100-Year-Old Advice For Entrepreneurs Today

3 lessons from a little-known genius

Charles Steinmetz, circa 1915 (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)
“Making chalk mark on generator: $1
Knowing where to make mark: $9,999.”
-Charles Proteus Steinmetz

Have you heard the story of the man who identified the cause of Henry Ford’s broken generator and charged him $10,000 — roughly $150,000–200,000 in today’s dollars — for this seemingly simple service?

My great-great Uncle Howard worked for Henry Ford and was witness to this event, and my dad got to hear this tale told at every holiday gathering growing up.

Why do I share this legendary lore now? I believe Mr. Steinmetz has a lot to teach entrepreneurs today.

Here are my three 100-year-old lessons I think all entrepreneurs today can learn from Mr. Steinmetz.

Lesson #1: Value Your Zone of Genius

If you’re a service provider, you have probably been guilty of devaluing your work before.

It happens innocently enough. The fact is, when what we do is so easy for us and we get so much joy and energy from doing it, we tend to not place as high of a value on the actual process of completing it — and one way that often shows up is that we have a hard time charging premium prices for it!

“Why tip someone for a job I’m capable of doing myself? I can deliver food. I can drive a taxi. I can, and do, cut my own hair. I did, however, tip my urologist, because… I am unable to pulverize my own kidney stones.” — Dwight Schrute, The Office

Our favorite fictional straight-shooter summarizes this well. Dwight clearly places a higher value on something he himself cannot do. The problem comes when we do not place a higher value on what we do so well, because we forget that it doesn’t come as easily to others.

Have you ever felt or thought something like this?

“I would do it for free; so it feels weird to charge someone for it!”

“Can’t everyone do this? It’s so easy for me!”

When something comes so naturally to us and we love doing it, it DOESN’T mean that everyone can do it; it means that it’s very likely our Zone of Genius, and it is the very thing it would be wise to double-down on offering and charging for.

Have you found yourself saying these same things? How have you overcome them, or how will you begin to shift them now?

Lesson #2: If he can do it, so can you

You’ve heard people say this before about themselves, right? Things like, “I’m a millionaire, but I’m just like you. If I can do it, so can you.”

Charles Steinmetz actually LIVED this through his actions in an amazingly tangible way.

A German immigrant who was almost denied entry to the US at Ellis Island because he was a 4-foot-tall dwarf “with a hump in his back and a crooked gait,” he went on to be an extremely influential scientist.

I think often we assume that when we see super-successful people, we make assumptions that they had some kind of “leg up” (to use a horse term) that we didn’t, or our brains just try to categorize the big differentiator for their success and dismiss that it’s possible for me (like they got in at the right time, are well-connected, have family money, are prettier, etc.)

What if it’s more than those things? What if it’s making the most of how we were created, strengthening and playing to our unique gifts, and not using our circumstances, physical, location, upbringing, or environment, as excuses “why not,” as Charles Steinmetz so powerfully demonstrated for us?

Have you found yourself with excuses or playing small, or are you showing up every day making the most of — and allowing yourself to be well-compensated for — what makes YOU one-of-a-kind?

Lesson #3: Focus on your biggest dream

What Charles wanted most, he found a way to have.

Steinmetz was one of the great scientific minds of the 20th century. He also loved kids and wanted his own family, but chose not to marry because the deformity that made him a dwarf with a hump in his back and an uneven gait was congenital, and he was afraid he’d pass it along.

And, as this Smithsonian article shares, it pained him deeply to see children, like the ones he wanted so much, run away in fear at the sight of him, he chose to do his work, do it well, and be open to the possibility of how family might come to him…eventually choosing to adopt and have an extended family that way.

If you’ve ever read my articles before, you may know about my infertility and pregnancy loss story. Maybe you’ve experienced that type of grief of longing for what has been elusive, whether in family or in business.

Regardless, I KNOW you’re here reading this because you have a big business goal, one with which you desire to support yourself, realize your dreams, and perhaps your family and friends’, too.

Let us all take a lesson from Charles Steinmetz, who created quite a legacy of not only incredible career accomplishments, but also true personal fulfillment and joy in his 58 short years, and look for and seize opportunities to get what we most want.

Read the more of the story on Charles Steinmetz in Smithsonian Magazine here.

Then tell me below, what do YOU most want? What are you pursuing with your business-building efforts?

Next Steps

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