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In 1899, Theodore Roosevelt stepped onto a stage in Chicago and delivered a speech known as The Strenuous Life. In his opening remarks, he stated:

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

Not only did it capture the essence of the American spirit at the turn of the 20th century, Roosevelt’s speech was heavily influenced by his own life experiences, described in his thrilling biography, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt:

  • He was born a sickly child. He constantly battled asthma, among many other health problems. On the urging of his father, he began to “make his body” at an early age and achieved an almost-inhuman amount of vitality and grit, much to the surprise of his doctors.
  • He was an active child: he wrote, studied, and developed a deep love for science and nature.
  • He attended Harvard and became a prominent member of the prestigious Porcellian club.
  • Tragically, both his wife and mother died on the same day in the same house. As a means of fighting his grief and depression, Roosevelt ventured out to the Badlands in the Dakotas, where he became a hardened rancher and businessman.
  • After his time in the Badlands, he returned to New York and became police commissioner, established and fought with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American war, became the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the Governor of New York, and of course, the 26th President of the United States.

Roosevelt had a deep understanding of the virtue that comes from hardship. In his famous speech, he declares that it is not the pursuit of easy peace and luxury that brings out the best in a man. Instead, it’s by embracing of toil, hard work, and the determination to face dangers of many kinds (for Roosevelt, it was hunting bears and facing down murderous bandits in the Badlands).

So, what can the Strenuous Life teach us about money?

The pursuit of what is hard

One of the greatest dangers facing our finances is a desire for a constant flow of comfort and luxury. We spend thousands of dollars on items such as houses and cars, all in an attempt to avoid a strenuous life. But the “splendid ultimate triumph that Roosevelt described in his speech comes from our ability to give up what is easy in the short term to gain greater strength in the long term.

His call to action is to pursue things in life because they’re hard. This may take the form of finally destroying your debt, developing healthier habits, pursuing unfamiliar but rewarding experiences (such as traveling to a foreign country), or leaving home for better career opportunities.

A future freed of effort

It’s interesting to see Roosevelt describe what many of us would call financial independence. Those more frugal-minded have come to understand something that Roosevelt describes in his famous speech: that for the hard-working and wise among us, there may be a future freed of effort:

“Freedom from effort in the present merely means that there has been stored up effort in the past. A man can be freed from the necessity of work only by the fact that he or his fathers before him have worked to good purpose.”

It’s alarming how many of us in our 20s have avoided this idea of delayed gratification and hard work. Never again in our lives will we have the level of vitality and ambition that’s present during this crucial decade of our lives. We live lifestyles beyond our means and ignore pressing issues such as debt until we’ve drained the last of our strength and willpower in our later years. But your twenties are a time for work. Do good work in your field, and make the very best of the time given to you. As Roosevelt once put it, “get action. Do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.”

When we take action where we are, we better prepare ourselves to provide stability for our future selves, the families we may one day create, and the many others out there in need. For some, we might find that our actions in our younger years provide us, through wise financial decisions, the means to buy time and pursue a life freed of needless future effort.

If we ever hope to see true change and progress in our financial lives, we must embrace the Strenuous Life. We must avoid falling into the traps of luxuries or comfort and pursue noble efforts that benefit not only ourselves, but those around us as well.

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