Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son

The Rabbit Hole is written by Blas Moros. To support, sign up for the newsletter, become a patron, and/or join The Latticework. Original Design by Thilo Konzok.


  1. John Graham, the owner of a pork-packaging business in Chicago in the 1890’s, writes his son letters from the time he is in college until he starts working and moving up within the family business. The letters are full of life lessons in the form of examples and past experiences. Nothing revolutionary but it shows what care the father takes in imparting proper wisdom to his son.
Key Takeaways
  1. You’ll find that education is about the only thing lying around loose in this world, and that it’s about the only thing a fellow can have as much of as he’s willing to haul away. Everything else is screwed down tight and the screw-driver lost
  2. …the fact that it isn’t so much knowing a whole lot, as knowing a little and how to use it that counts
  3. I’ve always made it a rule to buy brains and I’ve learned that the better trained they are the faster they find reasons for getting their salaries raised
  4. Putting off an easy thing makes it hard and putting off a hard thing makes it impossible
  5. …habits rule a man’s life
  6. A business man’s conversation should be regulated by fewer and simpler rules than any other function of the human animal. They are: Have something to say; say it; stop talking.
    1. Note: reminds me of Charlie Munger…
  7. Give fools the first and women the last word
  8. Remember, too, that it’s easier to look wise than to talk wisdom. Say less than the other fellow and listen more than you talk; for when a man’s listening he isn’t telling on himself and he’s flattering the fellow who is
  9. They [common laws of business] are so simple that a fool can’t learn them; so hard that a lazy man won’t
  10. Loyalty – It is the one commodity that hasn’t any market value and it’s the one that you can’t pay too much for
  11. I don’t know anything that a young businessman ought to keep more entirely to himself than his dislikes, unless it is his likes. It’s generally expensive to have either, but it’s bankruptcy to tell about them
  12. …I would feel a good deal happier over your showing if you would make a downright failure or a clean-cut success once in a while, instead of always just skinning through this way
  13. The poorest men on earth are the relations of millionaires
  14. Consider carefully before you say a hard word to a man, but never let a chance to say a good one go by. Praise judiciously bestowed is money invested
  15. Never learn anything about your men except from themselves
  16. Never threaten, because a threat is a promise to pay that isn’t always convenient to meet, but if you don’t make it good it hurts your credit. Save a threat until you’re ready to act, and then you won’t need it
  17. …a man who is feared to his face is hated behind his back
  18. There’s still plenty of room at the top, but there isn’t much anywhere else
  19. A man who does big things is too busy to talk about them
  20. Worrying is the one game in which, if you guess right, you don’t get any satisfaction out of your smartness. A busy man has no time to bother with it
What I got out of it
  1. John Graham bestows nuggets of wisdom – in both business and life – for his son who at times goes through some growing pains and makes questionable decisions. Graham is often very black and white and sometimes harsh but knows exactly what he stands for and what he values. These letters offer many great thoughts on what to value and strive for in life.

  • The first thing that any education ought to give a man is character, and the second thing is education…he’s mighty often switched off the right path by having it pointed out to him in the wrong way
  • Anything that trains a boy to think and to think quick pays;…College doesn’t make fools; it develops them. A fool will turn out a fool, whether he goes to college or not
  • The sooner you adjust your spending to what your earning capacity will be, the easier they will find it to live together
  • There is plenty of room at the top here, but there is no elevator in the building
  • …the meanest man alive is the one who is generous with money that he has not had to sweat for
  • He simply didn’t have any sense of values, and that’s the business man’s sixth sense
  • The boy who does anything just because the other fellows do it is apt to scratch a poor man’s back all his life
  • There are times when it’s safest to be lonesome. Use a little common-sense, caution and conscience. You can stock a store with those three commodities, when you get enough of them
  • It’s not what a man does during work hours, but after them, that breaks down his health
  • A clear mind is one that is swept clean of business at six o’clock every night and isn’t opened up for it again until after the shutters are taken down the next morning
  • …in the office your sentences should be the shortest distance possible between periods
  • …whenever any one offers to let you in on the ground floor it’s a pretty safe rule to take the elevator to the roof garden
  • Business is like oil – it doesn’t mix with anything but business
  • Remember that when you’re in the right you can afford to keep your tempter and that when you’re in the wrong you can’t afford to lose it
  • Superiority makes every man feel its equal. It is courtesy without condescension; affability without familiarity; self-sufficiency without selfishness; simplicity without snide
  • …if you really want a look at the solid facts of a thing you must strain off the sentiment first
  • There’s no easier way to cure foolishness than to give a man leave to be foolish
  • …the easiest way in the world to make enemies is to hire friends
  • The fun of the thing’s in the run and not in the finish
  • There’s no fool like a young fool, because in the nature of things he’s got a long time to live
  • To marry for money or to marry without money is a crime
  • He laughs best who doesn’t laugh at all when he’s dealing with the public
  • Never run down your competitor’s brand to them and never let them run down yours
  • What you know is a club for yourself and what you don’t know is a meat-ax for the other fellow
  • The only animal which the Bible calls patient is an ass…
  • It isn’t what a man knows, but what he thinks he knows that he brags about. Big talk means little knowledge
  • Education will broaden a narrow mind, but there’s no known cure for a big head
  • Tact is the knack of keeping quiet at the right time; of being so agreeable yourself that no one can be disagreeable to you; of making inferiority feel like equality
  • When you make a mistake, don’t make the second one – keeping it to yourself. Own up. A mistake sprouts a lie when you cover it up. And one lie breeds enough distrust to choke out the prettiest crop of confidence that a fellow ever cultivated.
  • There are two unpardonable sins in this world – success and failure. Those who succeed can’t forgive a fellow for being a failure, and those who fail can’t forgive a him for being a success. If you do succeed though, you will be too busy to bother very much about what the failures think
  • When a speculator wins he don’t stop till he loses, and when he loses he can’t stop till he wins
  • You can hide your meanness from your brain and your tongue, but the eye and the backbone won’t keep secrets. When the tongue lies, the eyes tell the truth
  • …a man’s first duty is to mind his own business…it takes about all the thought and work which one man can give to run one man right, and if a fellow’s putting in five or six hours a day on his neighbor’s character, he’s might apt to scamp the building of his own
  • Easy-come money never draws interest; easy-borrowed dollars pay usury
  • …the duties of your position is to do your work so well that the manager can’t run the department without you, and that you can run the department without the manager
  • …enthusiasm is the best shortening for any job; it makes heavy work light
  • A fellow is a boss simply because he’s a better man than those under him…
  • Be slow to hire and quick to fire
  • …when you’re through sizing up the other fellow, it’s a good thing to step back from yourself and see how you look. Then add 50% to your estimate of your neighbor for virtues that you can’t see and deduct 50% from yourself for faults that you’ve missed in your inventory, and you’ll have a pretty accurate result
  • The way to think of a thing in business is to think of it first, and the way to get a share of the trade is to go for all of it. Half the battle’s in being on the hilltop first; and other half’s in staying there
  • The one important thing for you to remember all the time is not to forget. It’s easier for a boss to do a thing himself than to tell someone twice to do it
  • …it’s been my experience that these people [who live off their ancestor’s wealth] who think that they are all the choice cuts off the critter, and that the rest of us are only fit for sausage, are usually chuck steak when you get them under the knife
  • …pride is usually a spur to the strong and a drag on the weak
  • There are two things you never want to pay attention to – abuse and flattery. The first can’t harm you and the second can’t help you
  • There are mighty few people who can see any side to a thing except their own side
  • A violent woman drives a man to drink, but a nagging one drives him crazy