Ulysses S Grant
18th President of the United States
March 4, 1869 – March 4, 1877
What is it about U.S. Presidents and the meaningless letter “S” in their names? The “S” doesn’t represent a middle name – “Ulysses” is his middle name. (Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant.) The “S” was a mistake in his application to West Point. By the way, the “S” in Harry S Truman doesn’t mean anything either.
“Hardscrabble”, the farm home Grant built in Missouri for his family. And when it named the house, he meant it. The family was broke.
. . .
Ulysses S Grant and the power of the “quiet ego”
Humility has become the “trendy” virtue in both business and culture.
As for the other classical virtues? Well, they’ve seen better days. Chastity? Just, no. Temperance? Are you kidding? Charity? Only when other people can see us do it. Diligence? Sometimes, but buckling down and simply doing your job doesn’t get clicks. Kindness? That’s in short supply in public life. Patience? The words of Freddie Mercury still ring true – We want it all; and we want it now.
Every culture has its own list of virtues, and I suppose I tipped my hand with the seven I chose. (I’ll bet you can guess that I grew up Catholic.) However, you see similar virtues in several other faiths and cultural traditions. Humility (or some version of it) always appears.
I suspect part of the reason we are seeing a resurgence in interest in humility is a growing culture of arrogance – in our interpersonal relationships, in government, in law enforcement, in the business quest for quarterly profits above all else, environmental backlash to unsustainable practices, and a failure to own up and reconcile the actions of our past that still hurt people today.
If there was a virtue that deserves its time in the sun, it’s humility.
But do we really know what it is?
I’m certain that we don’t, and I can prove it. Even the dictionaries don’t agree. Let’s have a look at several attempts to define humility and then see if they match our perceptions:
humility, n. the state or quality of being humble: lowliness of mind: modesty
humble, adj. low: lowly: modest: unpretentious: having a low opinion of oneself
– Chambers English Dictionary, 1988 edition
Note how many times the word “low” is used (four). Does being humble require having a lowly mind? That doesn’t feel right.
humility: freedom from pride or arrogance: the quality or state of being humble
– Merriam Webster Dictionary
I hate definitions that simply refer to the opposite of something else – a “freedom from something bad.” That’s like defining true health as the “absence of disease.” I’m not sure that’s what we mean by humility.
a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness.
“he needs the humility to accept that their way may be better”
Similar: modesty, humbleness, modestness, meekness, lack of pride, lack of vanity, diffidence, unassertiveness
– Oxford English Dictionary
More synonyms don’t make Oxford’s definition any more useful. The example of accepting someone else’s point of view is a better definition of empathy, not humility.
In a religious context humility can mean a recognition of self in relation to a deity (i.e. God) or deities, and subsequent submission to said deity as a member of that religion. Outside of a religious context, humility is defined as being “unselved,” a liberation from consciousness of self.
– The Catholic encyclopedia
My own faith tradition isn’t much help. This is simply a meta-philosophical exploration of the same concept the dictionaries are struggling to define. In this definition, if we separate “humility” from the concept of a deity, the word loses its foundation.
And finally, some data to ground our discussion. The perception that humility has become more common in today’s discourse is indeed grounded by quantitative evidence. However, note the prevalence of mentions of humility in literature the 1800s as compared with today – or even the 1950s. Yes, we see a slight uptick in recent years, but humility isn’t anywhere near the heights we saw in Grant’s day.
In other words, we’re primed. We’re thinking about humility, but we’re not quite sure what to do about it. I would argue that we’re struggling with taking proper actions in alignment with this virtue because we don’t have a sense for what humility really means. I am going to propose that we change our language.
Consider what researchers of the “quiet ego”—a construct similar to humility—suggest happens when we gain control of our ego: we become less likely to act aggressively, manipulate others, express dishonesty, and destroy resources. Instead, we take responsibility for and correct our mistakes, listen to others’ ideas, and keep our abilities in humble perspective.
This is what we’re truly talking about. In our other definitions, humility was a meek and powerless response to arrogance and aggression – a pure submission.
But there is a different interpretation. Arrogance is loud confidence, and usually considered a bad thing. (Sadly, it’s tolerated often in situations of power imbalance, or frankly, if the perpetrator is making money for their company.) Actionable humility is better understood as quiet confidence. It comes from a place of acceptance of limits and knowledge of self, but it does not break in the face of resistance. Ghandi’s example comes to mind.
