Monday, June 10, 2013

Getting Things Done, Old Style

Joseph Paxton's famous "Emperor
Fountain" at Chatsworth
We live in the worlds of Big Business, Big Labor, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Data and, in the last decade or two, Big Productivity.

There’s an entire industry that’s taken shape around productivity in the form of Getting Things Done (“stress-free” productivity!), First Things First, Franklin Covey, 7 Habits, the 4-Hour Work Week, a hundred apps, a thousand courses, and a steady barrage of articles all instructing us on how to use our time more wisely.

I am certain, this year alone, to stumble upon a dozen articles with advice on how to clear my email inbox.

We are challenged with “contexts” in our daily tasks, selective ignorance, interruption prevention and avoiding open loops.  Special red files store our life goals, which must not be mixed with the light blue files containing this Friday’s tasks.  Even our trusty GPS reminds us to pick up toothpaste when we pass the CVS so as not to have to make a second trip.

So, it comes as something of a surprise when we discover anyone before modern times who could get anything at all done.  But get it done they did, and many (whom we rarely hear about) lived extraordinary lives filled with an endless series of accomplishments.  I've had chance meetings with some of these folks in my research over the last few weeks and, for no other reason than I like their stories, share them with you here.

London's Crystal Palace, also designed by Joseph Paxton
Take Joseph Paxton, head gardener of the Chatsworth House, principal seat of the Duke of Devonshire.  Born into a poor farming family in 1803, Paxton became an apprentice gardener at 14 and showed such talent that by 20 he was running an experimental arboretum for the soon-to-become Royal Horticultural Society.

After a chance meeting with the Duke of Devonshire, Paxton became the head gardener at Chatsworth.  In At Home, Bill Bryson wrote that Paxton "designed and installed the famous Emperor Fountain. . .a feat of hydraulic engineering that has still been exceeded only once in Europe; built the largest rockery in the country; designed a new estate village; became the world’s leading expert on the dahlia; won prizes for producing the country’s finest melons, figs, peaches and nectarines; and created an enormous tropical hothouse so large that Queen Victoria toured it in a horse-drawn carriage."

Paxton reduced the Duke’s debts by £1 million, launched two gardening magazines and a national daily newspaper (edited by Charles Dickens), wrote books on gardening, designed and built the world’s first municipal park (which Olmsted used as a model for Central Park in New York), and became such an accomplished investor in railroad stocks that he sat on the boards of three rail companies.

For fun, and to save the day, Paxton also designed the magnificent Crystal Palace, in which the first world’s fair was held, as well as manufacturing a special machine that installed 1,000 feet of gutter a day to make sure the project was completed on time (and visitors stayed dry).

Amazed?  Make you want to go do something?  How about John Pintard?  

John Pintard's 1810 broadside featuring
St. Nicholas, good and bad children,
and stockings hung by the chimney
with care.  Was friend Clement C. Moore
paying attention?
Pintard took a break from his studies at Princeton to join the army and help George Washington defend Manhattan.  After the war, he entered the China and East India trade, becoming one of New York’s richest merchants; he then lost it all in a scheme to underwrite the national debt, landing in debtors’ prison.

He emerged as an auctioneer, editor of the Daily Advertiser, engaged as the secretary of the city’s first fire insurance company, and became clerk of the corporation that developed New York’s system for statistics.  Pintard helped organize the General Theological Seminary, served for many years as secretary of the American Bible Society, was instrumental in strengthening New York’s Chamber of Commerce, and founded the New-York Historical Society.

He played an important role in the establishment of Washington’s Birthday, the Fourth of July and Columbus Day as national holidays, and with friends Washington Irving and Clement C. Moore (and future assists from Dickens and Thomas Nast) brought the idea of St. Nicholas to America and established Christmas as an important family holiday.  Pintard was the energy behind the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, an alderman and member of the state legislature, president of the city’s first savings bank and an important promoter of the Erie Canal. 

And then there is the colorful Edward Zane Carroll Judson, Sr., better known as Ned Buntline, who was not so productive as he was effective in his various pursuits.   Born in Harpersfield, New York, Buntline ran away to sea at 12, made a dramatic rescue on the East River and received a commission in the Navy from President Martin Van Buren.

He fought in both the Seminole and Civil Wars, serving as a midshipman in the Navy at 15 and as a private in the New York Mounted Rifles at 39 before being dishonorably discharged for drunkenness.  He had an affair with a teenage bride, killed her husband in a duel and was lynched for it, surviving only because the rope broke.  (His four marriages and various relationships with women constitute an entire career in themselves.)

He edited magazines, sometimes with the sole intent of blackmail, and often just one step ahead of the law.

He toured the Mississippi River
Ned Buntline. . .what else did you
expect him to look like?
towns with a “concert troupe,” sold bogus scrip of Cuban revolutionaries, and nearly organized a secret army called the American Guard.  He also traveled the country giving temperance lectures--when he was sober enough to climb the stairs to the speaking platform.

Eventually he became a founder and leader in the Know Nothing Party which advocated, of course, temperance.  He was notorious as one of the instigators of the Astor Place Riot (23 dead) and a subsequent riot in St. Louis.  He discovered a young frontiersman named William F. Cody and introduced him to the world of entertainment.  He is best known today as one of the originators of the dime novel, and famous for the Colt Buntline, a Colt army revolver he presented (or not, depending on what story you like) to Wyatt Earp.

Paxton, Pintard and even Buntline--these were guys not so involved with “getting things done” or putting “first things first” as just getting up and doing stuff.  It’s daunting, and--except for some of Buntline’s more notorious activities--it represents a kind of straight-ahead energy and passion that’s inspirational.

It might be a good reminder, too, of Leonard Bernstein’s secret to achieving great things, and maybe the real distillation of all Big Productivity:  Doing great things, Bernstein said, involved just two items: a plan, and not quite enough time.