6 lessons from Churchill’s biography


Churchill is widely admired for his courage and leadership. Would you not want to read about a man who is described by a biographer (Paul Johnson) as follows: 

Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable. […] None hold more lessons, […] How to seize eagerly on all opportunities, physical, moral and intellectual. How to dare greatly, to reinforce success, and to put the inevitable failures behind you. And how, while pursuing vaulting ambition with energy and relish, to cultivate also friendship, generosity, compassion and decency.

Here are 6 lessons on life from Churchill’s biography:

Dedicate yourself fully to an activity. As a teenager Churchill discovered that he had a love for words. Attracted by the adventure of joining battles, Churchill decided to try to report on a war in India. Spending most of his twenties traveling all around the world reporting from the front lines, war-reporting became Churchill’s obsession (paraphrasing Drew Houston, Churchill found his tennis ball). Later Churchill would throw himself with comparable vigour into other activities.

Build different ways to express yourself. “Politics never occupied his whole attention and energies. He had an astonishing range of activities to provide him with relief, exercise, thrills, fun and money.”

Churchill was dismissed from his position as Admiral in the British navy by prime minister Asquith at the start of WW1. Churchill found himself suddenly with no daily responsibilities, which had a disastrous effect on his mental state (his wife thought “he would die of grief”). Inspired by a friend, Churchill picked up painting. Painting became a deep passion, since “while you are painting you can think of nothing else.” I think it is critical to develop activities that you enjoy outside your work – all the more so in a future where fewer people have jobs. In what ways do you express yourself? 

Go where the action is. “Churchill began his plan of campaign to make himself famous, or at least conspicuous. But if you sat still, expecting wars to come to you, you might be starved of action. You had to go to the wars. That became Churchill’s policy.”

Churchill built up a reputation by fighting in the front lines – he did not stay in the UK. After returning from his war journeys, he quickly built a network in London with people in the House of Commons, as his aspirations were to become a politician.  “All his life he refused to be bound to a desk. He insisted on seeing for himself.”

Rise after you fall. Churchill was fired from his official position more than three times and lost many personal battles (he lost all his money on multiple occasions). Yet he never let his head hang (for too long). After he was dismissed as Admiral of the Navy, he found a way to participate in a battle on land. He was humiliated badly in the House of Commons but fought his way back into politics.

Do not take yourself to seriously. “We are all worms. But I really think I am a glow worm.”

Share your work. “This was his first book, and he sent a copy to the Prince of Wales, who wrote him a delightful letter of thanks, praised it to the skies, and recommended it to all his friends.”

Book review: Mountains beyond Mountains, a biography of Paul Farmer

How did your last visit to Belize or the Philippines influence you

At twenty-three years old, on a path to becoming a doctor, Paul Farmer spent several months as a volunteer in Haiti. Like other American visitors, Paul Farmer was amazed by the jam-packed third-hand European vans and struck by the warmness of the Haitians. Unlike other Westerners, Paul Farmer turned a one-off visit into a lifelong relationship. He decided to build a health clinic in Haiti, for the poorest people in the country.

Mountains beyond Mountains tells the story of Farmer’s life. I highly recommend the book as an inspiration for living a life of service. Farmer calls his life approach pragmatic solidarity: not the life of an ascetic who attempts to achieve nirvana by meditating in solitude; but the life of a person who is out in the world helping others every minute of the day.

What did I learn from Paul Farmer? 

A deep love for all people. He helped the poorest, the ugliest, the neediest. The people others try to avoid, Farmer treats like dearest friends.

Complete, selfless dedication to a cause. Farmer would be the last to go to bed and the first to wake up. He let go of all personal comfort to spend more time with patients.

“The problem is, if I don’t work this hard, someone will die who doesn’t have to. That sounds megalomaniacal. I wouldn’t have said that to you before I’d taken you to Haiti and you had seen that it was manifestly true.”

Courage and persistence. When Farmer’s organization, Partners in Health, did not have enough money to buy drugs for patients in Haiti, Farmer would bring the medicine from the Brigham Young hospital in Boston, where he was a practicing doctor.

“Paul and Jim would stop at the Brigham pharmacy before they left for Peru and fill their briefcases with drugs. they had sweet-talked various people into letting them walk away with the drugs. […] Better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

Clear in communicating his views. Farmer convinced the World Health Organization to change their specified treatment for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis all around the world. That does not happen if you do not clearly speak your mind.

“He was fresh as hell to me, but I liked him, because if you said boo and he didn’t think boo was right, he’d tell you. He was way ahead of me, on service to the poor.”

Excellent at maintaining relationships. Farmer would thank everyone personally for making donations – even the individual $10 contributions from fellow church visitors in Boston.

As a reader, I observed a though coming to mind: “How can I lead a life as impactful as Farmer?”. I don’t think that question follows from the right intention. The goal is not to be just like Paul Farmer – we should all find our own paths in life.

What we can learn, however, is to focus our work on the needs of others – not the comfort it provides to ourself; to commit to the problems we believe should be solved; and to pursue our cause with vigor and persistence, not being attached to the outcomes of our actions.