A book that I recently read is The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles. It’s about the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Inspired by the book, I wrote Appreciating Our Modern World a while back. Now, I’d like to discuss the courage to reinvent yourself.
Vanderbilt was born in 1794. Transportation was a big problem back then (as described in my previous post). In the early 19th century, the main solution was steamboats. With their steam engines, steamboats were far superior to schooners that came before them. Vanderbilt quickly switched from schooners to steamboats when the technology became available.
Over the next few decades, Vanderbilt built his wealth through steamboat business. He eventually controlled the two most important lines: the California line (connecting the East Coast to California) and the Atlantic line (connecting the East Coast to Europe).
But then a new trend emerged in the mid 19th century: railroads.
With their speed and efficiency, railroads were becoming the main mode of transportation. It boosted the economy like never before because people and goods from distant places could now travel easily.
Vanderbilt was already sixty-nine years old when railroads were booming in 1863. He already had a successful steamboat business. He was wealthy. But he realized that railroads were the next big thing.
So what did he do? Was he being complacent and just did what he had been doing?
He had a strong reason to do so. Remember, he was already sixty-nine years old. Most people already retire at that age. That’s especially true in his case because life expectancy back then was just 40 years.
But he did the exact opposite: he decided to go all-in into the railroad business! Far from being complacent with his existing steamboat business, he sold his boats so that he could devote his resources to railroads. He was widely known as ‘Commodore’ because of his steamboat business, but he was willing to leave that world behind. He didn’t attach his identity to the ‘Commodore’ title. He sold his last boat in 1864.
I find this inspiring. It’s not easy to leave your comfort zone when you are successful. It’s not easy to change your identity. But Vanderbilt did it. He had the courage to reinvent himself even at the age of sixty-nine.
- Never be complacent. Don’t assume that what you have now is already the best. Keep yourself open to something new.
- Be willing to leave your comfort zone when the time comes.
- Be willing to change your identity if necessary.
I know these are easier said than done, but we should keep these lessons in mind. We should build the courage to reinvent ourselves.