Charged Up! podcast: How not to get rich – according to Mark Twain

Episode 42 with author Alan Pell Crawford

Charged Up! with Jenny Hoff



He may have been America’s literary genius, but Mark Twain was a lost cause when it came to money. In fact, despite his numerous witty comments and acute observations about life, perhaps Twain’s most valuable is lesson is what not to do when it comes to spending, debt and chasing business schemes without a solid plan. In this episode, author Alan Pell Crawford, whose latest book, “How Not to Get Rich: The Financial Misadventures of Mark Twain,” discusses what we can learn from this literary genius’ financial failures.

So, let’s get Charged Up! about feeling better about our own financial mistakes and learning how to avoid new ones.

Jenny Hoff: Alan, thank you so much for joining me today.

Alan Pell Crawford: This is great. It’s a great privilege.

Hoff: So let’s start with how you got this idea to research and write about Mark Twain’s financial life. Is it because it’s so juxtaposed to the image we have of him as this successful iconic writer?

Crawford: Yes, I think so. I’ve loved Twain my entire life and only in recent years did I get back in and started reading, I believe, the one volume version of the autobiography and a few other things and then I realized there’s an entire side of Twain’s life that obsesses him often to the exclusion of his writing. And it was a story that simply had not been told. And so I thought this is fascinating and at times incredibly funny. I figured, if I enjoyed this, surely other people will as well. With that in mind, I wrote the book.

Hoff: Yes. And what is interesting to me is, I feel like for every situation, people use a commonsense or witty quote form Mark Twain to show how ridiculous that situation is and yet he definitely was involved in some ridiculous situations himself where he could have used some of that commonsense that he wrote about and talked about in his day-to-day life. So we’re definitely going to get into that.

But being a financial podcast, I want to also make sure we get some financial lessons from these fun stories about Twain’s money mismanagement and his continuous optimism that led to his financial downfall. So I pulled several lessons from the book.

One was, how important it is to know when to give up on your passion. We always hear “to follow your passion,” but sometimes just as important is to know maybe that passion isn’t panning out for you and you need to change course. And in Twain’s case, his passion seems to be speculations and inventions.

Can you talk about his incessant need to come up with the next big thing while, like as you mentioned, neglecting what really was making him money, which was writing and speaking?

Crawford: Yes, I think that’s an excellent point. The larger point you began with where people are being constantly told to find your passion and do what you’re passionate about ... I’ve heard this so many times. If you do what you love, the money will follow, right?

Hoff: Right.

Crawford: Well, you can’t go to a commencement speech without hearing people in their 60s, who were baby boomers, who grew up in a completely different time telling young people coming right out of college, who lived through the worst recession in 50 years, that they should follow their passion and not worry about the money because the money will come. And beyond that, they should be eager to embrace failure, right?

Hoff: Yes.

Crawford: In part, it was a response to some of that kind of vacuous, fatuous advice that I wrote a book. And since it can be seen as a spoof of business success stories and how you, too, if you follow my example, can get rich, right? There’s any number of books like that on the market.

Well, Twain’s entire life is a refutation of the idea that if you follow your passion and do what obsesses you that everything will work out fine. He says early in his life, when he first achieved some kind of journalistic success that precedes the literary success, that this isn’t something he’s particularly proud of, but it seems to be something he can do.

He has the same idea with lecturing, with which he is phenomenally successful, but he says he hates doing it and it embarrasses him and it took a continual grind on him.

What he really loves to do is speculate. And he’s like a lot of men in his time, he’s obsessed with inventions and innovations and as you put it, the next big thing, and yet his instincts for doing this, while keen, are also terrible. As I said, this is a bit of a spoof on those kind of books because there are not five or so lessons learned.

This isn’t a book that ends with five bullet points to tell you how you can do this, too. And, in fact, Twain says, he is addressing in early 1900s, I believe he’s addressing a group of business school alumni and he says, “To succeed in business, avoid my example.”

Hoff: Give us a couple of examples of how he really just blew his money on bad financial decisions.

Crawford: There were a number of small things he did that are funny that cost him a fair amount of money. One was the invention of a baby bed clamp, which was to prevent babies from kicking the covers off their beds. He got very interested in this at the expense of his writing and would tell the people working with him on publishing books to put that aside and keep focusing on the baby bed clamp, which a nephew of his, who was his business manager for a while, said any intelligent parent could do something just as well for a dollar and a half.

He got involved in a food additive called plasmin that he thought was going to be able to cure any disease and feed the world’s poor, and he lost thousands of dollars on that.

