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#137 P.T. Barnum
July 26th, 2020 | E137

What I learned from reading Barnum: An American Life by Robert Wilson. 


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[1:23] He is known today primarily for his connection to the circus, but that came only in the last quarter of his long life. Less well known is that he was also a best-selling author, an inspirational lecturer on temperance and on success in business, a real-estate developer, a builder, a banker, a state legislator, and the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. 

[1:54] In all endeavors he was a promoter and self-promotor without peer, a relentless advertiser and an unfailingly imaginative concoctor of events to draw the interest of potential patrons.  

[3:16] Through hard work, a lot of brass, and a genius for exploiting new technologies related to communication and transportation, he became world famous and wealthy beyond his dreams. 

[3:54] He led a rich, event-filled, exhilarating life, one indeed characterized by both struggles and triumphs. His life is well worth knowing.  

[5:36] Barnum’s was 16 when his father died, leaving his family with debts: Barnum remembered the family returning from the cemetery “to our desolate home, feeling that we were forsaken by the world, and that but little hope existed for us this side of the grave.”  

[6:22] He knew even then that he would only be happy working for himself

[7:56] Like most persons who engage in a business which they do not understand, we were unsuccessful in the enterprise. 

[8:16] He is running a lottery and learns something he will use later in his career: He began to develop his insight into the complicated nature of his customers, a realization that outwardly respectable people might have interests that were not entirely respectable.  

[11:06] The day he became a showman. He starts a newspaper, gets sued for libel, goes to jail, and organizes a parade on the day he is released: His ability to marshal not just his own paper but also the goodwill of others was a harbinger of things to come.  It was the first example of his flair for drawing attention to his beliefs, his enterprises, and himself.  

[13:48] Seemingly small but consequential details would never elude him. 

[14:15] His lottery business is outlawed by the state legislature. He is broke: He blamed himself for his situation, writing that “the old proverb, ‘Easy come, easy go,’ was too true in my case.” Still, he was confident in his ability to make money.  

[17:03] I fell into the occupation, and far beyond any of my predecessors on this continent, I have succeeded.  

[18:42] Up and Down, Down and Up: He struggled to find further success in the years that followed. Barnum would spend much of the five years after on the road with various acts. “I was thoroughly disgusted with the life of an itinerant showman.”  

[20:03]  Broke again at 31: Barnum later wrote, “I began to realize, seriously, that I was at the very bottom of fortune’s ladder, and that I had now arrived at an age when it was necessary to make one grand effort to raise myself above want.” 

[22:00] The clever way he is able to get the money to buy the American Museum: He decided to seek out the retired merchant who owned the building in which the museum was housed, with the quixotic goal of persuading him to buy the collection for him on credit, arguing that he would be a more reliable tenant than the struggling Scudder family (the current owners of the museum). This, against all odds, Barnum was able to do. 

[23:52] The customers he wanted and how he positioned his product: Barnum wanted to attract this rising middle class. They had more money and were more likely to spend it on wholesome activities, and with their higher rates of literacy, they were more susceptible to newspaper advertising.  

[28:05] How Barnum planned and publicized his show. The details and machinations are amazing. 

[35:47]  He doesn’t rest on his laurels. After becoming successful in America he decides to expand to Europe: The challenge was the new place itself, a place that had no notion of who P.T. Barnum was. Whether or not he would succeed in the land of his forebears would be a test for Barnum of his own worth, of how far he had come and how far he might yet go. 

[38:05]  Barnum told him that a person must “make thirty hours out of twenty-four or he would never get ahead.” 

[40:40] His drinking became a problem, so he quit: Making a resolution not to drink and then keeping it took both discipline and self-awareness and constituted another serious effort to turn his marriage and himself around. 

[42:54] We are all promoters. Estee Lauder was a promoter of beauty, Larry Ellison was a promoter of the efficiency gains of software and of winning, Henry Ford was a promoter of service, Claude Shannon was a promoter of following your own curiosity. Promoting is just sharing what you love.  

[43:55]  Barnum promoted wholesome, good, family fun and entertainment. He built a wonderful life for himself just off that very simple idea, that I am going to promote various forms of entertainment so people can enjoy their time. I think that is a very simple idea and if you take it to extremes like Barnum did you can build a life around that. 

[44:29] Barnum is never focused on the obvious. He is always focused on 2nd order effects.  

[47:49] Barnum’s house: Iranistan  

[48:23] Barnum goes bankrupt at 50!: When his projects relied on his instincts and experience as a showman, they tended to be successful. But when he was tempted by schemes in areas where he was less familiar, the results were uneven. I think this is a reminder of what Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett told us: Stay within your circle of competence.  

[50:26] Down and depressed: He added that he was “once more nearly at the bottom of the ladder.” He wrote that his “own constitution through the excitements of the last few months, has most seriously failed.” He was understandably if uncharacteristically, “in the depths.”  

[52:02]  I did it before. I’ll do it again: “I feel competent to earn an honest livelihood for myself and family.” He was, and had every right to be, proud of the things he had accomplished largely on his own, and that pride and the self-confidence that went with it were not likely to evaporate even in this moment of distress

[54:34] To give you an idea of how world famous Barnum was in his day: His autobiography sold over a million copies. That’s insane!  

[56:55]  Mark Twain began an after dinner habit of reading from Barnum’s autobiography. The book made an impression on Twain, encouraging him in the years ahead as he promoted himself as a public lecturer and writer

[59:27] Barnum competes with Bailey and his impressed: Barnum was impressed by how well the three younger men had turned the tables on him, using his own methods. “Foes worthy of my steel,” he called them. The aging showman realized he had finally met his match, and he concluded it would be wiser to join them than to compete with them. 


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