Timeless Thoughts on Business by Henry Ford

I finished reading Henry Ford’s autobiography, written in 1922, free for Kindles and other e-readers. It’s better than most free books, and I quote a few favorite parts below about business and human nature that apply in his epoch and ours.

I noticed a tendency among many men in business to feel that their lot was hard–they worked against a day when they might retire and live on an income–get out of the strife. Life to them was a battle to be ended as soon as possible. That was another point I could not understand, for as I reasoned, life is not a battle except with our own tendency to sag with the downpull of “getting settled.” If to petrify is success all one has to do is to humour the lazy side of the mind but if to grow is success, then one must wake up anew every morning and keep awake all day.

I saw great businesses become but the ghost of a name because someone thought they could be managed just as they were always managed, and though the management may have been most excellent in its day, its excellence consisted in its alertness to its day, and not in slavish following of its yesterdays. Life, as I see it, is not a location, but a journey. Even the man who most feels himself “settled” is not settled–he is probably sagging back. Everything is in flux, and was meant to be. Life flows. We may live at the same number of the street, but it is never the same man who lives there.

And out of the delusion that life is a battle that may be lost by a false move grows, I have noticed, a great love for regularity. Men fall into the half-alive habit. Seldom does the cobbler take up with the new-fangled way of soling shoes, and seldom does the artisan willingly take up with new methods in his trade. Habit conduces to a certain inertia, and any disturbance of it affects the mind like trouble. It will be recalled that when a study was made of shop methods, so that the workmen might be taught to produce with less useless motion and fatigue, it was most opposed by the workmen themselves. Though they suspected that it was simply a game to get more out of them, what most irked them was that it interfered with the well-worn grooves in which they had become accustomed to move.

Business men go down with their businesses because they like the old way so well they cannot bring themselves to change. One sees them all about–men who do not know that yesterday is past, and who woke up this morning with their last year’s ideas. It could almost be written down as a formula that when a man begins to think that he has at last found his method he had better begin a most searching examination of himself to see whether some part of his brain has not gone to sleep. There is a subtle danger in a man thinking that he is “fixed” for life. It indicates that the next jolt of the wheel of progress is going to fling him off.

None of our men are “experts.” We have most unfortunately found it necessary to get rid of a man as soon as he thinks himself an expert–because no one ever considers himself expert if he really knows his job. A man who knows a job sees so much more to be done than he has done, that he is always pressing forward and never gives up an instant of thought to how good and how efficient he is. Thinking always ahead, thinking always of trying to do more, brings a state of mind in which nothing is impossible. The moment one gets into the “expert” state of mind a great number of things become impossible.

There is plenty of work to do. Business is merely work. Speculation in things already produced–that is not business. It is just more or less respectable graft. But it cannot be legislated out of existence. Laws can do very little. Law never does anything constructive. It can never be more than a policeman, and so it is a waste of time to look to our state capitals or to Washington to do that which law was not designed to do. As long as we look to legislation to cure poverty or to abolish special privilege we are going to see poverty spread and special privilege grow. We have had enough of looking to Washington and we have had enough of legislators–not so much, however, in this as in other countries–promising laws to do that which laws cannot do.

When you get a whole country–as did ours–thinking that Washington is a sort of heaven and behind its clouds dwell omniscience and omnipotence, you are educating that country into a dependent state of mind which augurs ill for the future. Our help does not come from Washington, but from ourselves; our help may, however, go to Washington as a sort of central distribution point where all our efforts are coordinated for the general good. We may help the Government; the Government cannot help us.

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