Career Hacks From Young George Washington

George Washington used career hacks to get ahead in his career and we can use the same timeless principles today. In this article, I will share four principles that young Washington followed as he built his career in colonial America, long before he achieved his worldwide reputation.

For years, I’ve been fascinated by the formative leaders of leaders and others who made their impact on the world. I remember reading a biography of Bill Clinton in the 1990s and being fascinated with Clinton’s early dedication to politics as a student and success at winning the Rhodes Scholarship. For Clinton and so many others, these early disciplines yielded results for decades to come.

When I discovered Ron Chernow’s outstanding biography of George Washington from Ryan Holiday‘s article 25 Recommendations For Life Changing Biographies For The Voracious Reader In You, I was excited to start reading about the man who became America’s first President. Today, I will focus on the success principles that Washington followed that set him up for success in the Revolutionary War and beyond. Unless otherwise noted, all examples are drawn from “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow.

Note: My approach in this article is inspired, in part, by James Clear‘s excellent article What Mozart and Kobe Bryant Can Teach Us About Deliberate Practice.

Portrait of George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale (Painted in 1772; Washington is 40 years old)
Portrait of George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale (Painted in 1772; Washington is 40 years old)

1. Measuring The Frontier: Washington’s First Career

After the Revolutionary War, everyone called him “General Washington.” Given his reputation in military affairs, I was surprised to learn that Washington did not start his career in the army, nor did he start out with an interest in politics.

Fourteen year old Washington nearly joined the Royal Navy. His mentor, Fairfax (more on him below) and his older brother Lawrence both encouraged him to join the navy as a midshipman. Several factors ended up sinking the dream of a naval career. Washington’s mother, Mary Washington, discouraged the plan because it would take Washington far away from their Virginia home. A knowledgable relative in England also noted that Royal Navy’s tendency to discriminate against colonials.

Instead of the armed forces, Washington found his first career in surveying. This profession suited his lifelong interest in the outdoors and his passion for precision. Even better, surveyors had two significant career advantages available to few others: the opportunity to earn immediate cash income (e.g. in 1747, he earned 3 pounds and two shillings, when he was fifteen years old – that’s £7,411 in 2013 terms or $11,100 US – according to Measuring Worth). Even better, surveying offered the chance the acquire significant real estate at low prices, a highly valuable asset in an agrarian economy.

Career Selection Hack

If the first career you choose does not work out, there’s no cause for alarm. Instead, keep looking for opportunities for a career that suits your interests (e.g. Washington’s interest in land and enthusiasm for mathematical precision). Once you find a career that interests you, look for all the opportunities it presents for advancement. For example, if your career gives you the opportunity to travel, take the time to maximize your loyalty programs for free travel.

2. Washington’s Powerful Friends: How And Why To Have The Right Connections

Growing up, Washington had his share of difficulties. His father died in 1743, when Washington was only eleven years old. In addition to the emotional blow, the Washingtons suffered a significant financial loss that worsened during his teenage years. In fact, Washington effectively had to end his formal education when he was a teenager, an experience that shaped him for the rest of his life. Given these challenges, Washington was fortunate to start his career as a surveyor.

Simply choosing a profitable career was not enough in 1700s Virginia. Washington needed friends in high places. Fortunately, he had the good fortune of meeting Baron Fairfax while surveying. Fairfax had the ability to give Washington rewarding work assignments:

These surveys were often plum assignments, for they covered small, easily measured parcels that could be surveyed in a single day. Choosing to work in crisp spring or autumn weather, George avoided the summertime, when thick foliage impeded the sight lines of surveyors… Within a year the busy young man shed his duties as surveyor of Culpeper County, most likely because he no longer needed the extra work (Chernow, pg 23)

In addition to the direct career benefits, Washington also benefited from his growing social network in other ways. For example, Washington quickly understood the attractive jobs would not simply fall into his lap. At age 20, Washington successfully lobbied for a military appointment and became Major Washington (a role that came with an annual income of £100: equivalent to £200,000 in 2013 terms [$330,000 US ]). Landing this role demanded on a combination of self-confidence and ambition. Yet, those demands would have come to naught if Washington had not developed relationships. Later, Washington continued to expand his network by joining a Masonic lodge, an affliation he would maintain to the end of his life.

Career Networking Hack

Developing your career through networking is a key tool in the modern professional’s career advancement toolkit. Powerful friends are undeniably helpful in building a successful career. Washington’s early success in landing the equivalent of a six figure job would not have happened without his relationships in the colonial government.

3. My Dear Sir: Washington Learns The Rules Of Society

“More than most, Washington’s biography is the story of a man constructing himself.” (Chernow, pg 13)

Washington’s early career spanned two worlds: the frontier and polite society. As a surveyor and soldier, Washington quickly became skilled at travelling through difficult conditions. In fact, we could learn a lot from his Stoic approach to physical discomfort. However, that is not our focus today.

As his career developed, Washington sought to learn the social graces. In colonial America, social interactions often followed a pattern and violating that pattern would mark one as an outsider. Washington learned these skills using a combination of approaches. First, he studied books on the subject such as The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. Second, he was careful to observe how others navigated the formal parties and other events that defined his era. In social interactions, Washington had a reserved style – he was the master of silence and rarely spoke in haste. In this way, Washington achieved significant social success by combining his knowledge of social skills and his reserved style.

Learn The Rules Of The Game

Whether you are seeking a military career, rising to the top of a Fortune 500 firm or another path, it is vital to understand the rules of the game. While the 21st century doesn’t value civility and etiquette in the same way as 1700s Virginia, that doesn’t mean there are no rules.

To discover the rules for the game you are playing, study successful people in two ways. You can read their books (especially biographies and autobiographies: Richard Branson’s “Losing My Virginity” is an excellent autobiography for entrepreneurs to read). You can also seek to meet them at events where they will give speeches or presentations. Take special care to study which rules successful people choose to follow and when they decide to push the envelope.

4. Washington’s Self Study Program: A Lifelong Pursuit

“Even amid the trip’s escapist pleasures, George had a conspicuous habit of improving himself, turning everything into an educational opportunity. He took copious notes on everything” (Chernow, pg. 25)

 Unlike John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, Washington did not enjoy the benefits of an advanced education. At times, he was frustrated by his lack of formal education (it didn’t help that some of his peers occasionally pointed out this fact). However, Washington devised a plan to improve his knowledge through extensive study.

Washington’s reading habits testify to his far reaching interests. He read ancient philosophy and history: Stoic philosophy (i.e. Seneca’s works), the works of Julius Caesar and the life of Alexander the Great were ongoing interests. From his letters, we can tell that he was deeply familiar with Shakespeare’s plays. In running Mount Vernon, Washington sought out the latest techniques and technologies in agriculture. As President, Washington read many newspapers even those that espoused sharply critical views. Above and beyond reading, Washington was a committed diarist who regularly observed everything around him. This constant study is a key reason he was able to shoulder the burdens of military and political leadership later in life.

Develop A Reading Program For Your Career

Regular reading is an important aspect of a professional development program. In addition to reading, there are many other training resources available to us. Effective reading for career advancement includes both topics in your field of interest (e.g. reading about software development, sales or project management) but also the big picture: biography, history, literature and philosophy. As your career grows into a leadership role, make sure keep an open mind for critical perspectives. As Washington would tell you, it is easy to become isolated in the halls of power.

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