Business & Leadership

Roughing It: Empathize with an American Icon

In this historical autobiography about his hunt for fame and fortune, Mark Twain reminds today’s and tomorrow’s leaders to stay inspired by learning from their mistakes, and to maintain enthusiasm for other intrepid entrepreneurs facing obstacles and doubt.

In this historical autobiography about his hunt for fame and fortune, Mark Twain reminds today’s and tomorrow’s leaders to stay inspired by learning from their mistakes, and to maintain enthusiasm for other intrepid entrepreneurs facing obstacles and doubt.


Much can be learned from a book of good humor, especially when personal examples of failure and success and the striving in between result in a meaningful connection. In such a case, the reader shares in the characters’ highs and lows, roots for their triumphs, and wishes an end to their travails. Ben Franklin said, “I’ve not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” So are there similarly no shortages of funny personal shortcomings shared in Mark Twain’s adventure Roughing It, with which anyone on the path to success can empathize and derive myriad lessons applicable to personal and professional development.

Maybe Shakespeare gave his comic Falstaff the line “Discretion is the better part of valor, in which better part I have saved my life,” not so much to show his softness as to point to the strength-potential of any more intrepid soul. Many might likewise contend that failure is the greater part of success, and that humor may reflect the heartfelt strains of reality. In this way does Roughing It, based in a rumbling and dividing pre-civil war, gold-rushing America, serve as a light-heated guide that wryly encourages empathy for today’s and tomorrow’s urban, rural, or corporate adventurer in the face of mounting obstacles and self-doubt, accomplished through Mark Twain’s intimate and detailed revelations, satirical criticism, and exceeding humility in terms of his actual accomplishments.

In Roughing It one feels for the entrepreneur and is reminded of the value of forging ahead in the face of adversity, but most importantly is reinforced with the inspiration to maintain good humor before surmounting difficulties involved in going it alone. Coming from the man who wrote, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” in this book Twain never ceases to provide satirical examples of the heights of human strength and achievement cleverly cloaked in farcical anecdotes about depths of human shortcoming and weakness. For example, along the path to a Nevada potentially teeming with gold, he describes the possible turning-of-a-new-leaf of a gambler, drinker, and man who just can’t control his cursing, when all caught in a seemingly insurmountable snowstorm. Will they stick to their resolve if the storm clears? Unlikely. Upon later staking his claim on a questionable piece of land he hopes may be rife with silver, and realizing he has mere days to begin mining or else forfeit his investment, the author struggles to hatch a business plan.

What can we learn from these characters with whom we laugh and cry? The value of resolution, and the necessity of innovation. Through the characters’ experiences one is led to ask this important question: whether an entrepreneur’s tools are horses at auction, coffee, picks and spade, lanterns or saddles, or cutting-edge hardware, software and infrastructure costs, is he learning from his mistakes, and by empathizing with his struggle are we learning traits and tactics to emulate and avoid?

Roughing It thus sharply captures and illustrates the hopes and anxieties of anyone on the precipice of a great invention or idea, whether it be a startup or silver mine, who feels the imminent pressures of timely competition, the uncertainty of the large or small stake he or she wishes to claim, and of course the eternal allure of opportunity. Let yourself connect with this amusing American tale to be reminded of the necessity of failure on the road to success!

Mark Amiama

Photo: "Roughing It, p. 001" by Mark Twain - Internet Archive. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This article is dedicated to our fortnightly newsletter “Leaders Wisdom Journal”. To Subscribe.

Other articles of the same issue:
Ami Dar (Idealist): “One of the biggest problems in the world lies in the huge gap between our good intention and action”
Dr. Maria Montessori: A Pioneer of Empathy
The Fights that Led to Nobel Peace Prize
Wisdom on Giving and Philanthropy
Bill and Melinda Gates: Why giving away our wealth has been the most satisfying thing we've done (TED Video)





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