It may seem like I’m falling into the Medieval trap of debating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, but definitions are important. They shape how we see the world, and more importantly, how we act in day-to-day life. But more to the point, the reason I spend so much time talking about humility is because without a better concept of that virtue, we cannot understand the quiet power of Ulysses S Grant.
. . .
What follows isn’t meant as a biography. There are several excellent examples, including Chernow’s Grant, published in 2017. Instead, I’d like to examine 12 episodes in Grant’s life and career – from his childhood, to his military career, to his Presidency, and to his final days – that show how he transitioned from a classical definition of humility to the more balanced position of the “Quiet Ego” between humility (the virtue) and arrogance (the vice).
Episode 1: A new name
Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in 1822 to a loudmouth schemer (his father, Jesse Grant) and devoutly religious, unpretentious mother (Hannah Simpson Grant). As a teenager, Grant’s father was able to convince Thomas Hamer, a Democratic Representative and political opponent, to nominate his son to West Point Academy. Hamer (perhaps accidentally, perhaps not) misspelled Grant’s name on his application: U.S. Grant. The U stood for Ulysses. The S is a mystery to history. Hiram is nowhere to be found. Arriving at West Point in 1839, the 117-pound cadet with the initials “U.S.” would earn Grant the nickname “Uncle Sam.” After years of trying to change his name on official paperwork, Grant submitted to the change and began signing his name Ulysses S Grant.
Episode 2: The animal lover
Grant graduated 21st out of 39 cadets in 1843. Perhaps the biggest reason Grant proved mediocre during his training was that he ended up reading more books on art and philosophy than military tactics and strategy. In fact, his only area of true success was horsemanship. He understood animals in the unique way that many people with Autism do today. (Although no diagnosis of Grant exists because there was no formal description of Autism at that time, many of his behaviors seem to match.) He was famous for his ability to tame the wildest, most “unmanageable,” horses in the stable. He did make a couple of close friends, but that was it. Grant was quiet, unassuming, and stayed out of the limelight.
Episode 3: His parents refused to attend his wedding
Before the Mexican American War began in 1846, Brevet Second Lieutenant Ulysses S Grant wanted to leave the military. He had just married Julia Dent – a strong-willed and devoted woman of southern upbringing. Grants own parents refused to attend his wedding because the Dent family owned slaves. Grant did not approve of slavery, but he loved Julia, and he married her without his parents as witnesses. (Grants’ parents, to be fair, loved Julia and welcomed her warmly … so long as her family didn’t come along.)
Episode 4: Battlefield organizer
During the war, Grant would receive field promotions to First Lieutenant and Captain, both for his bravery and especially for his horsemanship. But perhaps his greatest discovery, in addition to beginning to find his “moral courage” (he felt the United States was taking advantage of the weaker Mexican nation), was his absolute brilliance in understanding battlefield logistics. Grant was assigned the role as quartermaster, a sort of warehouse manager and supply chain coordinator, for his area of service. He seemed to understand that soldiers in the field could be individually brave, and that a general could win a tactical victory, but in the end, a better supplied force would win every time. In Grant’s experience, the true secret to success in any conflict were the boring things: food, water, tents, dry clothes, latrines, ammunition, and transportation.
Episode 5: Alcohol abuse in the Pacific Northwest
After the war, the Army transferred Grant to the Pacific Northwest (the modern states of California, Oregon, and Washington) to shore up the defenses for the Army garrison in gold country. Although he showed brilliance in logistics, bravery in the face of a cholera epidemic (Grant would treat people himself when others refused), and a deep respect for the native tribes, the assignment would not go well. Julia (pregnant at the time) would not go with him. A trusting person, Grant couldn’t understand how people could be dishonest with an army officer in business dealings, and several of his ventures during this period failed. In one particularly painful instance, Grant’s “partner” walked off with $800 of his investment – equal to about $27,000 today. Perhaps to sooth himself and his loneliness, be began to drink heavily. (Alcohol abuse would be something he would suffer with for the rest of his life.) Grant was either drunk or he was sober. There was no middle ground. Although he recognized the danger, but he could not stop himself once he got started. The Army nearly court martialed him for this behavior, but they accepted his resignation instead. Lost and broken, Grant returned to St. Louis to be with his family.
Episode 6: Desperation in St. Louis
With no prospects and no vocation outside the Army, Grant’s father offered him a position in the family’s leather business … provided Julia and the children did not come along. (Can I take a moment to editorialize here. That was a dick move on a scale I cannot fathom. I can only imagine how much that hurt Grant.) Grant declined politely, living on the Dent’s (Julia’s family) farm, and attempting to eke out a living. It was a tough existence, and Grant was desperate for money, so much so that he resorted to selling firewood on a street corner in St. Louis. But perhaps more telling, the Dents “gave” Grant a slave to help work the farm, but Grant could not bring himself to ask the man to do any work. In fact, Grant freed the slave (worth $1000, or about $30,000 today) and refused any compensation.
