quit and get a job somewhere else.” He did say, “I will start anywhere. I will do anything Edison tells me to do, but before I am through, I will be his associate.”

He did not say, “I will keep my eyes open for another opportunity, in case I fail to get what I want in the Edison organization.” He said, “There is but one thing in this world that I am determined to have, and that is a business association with Thomas A. Edison. I will burn all bridges behind me, and stake my entire future on my ability to get what I want.”

He left himself no possible way of retreat. He had to win or perish! That is all there is to the Barnes story of success!

That type of tenacity makes for a great success story, but let me ask you: How many people do you know (including yourself!) who are willing to work that hard and risk that much to achieve something?

I ask because I often struggle with it too. That ability to go all-in, to harness an inner drive and determination … why is it so elusive?

I discovered the answer hiding in a bowl of salsa.

Class Observations

I was sitting inside a Mexican restaurant the other night with some of my old college professors. We’ve stayed in touch off and on over the past 20 years, talking trash about our favorite sports teams over email and grabbing the occasional drink or lunch.

I asked one, who is now in his mid-50s, what’s changed most between today’s generation of students and my era of the mid-to-late 1990s.

“The biggest thing I see in today’s students is entitlement,” he said. “It’s like they arrive in my classroom and sit down with an attitude of, ‘I am entitled to an A in this course until you can prove otherwise.’”

This professor is one of my favorites – he’s a loudmouth who grew up in the no-nonsense neighborhoods of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the 1960s and 1970s.

“I tell them, ‘Actually, no, you are not entitled to anything in my class,’” he said, grabbing a chip and dipping it into a bowl of salsa. “‘In fact, you are starting with anF in this class until you prove otherwise!’”

True Story

I was spoiled as a child – just ask my older sisters! I embodied that spirit of entitlement in school and with my career until real life smacked me in the face.

I was 21 years old, living in Phoenix and working as a rookie reporter for The Arizona Republic. It was my first real job out of college, and I took my initial paycheck and blew what was supposed to be my rent money on a new SonyPlayStation.

When the end of the month came and bills were due, I called my mother back in Minnesota. Humiliated, I asked her to mail a check to the landlord to cover my overdue rent. For some reason, it clicked inside me: Hey, this is real life now. You have to grow up and be responsible. You’re not entitled to anything!

Entitlement Starts Early

As the parent of three young sons, I cannot state this with enough emotion: We will emasculate our kids if we swoop in and remove all risk from a situation.

We have to let our children – sons and daughters both – risk, fail and rise to try again. The same should be true for our employees, especially interns or young professionals.

Here’s why: How will a young boy, for example, know he has what it takes if you do it for him? How will a little girl know she’s the real deal if you repeatedly remove any obstacles in her path?

Worse, our kids, interns or young professionals will expect these rescues to occur on a regular basis. In short, they will become entitled.

No matter how hard or strange as it might feel for those of us given the “every kid gets a trophy” culture we’re now living in, we must not intervene like this. We must let our children and/or employees learn early on how to deal with both risk and failure.

For example, it drives me bonkers that in my seven-year-old son’s baseball league, there are no strikeouts. If a child can’t hit a pitched ball after several tries, the coach trots out with a batting tee and sets a ball on it. The child then hits the ball off a tee and runs to first. Also, teams aren’t allowed to keep score. There are no winners or losers.

Let me ask you: What incentive or inner hunger does my son have to improve his swing when he knows that, hey, even if he can’t hit the first 10 balls thrown to him, they’ll just tee up an easy one later on?

Imagine if we made our workplace environment like my son’s Little League – “Oh, that’s fine, John, you whiffed on the first ten copies of the new proposal. We’ll just write one up for you, and you can sign your name to it. Now let’s go get ice cream. Yay!”

It might seem like a small matter right now, but how a child or young professional learns to approach risk, failure and reward lasts a lifetime.

Chances are you’d never heard of Edwin Barnes, but his I believe his story of hunger, tenacity, focus and burning desire is the blueprint to success in businessand life.

And you can only get that type of tenacity if you’ve experienced the effort, risk and early rejections Barnes did for those five long years toiling inside Thomas Edison’s company.


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