He started a publishing company where he actually did know something about the business, and he failed at that. He had started out life as a printer, he was a young man who set type in printing offices, so he knew something about the whole business of printing and type. He invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and lost it all on a composing machine that would automate the setting of type for newspapers and effectively reduce the need for men to sit and type by hand. He lost millions of dollars on that.

And just one after another, the book is a series of these kind of projects that he paces the floor at night. He can’t sleep. He gets so, on one hand, excited about the possibilities and then utterly despondent to the point of being somewhat manic-depressive about the whole thing when these things blow up in the space.

Hoff: Absolutely. And I found it interesting that he did view writing as a chore, as you mentioned. He fell into it. He realized that he was good at it and could make money from it, but it wasn’t where his passion was. And so he neglected his writing and his speaking a lot of times in order to come up with these different inventions and these speculations.

I think, in a way, that is something that could definitely resonate with a lot of us, that we have a job we’re good at. Everyone tells us we’re good at it, but we’re a little bit bored with it. We feel like there’s probably something greater I can do out there. There’s a get rich quick scheme, or I can become an author, or I can become a moviemaker or whatever it is.

So instead on focusing on what you are good at, what people are paying you for and making that a huge success, you’re always focusing on a million other things going on that seem more interesting.

Can you talk a little bit about this, about how Twain really viewed writing as a chore to do, almost to the point that it was difficult to get him to do what made him the money?

Crawford: In fact, I think it’s generally agreed that “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was probably his real masterpiece, and yet it took years for him to write that because he would put it aside to work on other business projects. And so for that reason, he was a brilliant writer, obviously, and a gifted raconteur whose lectures were tremendously successful. But as you say, this wasn’t his great love, at least on some level. And so he had to work very hard at it.

This isn’t to say that he didn’t work hard at these other projects, but he just wasn’t good at them.

I think you’re right, and this is important, I think, for a lot of writers. I’ve never lived at a time when there are more people that want to write books and autobiographies and blogs and all of these kinds of things. In their desire to express themselves, they lose sight of the reader and they lose sight of the commercial, the aspects of the market that are healthy and beneficial for all of us in the sense that we need to be thinking not necessarily about what we think is some driving inner necessity, some passion that we have and think more in terms of what the market – which is to say what other people want to read.

Twain’s least successful books, at least to readers today, are the ones that he wrote in a sense because he felt an urge to do them because his wife and daughters wanted him to write more serious books that they thought lifted him above the level of being a mere clown and made him deeply a moralistic writer, things like “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Recollections of Joan of Arc.”

Those kind of books aren’t very good because he was, in a sense, trying to ignore the market and respond to what people very close to him wanted. This scratched some inner itch of his as well to be respectable and taken more seriously than he was as merely humorous.

Hoff: I think that’s just such an important point that we see today. And as you mentioned, there’s more authors than ever, but there’s also so many entrepreneurs out there, and there’s everybody wanting to do their own gig and come up with something new which is great.

That innovative spirit is fantastic but at the same time, you need to really do your market research, and you need to know what people are willing to pay you for, what you’re good at, according to other people, not just yourself, and really do your research ahead of time before you put all your financial chickens into that one basket.

I think that’s something that everybody can definitely learn from today as they look at leaving their job and starting a side gig or starting their own company or pursuing their creative passion, to really look at what is marketable, what is commercial, what will make them their money.

Crawford: Yes, I think that’s right. I have a very successful brother-in-law who I admire immensely, who is the one member of the family who didn’t get a college education and he moved to New England and made cabinets and he did those kind of things that young men do and then and his business partner friend realized that what the town really needed were fresh fruits and vegetables.

And now they have a tremendously successful company that they just sold that supplies this stuff throughout New England and increasingly into New York state, and the company has some dealings in California.

I can assure you that my brother-in-law did not lie awake at night as a child dreaming of the day that he could run fruits and vegetables by truck throughout New England. But that’s what the people needed. That’s what they wanted. They responded to that market need, and they’ve been tremendously successful, and it’s a great American success story that has nothing to do with passion.

Hoff: Absolutely. I think another big theme from your book that I learned is don’t overestimate your capabilities in every area. So even if you’re very capable in one area, you’re very intelligent by anybody’s estimation, that doesn’t mean you’re going to make intelligent financial choices in every area that you want to get into.

For example, today we see a lot of people making millions in real estate so people think, “I’m going to snatch up properties. I’m going to flip them. I’m going to turn them around, and we’re going to rent them.”

It’s just not as easy as it looks if you don’t understand something totally, if you don’t really understand that area.

Can you talk a little bit about how Mark Twain did that? I know he was trying to get involved with mining and different industries that he wasn’t necessarily familiar with and so he became very gullible and vulnerable to people who wanted to swindle him a little bit.

