Can You Carry a Message to Garcia?

In my latest career advice book Climbing the Corporate Ladder, I discuss the importance of taking personal responsibility for your life and career success.  It’s simple really.  Success is all up to you, and me, and anyone else who wants it.  We all have to take personal responsibility for our own success.  I am the only one who can make me a success.  You are the only one who can make you a success.

Personal responsibility means recognizing that you are responsible for your career and life and the choices you make.  It means that you realize that while other people and events have an impact on your career and life, these people and events don’t shape your career and life.  When you accept personal responsibility for your career and life, you own up to the fact that how you react to people and events is what’s important.

And you can choose how you react to every person you meet and everything that happens to you. The concept of personal responsibility is found in most writings on success.  Stephen Covey’s first of seven habits of highly effective people is “be proactive.”  My friend, John Miller’s book QBQ: the Question Behind the Question asks readers to ask questions like “what can I do to become a top performer”?  John makes his living helping people take responsibility for their career success.

In short, personal responsibility is an important building block of life and career success.

A Message to Garcia is perhaps one of the best know tracts on personal responsibility ever written.  It is an inspirational essay written in 1899 by Elbert Hubbard that has been made into two movies. It was originally published as a filler without a title in the March, 1899 issue of Philistine Magazine edited by Mr. Hubbard.  However, A Message to Garcia was quickly reprinted as a pamphlet and a book.

A Message to Garcia was translated into 37 languages, and was very well-known in American popular and business culture until the middle of the twentieth century.  It was given to every United States Soldier, Sailor and Marine in both world wars, and often memorized by schoolchildren.  Its wide popularity reflected the general appeal of self-reliance and energetic problem solving in American culture. Its “don’t ask questions, get the job done” message was often used by business leaders as a motivational message to their employees.

A Message to Garcia tells the story of the initiative of a soldier, Andrew Summers Rowan, a class of 1881 West Point graduate.  Rowan was assigned and accomplished a daunting mission – get a message to Garcia. The essay points out that Rowan asked no questions, made no objections, requested no help, but accomplished his mission. A Message to Garcia exhorts the reader to apply this attitude to his or her own career and life as an avenue to success.

The historical setting of the essay is the Spanish-American War in 1898. As the American army prepared to invade Cuba, which was then a Spanish colony, US military commanders wanted to contact the leader of the Cuban insurgents, Calixto Iniquez Garcia, to coordinate strategy.  Garcia had been fighting the Spanish for Cuban independence since 1868, and sought the help of the United Sates.  Rowan was given the task of getting A Message to Garcia.

Here is the entire text of A Message to Garcia.  The language and examples are dated.  But the message is timeless.  Enjoy.

A Message to Garcia

Elbert Hubbard

IN ALL THIS CUBAN BUSINESS there is one man stands out on the horizon of my memory like Mars at perihelion. When war broke out between Spain and the United States, it was very necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the Insurgents. Garcia was somewhere in the mountain fastnesses of Cuba — no one knew where. No mail or telegraph could reach him. The President must secure his co-operation, and quickly.

What to do!

Someone said to the President, “There is a fellow by the name of Rowan who will find Garcia for you, if anybody can.”

Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How “the fellow by name of Rowan” took the letter, sealed it up in an oil-skin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the Island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and having delivered his letter to Garcia — are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail.

The point I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?”

By the Eternal! there is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college of the land. It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this or that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies: do the thing – “Carry a message to Garcia.”

General Garcia is dead now, but there are other Garcias.

No man who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands are needed, but has been well-nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man—the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it. Slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work seem the rule; and no man succeeds, unless by hook or crook or threat he forces or bribes other men to assist him; or mayhap, God in His goodness performs a miracle, and sends him an Angel of Light for an assistant.

You, reader, put this matter to a test: You are sitting now in your office—six clerks are within call. Summon any one and make this request: “Please look in the encyclopedia and make a brief memorandum for me concerning the life of Correggio.”

Will the clerk quietly say, “Yes, sir,” and go do the task?

On your life, he will not. He will look at you out of a fishy eye, and ask one or more of the following questions:

Who was he?

Which encyclopedia?

Where is the encyclopedia?

Was I hired for that?

Don’t you mean Bismarck?

What’s the matter with Charlie doing it?

Is he dead?

Is there any hurry?

Shan’t I bring you the book and let you look it up yourself?

What do you want to know for?

And I will lay you ten to one that after you have answered the questions, and explained how to find the information, and why you want it, the clerk will go off and get one of the other clerks to help him find Garcia—and then come back and tell you there is no such man. Of course, I may lose my bet, but according to the Law of Average I will not.

