How to Be Great Like Peter the Great

A Little Curiosity and A lot of Vodka

Backpacking before it was cool.

The 25 year old Russian Tsar decided to travel Europe.

But as a reigning monarch, his journey would be swamped with pomp and ceremony.

To avoid this formality he decided to travel incognito so he could focus on the thing he really wanted to do… learn.

“I am a pupil and need to be taught.” — Peter the Great

Upon arriving to Amsterdam, he partied hard like your typical twenty-something backpacker, but he also worked hard as an undercover shipbuilder.

Despite binge drinking every night, Peter would arrive to the shipyard every day at dawn with his axe and tools slung over his shoulder like the other workmen.

Peter worked here for 4 months to learn how to build a navy for Russia someday.

Then during lunch, he’d like to sit on a log by the dock and talk to sailors or pretty much anyone who addressed him as “Carpenter Peter”.

“Destiny may ride with us today, but there is no reason for it to interfere with lunch.” — Peter the Great

It was a poorly kept secret that the 6′ 8″ Russian, with an entourage of 250 Russian nobles, was indeed the Tsar.

There was also a joke swirling around that the Russians were no more than “baptized bears.”

On one occasion, two English noblemen came to the dock to catch a glimpse of the Tsar and in order to point out which one was him, the foreman called out, “Carpenter Peter, why don’t you help your comrades?”

Without a word, Peter walked over, put his shoulder beneath a timber that several men were struggling to raise and helped lift it into place.

“You see, brother, that I am tsar, yet there are callous places on my hands, because I wished to give you an example.” — Peter the Great

Peter’s curiosity extended beyond the shipyard, he visited factories, laboratories, workshops, sawmills, paper mills, museums, and gardens.

Everywhere he asked “What is this for?” “How does it work?” Listening to the explanations, he’d nod, “Very good. Very good.”

He also visited hospitals where he acquired some skill dissecting, drawing teeth and performing minor operations. Those of his servants who fell ill tried to keep it a secret from the Tsar lest he appear at their bedsides with his case of instruments.

He also dissected the dead, but one time, while studying a corpse, he heard grumbles of disgust from some of his squeamish Russian comrades. Furious, and to the horror of the Dutch, he ordered the Russians to approach, bend down, and bite off a muscle with their teeth.

“It is my great desire to reform my subjects, and yet I am ashamed to confess that I am unable to reform myself. ”

When Peter returned home from his 18 month euro trip, he immediately began reforming his country according to what he had saw.

He based the Russian Flag on the Dutch flag
“I intend to imitate Amsterdam in my city of Saint Petersburg.” — Peter the Great

He received a lot of backlash, but Peter kept his sights on the horizon, directing the Russian ship of state toward westernization, and in time, transforming Russia from Europe’s backwards step-brother into a serious global power.

“Titanic energy, burning curiosity, and a compulsive drive were the sources of Peter’s greatness.” — Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great biographer

How to Be Like Curious Peter

His curiosity stemmed from recognizing the areas where he was personally and culturally inferior.

He could have chosen the metaphorical blue pill, the easy path, and stayed ignorant like his predecessors and contemporaries.

But instead he chose the red pill.

He looked in the mirror and saw his country for what it was — inferior to the west: militarily, economically, technologically, bureaucratically, commercially, etc.

But in recognizing the reality of the situation, he had the curiosity to learn how to fix it, and then the confidence to believe he could do it.

Recognize Areas of Personal Inferiority

Too many of us let our ego get in the way of our curiosity.

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” — Albert Einstein

I remember as a kid I was afraid of being seen as stupid so I wouldn’t try as hard in school so if I failed I could blame my failure on not trying and if I succeeded I could brag about how I didn’t even study.

This has to do with the fixed vs. growth mindset…

Peter had a growth mindset.

As Tsar he could have given himself any title he wanted, but instead he assigned himself to the lowest naval and military ranks so that only through merit would he be allowed to rise up the ranks like everyone else.

His inner faith made him indifferent to appearing inferior because he knew in the end his success would speak for itself.

Recognize Areas of Cultural Inferiority

Russians looked upon the west with disgust. They preferred their vodka and orthodoxy to anything the west had to offer.

“Beware of women with beards and beware of men without beards.” — Russian Proverb

The few westerners living within Russian borders were persecuted against and forced into a ghetto on the outskirts of Moscow, which happened to be near Peter’s childhood home, therefore he had a lot of western tutors and friends.

When Peter eventually came to power, he knew Russia had to adopt more western customs if it was going to become a great empire like those in the west.

Nowadays people use cultural relativism to encourage backwards cultures to stay backwards because they pretend all cultures are equal.

I don’t think the entire world should be a knock-off version of the United States, but I also don’t think there should be cultures that allow female mutilation or prohibiting girls to go to school or homosexuals publicly whipped.

Or in my own culture I don’t like to see the deification of celebrities or our obsession with happiness.

“Idleness and repose weakened them [Greeks], made them submit to tyrants and brought them to that slavery to which they are now so long since reduced.” — Peter the Great, letter to son

Peter the Great saw what was inferior about his culture and then pulled his people by the beard into the future.

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Thanks for reading! Anthony Galli writes about the great men and women who made history so that we may make history in our own time. Watch his series @ The Great Life.