Crawford: Well, he also had the disadvantage of being highly intelligent, right?

Hoff: Right.

Crawford: He was clearly a genius. If he moved to Nevada as a very young man and got interested in silver and gold mining as he did, he was a quick study and he could understand intellectually a great deal. He was glib and he was verbal, so he could throw around the jargon of a business and yet not be able to tell the difference between fool’s gold and the real thing.

I think maybe that is a curse on an entire generation of young people today who can master the jargon of a particular business, marketing communications or research or whatever it is and yet not be very good at it at all. Just because you can become a quick study on something rather than put in the years and years of serious study, even if it’s not book study but it’s hands-on shop for mastery of any given craft or trade, you’re still going to fail.

I think Twain failed repeatedly probably because there was some hubris involved and some neurosis but also the idea that because he knew he was very smart, he knew he was very clever. For these reasons, he overestimated his ability to do well at things he wasn’t suited for, as he later in life admitted.

Even though he admitted, he said one point, “Get me out of business. I’m terrible at this. I’m ill-suited for it. Help me.” And then two days later, he would wake up and there would be some brilliant light bulb above his head and he thought, “I’m going to do that. That’s great. This is going to solve all my problems.”

And then he would sink deeper and deeper and deeper and your heart breaks for the man because he’s so incredibly lovable. I miss him. Once I was done writing I missed his company. He’s just such great company.

This book is a comedy. It could have been written as a tragedy because your heart breaks for a man who’s on the one hand so irrepressible and boyishly enthusiastic about things, but everything comes to smash and his family is on hard times, his wife’s health was suffering and his health was suffering. And there are many sad things about it.

If he could have just stayed in Hartford, Connecticut, and written books, they would have had a fine life, but this just wasn’t good enough for him for reasons that it would take some psychologist or psychiatrist, which I am not, to explain. I don’t even try to explain it. I can’t explain a genius.

Hoff: Well, I think that’s probably something a lot of people suffer from in the sense that they we always looking for the next big thing and always looking for where my true talent lies and I want to make a big change in the world instead of focusing on what you’re doing and being the very best at that one thing, which is making you money and you can support your family.

And speaking of his family and his wife, what is interesting about Mark Twain, according to your book, is, he was very successful himself on his own right, but he married a very, very rich woman. And they squandered that money as well, both of them are to blame a little bit because they also lived above their means.

Even if they had the means to live well, they could not live within them. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Crawford: Oh, yes. I mean he married the daughter of a coal baron in Elmira, New York. They lived in a house that occupied, I think, an entire city block. It really is something that a poor boy like Twain had come such a long way, this not only inspired him but probably blew his mind to be with these people who were so gentile and educated and sophisticated and rich.

And even though this was, on paper, a terrible match, he wasn’t famous Mark Twain at this point. He won her heart, and he won her over, he charmed her father, and Twain married her. It was a wonderful marriage in many ways.

His father-in-law, by the way, as wedding gift, gave Twain a fully furnished mansion in Buffalo, New York, fully staffed. And then about a year and a half after their wedding, Twain’s father-in-law died leaving them in today’s money about $4 million. And then they immediately built a house in Hartford, Connecticut, that still stands. They entertained lavishly. They traveled to Europe to buy furnishings for this house and lived beyond their means much as Americans tend to do now. My previous book was on Thomas Jefferson. He did this, too, he was living on the imagined earnings from next year. Right?

Hoff: Right.

Crawford: I think that’s a real problem in America today for a couple of reasons, No. 1, as you say, people are told to go look for that next big thing. It’s not enough to be a good graphic designer. You’re supposed to change the world. We’re constantly told this in advertising, in marketing communications of all kinds, and self-help books. You can change the world. I don’t even know what that means. I guess they’re talking about Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos or something.

But most of us are not going to change the world. Most of us, and I know so many people like this that have very good and productive and financially comfortable present lives who don’t have a passion. They’re not looking for the ne next big thing. They go to work for an organization and they’re good at it and they get a lot of gratification from it. And the last thing that they really are thinking about is changing the world, and I admire those people. I think we should learn from them rather than try to learn from Edison or Tesla.

Hoff: Right. Exactly. We read about these people. I read once in this book about over-optimism, that you only hear the success stories. You rarely hear the failures. And so you get it in your mind that this person tried that and they succeeded. I’m as intelligent as that person is probably so I’ll succeed too. But the truth is out of 100 businesses that start, 99 a lot of times fail. At least when it comes to the beginning stages of being an entrepreneur, Mark Twain definitely exemplified that. While he became this extremely successful writer and speaker, all the other things he tried failed miserably.