Now, if you are wise, you will not bother to explain to your “assistant” that Correggio is indexed under the C’s, not in the K’s, but you will smile very sweetly and say, “Never mind,” and go look it up yourself. And this incapacity for independent action, this moral stupidity, this infirmity of the will, this unwillingness to cheerfully catch hold and lift—these are the things that put pure Socialism so far into the future. If men will not act for themselves, what will they do when the benefit of their effort is for all?

A first mate with knotted club seems necessary; and the dread of getting “the bounce” Saturday night holds many a worker to his place. Advertise for a stenographer, and nine out of ten who apply can neither spell nor punctuate — and do not think it necessary to.

Can such a one write a letter to Garcia?

“You see that bookkeeper,” said the foreman to me in a large factory.

“Yes, what about him?”

“Well, he’s a fine accountant, but if I’d send him uptown on an errand, he might accomplish the errand all right, and on the other hand, might stop at four saloons on the way, and when he got to Main Street would forget what he had been sent for.”

Can such a man be entrusted to carry a message to Garcia?

We have recently been hearing much maudlin sympathy expressed for the “down-trodden denizens of the sweatshop” and the “homeless wanderer searching for honest employment,” and with it all often go many hard words for the men in power.

Nothing is said about the employer who grows old before his time in a vain attempt to get frowsy ne’er-do-wells to do intelligent work; and his long, patient striving after “help” that does nothing but loaf when his back is turned. In every store and factory there is a constant weeding-out process going on. The employer is constantly sending away “help” that have shown their incapacity to further the interests of the business, and others are being taken on. No matter how good times are, this sorting continues: only, if times are hard and work is scarce, this sorting is done finer—but out and forever out the incompetent and unworthy go. It is the survival of the fittest. Self-interest prompts every employer to keep the best—those who can carry a message to Garcia.

I know one man of really brilliant parts who has not the ability to manage a business of his own, and yet who is absolutely worthless to anyone else, because he carries with him constantly the insane suspicion that his employer is oppressing, or intending to oppress him. He can not give orders, and he will not receive them. Should a message be given him to take to Garcia, his answer would probably be, “Take it yourself!”

Tonight this man walks the streets looking for work, the wind whistling through his threadbare coat. No one who knows him dare employ him, for he is a regular firebrand of discontent. He is impervious to reason, and the only thing that can impress him is the toe of a thick-soled Number Nine boot.

Of course, I know that one so morally deformed is no less to be pitied than a physical cripple; but in our pitying let us drop a tear, too, for the men who are striving to carry on a great enterprise, whose working hours are not limited by the whistle, and whose hair is fast turning white through the struggle to hold the line in dowdy indifference, slipshod imbecility, and the heartless ingratitude which, but for their enterprise, would be both hungry and homeless.

Have I put the matter too strongly? Possibly I have; but when all the world has gone a-slumming I wish to speak a word of sympathy for the man who succeeds—the man who, against great odds, has directed the efforts of others, and having succeeded, finds there’s nothing in it nothing but bare board and clothes. I have carried a dinner-pail and worked for a day’s wages, and I have also been an employer of labor, and I know there is something to be said on both sides. There is no excellence, per se, in poverty; rags are no recommendation; and all employers are not rapacious and high-handed, any more than all poor men are virtuous.

My heart goes out to the man who does his work when the boss is away, as well as when he is at home. And the man who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it, never gets “laid off,” nor has to go on a strike for higher wages. Civilization is one long, anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks will be granted. He is wanted in every city, town and village—in every office, shop, store and factory. The world cries out for such: he is needed and needed badly—the man who can “Carry a Message to Garcia.”

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  1. I understand the point of the story is to value personal responsibility and initiative but I’ve had a problem with it since I first read it.

    What is wrong with the clerk asking – is there anything in particular you need to know or do you expect a general overview? And – should I do this before or after the Milton project that is supposed to be complete by your lunch meeting?

    Even if Rowan knew that no one knew were Garcia was, why shouldn’t he have asked if he should assist Garcia afterwards or how long he should wait for a return message or similar items so he could best serve the president’s overall intent?

    Now, Hubbard does specifically refer to “idiotic questions” in his closing paragraph and perhaps would not consider these such. But the concept still bugs me.

  2. Thanks for your comment Beth:
    I understand your concerns with what Mr. hubbard has to say.
    His language is over the top.
    I can’t speak for him, but I believe he would say that your questions are not “idiotic.”
    I say this because they reflect someone who is willing to take personal responsibility — by doing what you can to do more than the original assignment calls for.
    I appreciate thoughtful comments like this. To show my appreciation, I will send you a .pdf copy of my latest book “Climibng the Corporate Ladder.”
    All the best,

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