Thomas Jefferson was dying. It was early July in 1826, and Jefferson had been in and out of consciousness for days. He was clearly struggling to remain alive until the 4th of July. On the morning of July 4th (50 years to the day after signing the Declaration of Independence) Jefferson’s grandson quietly walked into his grandfather’s bedroom and whispered into his ear that the day was the fourth of July. Very shortly thereafter, Jefferson took his last breath.
Of all the accolades, one of the best compliments about Thomas Jefferson was made by President John Kennedy on April 29th, 1962. That evening, there was a dinner at the White House honoring the Nobel Prize Winners of the Western Hemisphere. There were a lot of smart Nobel guests attending – included 46 United States citizens; one Canadian, one Frenchman; one German; in addition to other prominent men and women from the arts, education and science – including presidents from several universities.
At the beginning of his welcoming remarks, President John Kennedy said to the group, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Jefferson was of course an American Founding Father, the principle author of the Declaration of Independence, the third President of the US and founder of the University of Virginia (at 76 years of age). He was a life long learner (reader, writer, astronomer, architect, paleontologist (he has a mammoth named after him), musician) and curious innovator, and was the first commissioner and inspector of patents for the United States.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from Jefferson.
1+1) “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” “Determine never to be idle. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.” By definition progress means moving forward, and throughout his 83 years Jefferson exhibited a massive bias for action.
2) “The variety of opinions leads to questions. Questions lead to truth.” This reminds me of a tenant from Lean/Agile/Scrum methodology, to always be maximizing opportunities for feedback. Continual improvements are made through the opinions and input from the team. (As an aside, there were a lot of similarities the Founding Father’s had while hammering out the Declaration of Independence with a Scrum team; they were cross functional, self-directing, self-organizing and reviewed the work at various sprint cycles.)
3) “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal. Nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” Nothing to add here.
4) “He who knows best knows how little he knows.” For all his knowing, Jefferson kept an attitude of humbleness. There’s a term in Japanese martial arts and Zen Buddhism called “Shoshin”, which means having a “Beginner’s Mind.” It entails having an appreciation for how much there is to learn, for openness and acknowledging that there’s always more to learn.
5) “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
6) “Always take hold of things by the smooth handle.” This could be interrupted in different ways, but to me, it simply means to deal with things in a dignified and reputable (and easiest) manner.
7) “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” Jefferson was referring to the short-sighted, trivial and gossipy nature of much of what was printed in the newspaper in the late 1700s. Or maybe he was making a prediction as to much of what’s in newspapers and on the Internet today.
8) “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” As evidenced by all he accomplished, the man was always looking forward.
9) “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” Jefferson was not beyond criticism, and knew first-hand the trials and tribulations (and inertia) that go along with affecting change.
10) “The glow of one warm thought is to me worth more than money.” Thomas Jefferson was a man who valued ideas. To give his comment some perspective, think about the fact that the Declaration of Independence was the blueprint for America and a guide for democracy around the world. No doubt a thought is worth more than money.