Crawford: You know, you hear this stuff about, I think it was Gladwell wrote a book that says “to succeed at anything, you have to put in 10,000 hours.” OK, 10,000 hours. You play the guitar for 10,000, you’re going to be Eric Clapton. No, you’re not. You’re not. There are a lot of people that I know who played the guitar for 10,000 hours and in some cases they’re as good or better than Eric Clapton. These are not going to be Eric Clapton.

There are wonderful actors in New York that are still waiting tables. They’re better actors than Matt Damon or Emma Watson. We’re constantly being sold that they look good. One reason, I think, is that Americans are by nature kind of credulous. We want to believe that’s why we founded this country. People who believed that they could come here and they would be bold in the fountain of youth. We’re sort of programmed like this, but I think there’s a lot of mischief in it. If one lesson people could learn from my book is that they think seriously about this stuff because just because you happen to be genius at one thing, it doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed in some wild earth-changing, paradigm-cracking way. It’s probably not going to happen.

Hoff: Yes. Let’s talk quickly about debt because that’s something that our readers deal with a lot, people who get themselves into debt and have a hard time clawing their way out of that. Is that something that Mark Twain faced? If so, what did he do to try to get out of it?

Crawford: He was in deep debt and eventually had to go bankrupt with the help of a Wall Street Standard Oil robber baron that he befriended who helped him restructure things in such a way that they could sell a lot of their assets and then little by little they managed to get their way out. By the way, one way that they got out of some of the debt was that the publishing startup company that Twain established, that had to declare bankruptcy.

One way H.H. Rogers, the Standard Oil tycoon who helped arrange this, was to surreptitiously transfer the assets from the publishing company to its largest creditor who happens to be Twain’s wife. So Twain himself had no assets at the time that the bankruptcy took place, so he got out of it that way but then got along with his life.

After years and years of saying, “I can’t stand lecturing, I’m not going to do it anymore. It eats me alive, and the travel is hard on me,” which it was in those days, he embarked on a lecture tour that took him throughout a great deal of the English-speaking world and made a lot of money with lectures. When he was 60, when 60 was an old man, he managed to climb his way out of debt.

But think about it. How many of us have a tried-and-true gig that enables us to lecture around the world for thousands and thousands of people and make hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Hoff: Nobody.

Crawford: It would be great for us all to have a fallback position like that. I don’t. Not yet. I may. I may if I followed my passion.

Hoff: That is a great point. So yes, Twain did manage to get out of debt partly through these not-so-ethical ways of transferring the assets to his wife and bankruptcy and partially because he was famous and people were willing to listen to him and pay money to listen to him. If you don’t have that option, you should probably avoid debt to begin with.

Crawford: Yes, I would think so.

Hoff: Finally, our show is called Charged Up! What gets you charged up about looking at the past and seeing the same human failings that we experience in the present?

Crawford: This is one of the motivations of writing this book, people who read biography in order to think that they can imitate the person they’ve read about and learned. How did Mark Twain do this, or how did Thomas Edison do this? What leadership lessons can we learn from the life of Abraham Lincoln? A reading for the wrong reasons. The way biography and history can improve you and make you a better businessman because you’re a better person is because your imagination has been expanded and you have a greater sense of life’s complexities and difficulties and challenges so you come away a better person. I think that probably makes you better equipped to be good at whatever you do.

And in part, it’s correcting some of these banalities and misconceptions that motivates me. The previous book before this was called “Twilight of Monticello,” and it dealt, in fact, with Thomas Jefferson’s own financial problems and the deep debts that he got into. I live in Virginia, and I’ve taken many people to see Monticello. And what motivated me in that book was the desire to show what life was really like at Monticello, which is not like it’s presented today.

If you take someone like Mark Twain and you say here is this beloved figure, and rightfully so, but let’s look at how complicated and in some ways comical his life really was. His life in some ways is funnier than the books. And so with all of that in mind, that gets me charged up.

Hoff: I love that you’re taking history and giving it a new twist. You’re showing people that even these wonderful iconic figures of our past made some very poor choices and made a lot of financial mistakes. We’re not alone in this. Even geniuses did this, and we can learn from the mistakes they made and not repeat them again in today’s world.

Crawford: And Jenny, even you and I will probably be making some mistakes.

Hoff: Absolutely. It’s part of the human condition.

Crawford: Yes.

Hoff: Alan, thank you so much for taking time to talk to us today. I really encourage people to pick up your book because it is definitely one of those reads that not only gives you a lot of insight into a beloved American character and luminary, but it also gives you some lessons on what you can avoid doing yourself today. Thank you so much, Alan.

Crawford: Thanks, Jenny.

See related: Charged Up! podcast: How to start building wealth now


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Updated: 11-17-2017