Russell Conwell was a baptist minister, the first president of Temple University and a captain during the Civil War. At the ten year reunion of his troops, he delivered the Acres of Diamonds speech. He was asked to deliver the speech thousands of times in cities all over the world. Ticket sales paid for his travel and accommodations. The remaining money he sent back to Temple, where it paid for the education of nearly 2000 students.
The speech is a commentary on attitudes toward money and wealth. It urges the audience to discover the wealth in front of them rather than search far off places in vain or believe that success is unattainable.
You may read and listen to the speech at AmericanRhetoric.com.
You may download the ebook free at ManyBooks.net.
I’ll wait for you. When you’re finished, let’s discuss the ten most important lessons we learned.
#1 Wealth is in your own Backyard
The speech begins with an anecdote about a man who owned a large farm and was “wealthy and contended” until he learned of diamonds. He became so consumed with desire for these gems that he sold all he had and left his family to search the world for diamonds. In the end, he found none. Penniless and exhausted, he threw himself into the ocean. The man who bought the farm from him soon discovered the earth was filled with diamonds and became filthy rich.
Conwell reinforces this point with the story of a mineralogist who sold his home to hunt for wealthy mines. His home, of course, was soon found to be atop a huge fortune in silver.
The moral is that attaining wealth is only a matter of exploring what is close at hand.
#2 The Bible does not say “Money is the Root of all Evil”
Conwell rejects the common belief that in order to be pious, one must be poor. He insists that “ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men of America are honest”. To attain wealth is a noble thing because “you can do more good with it than you could without it”. A student of his challenges him, certain that scripture states “money is the root of all evil”.
“Go out into the chapel and get the Bible,” Conwell tells him. “And show me the place.”
The young man returned, poked his finger into the book and read: “The love of money is the root of all evil.”
Not money, but the love of money is evil.
“That man who hugs the dollar until the eagle squeals,” Conwell says, “has in him the root of all evil.”
#3 To be Successful in Business, Get to Know your Customers
Conwell challenges business owners who insist they cannot get rich in their town. He asks them about their neighbors. Where are they from? What do they do in their spare time? What do they want and need?
To the man who does not care about the answers to those questions, he replies: “If you had cared enough about him to take an interest in his affairs, to find out what he needed, you would have been rich.”
#4 It is Criminal to not Make a Profit on What you Sell
The overly pious insist that it is sinful to profit on a transaction. Conwell replies that “you cannot trust a man with your money who cannot take care of his own.” You have no right to injure your own business out of charity. To serve your community and customers, you must be a strong and stable institution. You are no good to anyone if you cannot take care of yourself.
#5 To Inherit a Great Amount is a Curse
To be born with plenty and therefore be without the drive to make something of oneself is a handicap. He pities the children of the wealthy. They will never know the best things in life. “One of the best things in our life is when a young man has earned his own living.”
Much better than money is to leave your children with education, a noble character, a wide circle of friends and an honorable name. Continually he rebukes those who believe capital is required to make one rich. He responds with a story about a man who began whittling toys from firewood and, by observing what his own children wanted, built himself into a millionaire.
#6 “How Fortunate that Young Man who Loses the First Time he Gambles.”
Failure is the best teacher. To make a risky move and lose teaches one to act with more caution and wisdom. He tells the tale of a man who spends half of his tiny amount of money on things no one wants. After that, he searches until he has found a demand, then commits his capital to supplying that. On this principle, the man turned 62 ½ cents into 40 million dollars.
#7 Success Comes to the Observant
Conwell details the story of John Jacob Astor, who was renting a store to bonnet-makers who could not pay their bills. He started a partnership with the same people in the same store. He went across the street, sat on a park bench and watched the women walk by. When he saw one walk past with confident posture and a smile on her face, he took note of her bonnet. Then he went inside the store, described the bonnet, asked them to make more just like it and put them in the window. They would not make a single bonnet until Astor told them what to make. The store blossomed with success.
#8 Truly Great People Never Appear Great
The greatest people are plain, straightforward, earnest and practical. You’d never know they were great until you’d seen something they did. Their neighbors never see greatness in them. They call them by their first names and treat them the same no matter what heights they reach.
He remembers the time he met Abraham Lincoln, just days before his death. Initially he was intimidated by the importance of him, but quickly he was put at ease by the ordinary, comfortable farmer-like quality of the President.
#9 Apply Yourself Wholly to your Task Until it is Complete.
Another lesson Conwell took from Lincoln: “Whatsoever he had to do at all, he put his whole mind in to it and held it and held it all there until that was all done.” When Conwell was led before the President in his office, Lincoln was stooped over papers. He remained there for some time while Conwell anxiously waited. Then he tied up his documents and focussed fully on his guest: “I am a very busy man and have only a few minutes to spare. Now tell me in the fewest words what it is you want.”
When their business was concluded, Lincoln gave a crisp “Good morning” and went on to the next set of papers. Conwell excused himself.
#10 An Office will not Make you Great
“You think you are going to be made great by an office, but remember that if you are not great before you get the office, you won’t be great when you secure it.” An elected official should be the representative of great people and therefore can only be as great as his constituents. When too many great people get elected into office, Conwell says we will have the makings of an empire, rather than a democracy. Title and position is no replacement for character.
The truly great people go about their daily business with honor and integrity. The proud and egotistical man “is nothing but a puffed-up balloon, held down by his big feet.”
What I Learned
The part that struck me most was Conwell’s attitude on the nobility of attaining wealth. I entered and exited college as an idealist who believed the forces of money would corrupt me as an artist. To write products would ruin me. I would write truth and beauty and insight and all that blah-blah. I should have learned how to make some money.
Years have given me perspective. Income would liberate me as an artist. With the bills paid and time remaining in my week, I can express myself freely. Ignoring economic needs forces me to face them eventually and ignore my craft.
What did you take away from Acres of Diamonds?
- Photo of Russell Conwell in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons