The Firewood Salesman
A powerful lesson from a famous war hero
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The Firewood Salesman
Before he was a Civil War hero — and long before he was the 18th President of the United States — Ulysses S. Grant sold firewood in St. Louis.
After two years of business failures, it was a new low.
But Grant chose to see it differently.
An Army officer once found him on the street. Seeing his firewood job, the officer remarked:
“Great God, Grant, what are you doing?”
Grant dryly responded:
“I am solving the problem of poverty.”
15 years later, he’d be living in the White House as President.
This is the power of humble confidence.
Grant wouldn’t have chosen this reality.
But with three kids and a pregnant wife, he accepted it and got to work.
A decade later, he became known for his confidence as a Civil War General while leading the Union Army.
He endured Shiloh
He took down Vicksburg
He drove Lee’s surrender at Appomattox
Late in his life, when others painted Grant as a “rags to riches” story, he rejected the narrative.
“I never thought about it in that light,” he said.
Sell firewood or lead the Union Army.
To Grant, he did what needed to be done.
What does this have to do with you and I?
A lot, actually.
We all experience highs and lows
We’re all the beloved “General”
And we all must sell firewood
This is the ebb and flow of life.
We must get up and solve the problem of poverty.
We must go to work and do what must be done.
Ultimately, we must have the humility to sell firewood and the confidence to know we’re capable of bigger things.
Humility and confidence.
Those are the two pillars of this lesson from Grant.
You may have ample amounts of both, one or neither.
Wherever you are on the spectrum of humility and confidence is fine.
Let’s unpack them a little further and see how we can develop our levels of each a bit more.
What is humility?
At its most basic level, it’s a sense of modesty.
The realization that you can’t do everything, don’t know everything and don’t mean everything to the world.
The understanding that you can always learn, grow and improve.
The acceptance of your human limitations.
The Bible says, “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Marcus Aurelius, the famous Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, said this about humility:
“Be humble, not only when you have to, but always. Choose humility in your clothing, in your way of speaking, in your way of walking.”
Regardless of your belief system, I think we can agree on this principle:
Life will humble all of us.
We can humble ourselves, or we can be humbled.
So, how do we develop humility?
It’s a huge question with many layers, but here are a few ideas to start:
1. Build new skills
Learning is humbling.
The more successful we become in life, the more we forget what being a “beginner” feels like.
We need to intentionally introduce “newness” into our lives.
Set a goal to learn one new skill per year (or more!).
Embrace the process of being a beginner each time.
2. Experience new things
One of the great benefits of travel or living in different places is it shatters our silos.
It’s easy to forget how differently other people live, even within our own country.
Go see more places. Meet other people. Learn how they live.
The more you experience, the more humility you will have.
3. Seek failure
My buddy ran a 250-mile race in Arizona last week.
He’s one of the toughest people I know (a former SEAL).
One of the major reasons he did it: he knew the likely outcome was failure.
And through that process, he’d be forced to confront his limitations, weaknesses and areas for improvement.
You don’t need to do something so extreme, but find something where the likely outcome is failure. Commit to that challenge at least once a year.
What is confidence?
In the context of self-confidence, it’s the feeling of self-assurance.
A belief in yourself.
"Believe you can and you're halfway there,” Theodore Roosevelt said.
Confidence is nuanced and often misunderstood.
Think of a confident person, and the image you probably have is someone who’s charismatic, boisterous and carries themselves with assurance.
While that type of person may be confident, they are often disguising the opposite of confidence: insecurity and self-doubt.
True confidence is often quieter.
It’s steady and consistent
It’s relentless and resilient
It’s unwavering and undeterred
A confident person never tells you they’re confident.
They just carry on.
So, how do you develop confidence?
Like humility, it’s layered, complex and personal.
But here are a few ideas:
1. Build evidence
Entrepreneur Alex Hormozi has a quote I love:
“Confidence comes from evidence.”
You build evidence by going out and doing things.
Build a business
Complete a race
Overcome a fear
Many people fake confidence. There’s no need.
Go do things that give yourself “evidence,” and confidence will follow.
2. Document your progress
I’ve been journaling on-and-off for about 10 years.
Most of my journal entries are documenting things I’m currently doing or thinking in life.
I’m in the process now of going back through old journals to transcribe them digitally, and it’s been a wonderful experience.
My biggest takeaway: “Wow, I’ve come a long way!”
It’s difficult in the busyness of daily life to step back and view our progress. To see how much we’ve grown.
Doing that builds confidence and excitement to keep going.
Whether it’s journaling or some other form of documenting your progress, write things down consistently and review them periodically.
3. Get around winners
We’re influenced more than we think by the company we keep.
For better or worse.
If you want to build confidence, spend time around people with winning attitudes.
These are people who:
Push themselves to improve
Create more than they consume
Live life with optimism and energy
To name just a few character traits.
Just make sure they’re genuine and not “faking” confidence. Either way, you’ll know quickly.
Okay, let’s briefly recap.
There’s nothing more powerful than humble confidence.
Ulysses S. Grant is a wonderful example of that.
A few ways to develop humility:
Build new skills
Experience new things
A few ways to develop confidence:
Get around winners
Document your progress
Never bet against a person with humble confidence.
And if you have them in your life, cherish them.
They are so rare.
I’ve been ripping through The Killing School by Brandon Webb.
It’s about how the world’s best snipers are trained.
When you think of a sniper, you probably think of an assassin. Someone who takes stealth long-range shots and eliminates a threat.
While snipers certainly need that skill, The Killing School has changed my perception of them.
First and foremost, snipers are intelligence assets. The vast majority of their time is spent doing reconnaissance and surveillance work.
They need to observe, think and solve problems on the fly under intense pressure. Extreme mental focus and attention to detail is required.
This book lets you in on how they are trained to do that. Fascinating and gripping read.
I’d love to hear from you
What’s your biggest takeaway from this issue?
Reply to this email and let me know.
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Thanks for reading.
See you next Sunday.