What I learned from reading Life of an American Workman by Walter Chrysler.
What I learned from reading Life of an American Workman by Walter Chrysler.
Come see a live show with me and Patrick O'Shaughnessy from Invest Like The Best on October 19th in New York City.
Get your tickets here!
Subscribe to listen to Founders Premium — Subscribers can listen to Ask Me Anything (AMA) episodes and every bonus episode.
[0:56]The kitchen fire was the only heat we knew in the winter. Often I had to scamper barefoot across a floor where snow had drifted through the cracks of badly fitting windows.
[1:56] We never spent money on things we could get without spending.
[3:10] This book was written about a year before he had a stroke and about two years before he died. The book is full of memories of parents and friends long dead.
[3:29] The memories he chose to highlight made me think of this quote on books by Carl Sagan: What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.
[4:10] And I think that is what this book is. It is Walter Chrysler speaking directly to you and I over 80 years after he died.
[5:18] On a few occasions his Dad would let him come to work with him [on the Union Pacific Railroad]. This is how Walt remembered that: The part of me that would be most tired would be my face. It was tired from grinning in my hours of ecstasy.
[6:35] He learned from his parents the need to be self sufficient. They built their own house. They raised their own food. They created their own jobs. If they wanted plumbing they made it themselves.
[7:00] He is very passionate about mechanics and understanding machines. He has to create his own tools because he is too poor to buy them.
[7:35] I went to work at 6 in the morning and was through at 10:30 at night.
[9:02] I was a cocky youngster and full of confidence.
[9:34] He really valued work and learning and the sense of self confidence you get from doing something well.
[10:01] A good workman was likely to mistrust any tool whose metal had not been tempered by himself. But I had an even better reason for making mine. I lacked the money with which to buy them. Years after I ceased to need them to earn a living, those tools I made were placed on display in a glass case on the observatory floor, 71 stories up in the tower of the Chrysler building. That is one of the most remarkable paragraphs in the entire book. Think about this: In one lifetime he goes from being so poor that he has to make his own tools—to having a skyscraper built for the company that he creates and that bears his name.
[10:42] Jeff Bezos has a quote that says, "We don’t choose our passions, they choose us."
[11:59] Walt couldn’t find the answers he needed in his small town so he wrote an abundance of letters to Scientific American: Whoever received the questions from subscribers must have thought that Walter P. Chrysler was a pen name for a dozen youths. At least half of whom were crazy. Yet many of my questions were answered.
[12:13] A great story about Walt’s lifelong association with Mr. Neubert.
[14:00] How Walt described himself at 22: I was cocky. I thought I was quite the kid. I had a sense of hurry. I had ambition and wanted to get ahead.
[17:48] It seemed to me I could not make anyone understand. I was ambitious. I dared to tell her [his future wife] that I intended someday to be a master mechanic. I realized I had a lot of learn before I could really hope to have that dream fulfilled. That is why I wanted to go to a bigger place so I could get more experience. Most of the time—even in my own mind—I was pretty vague about what I was going to do.
[20:08] Walt on his early 20s: I must confess I liked that sort of life. I liked the freedom, the sense of adventure, and the lack of responsibility.
[22:29] He eventually becomes the highest paid person in the entire automobile industry. When he goes to work at GM he starts at $6,000 a year. A few years later he is making $600,000 a year. But that is not happening yet. Walt at 26 was making 30 cents an hour.
[23:20] A great story about Old Man Hickey. There are a series of stories in this book where somebody took the time—usually someone a generation older—and took an interest in Walt and taught him a useful life lesson.
[30:14] Don’t let a fine opportunity slide by just because you are comfortable in a job that you have mastered. Don’t be afraid of your future.
[31:29] I was learning responsibility weighs more heavily than iron.
[33:11] Another passion grabs him: I saw this car. $5000! I had $700 to my name. I never stopped to ask myself if I should, if I could afford to go in hock to buy that car. All I asked myself was where could I raise the money?
[34:39] Walt understood the potential impact of the automobile industry before most other people: The automobile is transportation too. The railroads have made this a richer country. Ask yourself what this country will be like when every individual has their own private car.
[36:29] He does something really smart. He goes from working for the railroads to working for the manufacturer of the trains. He discovers there's a lot more money and pleasure in manufacturing.
[37:12] What was more important was the change in me. The fun I had experienced in making things as a boy was magnified a hundred fold when I began making things as a man. There is, in manufacturing, a creative joy that only poets are supposed to know. Someday, I'd like to show a poet how it feels to design and build a railroad locomotive.
[39:42] Making the jump to Buick. He goes from making $12,000 a year to $6,000: This is not the first time in his life that he will accept less money for a better opportunity, nor is it the last time.
[40:25] There is a great quote by Marc Andreessen: Best thing about startups is you only experience two emotions: euphoria and terror.
[42:40] Henry Leland had great respect for Walter Chrysler. He said that when he explained something to Walt he got it a lot quicker than everybody else.
[43:04] Walt compares and contrasts the mature locomotive industry to the new automobile industry.
[44:21] The result of continuous improvement: They go from making a car in 4 days to making one in 15 minutes.
[48:24] Walt is about to quit GM and go make his own car. This is what Billy Durant does to make sure that doesn’t happen: I’ll pay you $500,000 a year to stay on as President of Buick.
[50:16] He thought Billy Durant was a genius and one of the most important people that helped the automobile industry thrive, but he had a hard time working with him: That’s the kind of fellow he was. We’d fight and then he’d want to raise my salary. The automobile industry owes more to Durant than it has yet acknowledged. In some ways he has been its greatest man.
[53:36] Walt retires at 45. He is coaxed out of retirement with the high paying opportunity to turn around a failed automobile company: He says he will undertake the job for two years at $1 million a year. They say okay it is worth the risk of spending $2 million to see if this guy can get us back our $50 million.
[56:20] I remember leaving a meeting saying I would not touch this with a 10 foot pole. What I was saying I would not touch was later on to be revealed to be the greatest opportunity of my whole life.
[1:00:58] Walt’s great idea in response to not being allowed to showcase his car at the 1924 Automobile Show.
[1:03:48] Walt said buying Dodge was his greatest accomplishment. Other people at the time said he was buying a lemon. This is how Walt responded: That was the opinion of some minds that contained little understanding of industry and especially of the automobile industry. Buying Dodge was one of the soundest acts of my life.
[1:07:06] Every time we had a conversation, it seems to me, he shed tears yet always would start with them was thinking of the past when he was a poor young man. Sometimes, at first, I mistakenly supposed that he was feeling sorry for himself. Finally, I came to realize what it was that so deeply moved him when he contemplated his auspicious start, including those years of riding freight trains from town to town when he was hunting a chance to work and gain more experience. It was gratitude of course; gratitude to everything American that made possible his great success. He told his story in the hope it might inspire other lonely boys roving in the land to keep on trying.
“I have listened to every episode released and look forward to every episode that comes out. The only criticism I would have is that after each podcast I usually want to buy the book because I am interested, so my poor wallet suffers.”— Gareth
Be like Gareth. Buy a book. It's good for you. It's good for Founders. A list of all the books featured on Founders Podcast.