Episode 7: Unconditional Surrender Grant
When the Civil War broke out, both the North and the South needed all the able commanders they could get, even if that person had a history of drinking and was, most recently, a failed firewood salesman. His commanding officer, General Henry Halleck, didn’t much like Grant, and suffered from a massive inferiority complex. Early in the war, he saw Grant’s plan to take Fort Donelson and free access to the southern Mississippi River. If the North controlled the river, they could cut the Confederacy in two, with Texas (and the rest of the West) unable to help the other seceded states. Halleck “rejected” Grant’s plan, telling him that he wanted twice as many troops to take the fort. And besides, Grant’s troops had just lost an engagement in the same area. He wasn’t ready. However, Grant understood his men at an intuitive level. He knew they were experienced now, not defeated in any sense of the word. Grant “interpreted” Halleck’s order as “approval if Grant felt he had sufficient forces.” Because Grant did indeed believe that, he counterattacked. Grant didn’t exactly disobey a direct order, but he didn’t exactly follow it either. Suffice to say, Grant won decisively. He captured the entire 12,000-strong Confederate Army under a new set of terms that would become his trademark (and Lincoln’s nickname for him): Unconditional Surrender (U.S.) Grant.
Episode 8: Mercy at Appomattox
Halleck’s objections and rumor spreading about Grant’s drinking did not prevent President Lincoln from eventually promoting Grant to command all the Northern armies. Grant understood, at a grand strategy level, that the South could not withstand a sustained assault. In the harsh reality of attrition, the North could afford losses. The South could not. In the end, it didn’t matter that General Robert E. Lee was a better “tactical” commander – the kind of leader who could engineer a brilliant battlefield victory. Grant would apply relentless pressure. Despite what counterfactual fantasy authors might dream up, so long as Grant continued to push, Lee was doomed. Despite that inevitability, when Lee eventually did surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Grant accepted his opponent with grace and dignity. In a gesture of conciliation (that was a big deal in the 1800s), Grant allowed the Southern officers to keep their swords and sidearms. He also allowed the Southern troops to return to their homes with only their promise not to take up arms against the United States.
Episode 9: Protecting freed slaves
After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson (a Southerner) worked to give control back to Confederates in the South under the guise of “State’s Rights.” In practical terms, this put the lives (not just the livelihoods) of 4 million freed slaves in dire jeopardy. Grant’s army was the only real “force” on the ground – and Grant was even grudgingly accepted in the South as a fair dealer due to his treatment of Lee and his officers at Appomattox. Grant didn’t much care for politics and hated the drama of it all, but once he recognized the situation on the ground in the South, he learned quickly. Grant routinely used his popularity to “creatively interpret” Johnson’s orders and protected as many former slaves as possible from abuse. Let’s be clear: the situation in the South was bad after the war – for former slaves and for everyone else – but it would have been immeasurably worse had Grant not stood up to Johnson and his policies.
Episode 10: The first civil rights President
Grant focused on civil rights during first term as President, specifically establishing the Justice Department to prosecute the Klu Klux Klan in the South. Grant’s religious faith also influenced his policy towards Native Americans, believing that the “Creator” did not place races of men on earth for the “stronger” to destroy the “weaker.” While that may smack of its own kind of superiority to a modern ear, remember, we’re talking about the 1860s and 70s, not the 1960s and 70s. Lincoln may have signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but Grant did more than most (and perhaps all) Presidents to protect the rights of former slaves, much to the cost of his own political future. Grant truly did attempt to improve relations with the native peoples, but much like the treatment of former slaves in the South, those efforts we complicated by political and economic realities. (The Grant administration’s record with indigenous peoples is notably mixed. Grant himself mentions this in his memoirs.) Only his popularity as the “General who won the war” carried him to a second term, and only recently has Grant’s image as a politician been rehabilitated. Most people at the time thought him a failure as a President.
Episode 11: Broke again.
After leaving office, Grant went on a sort of “goodwill tour” across the globe. The United States wanted to show the rest of the world that it was now united and ready to take its place as a rising power. He didn’t need to do it, but Grant felt a duty to continue to heal the image of the United States after the Civil War. Unfortunately, the trip (personally) cost him a lot of money, despite the Hayes administration allowing him to use navy ships for his transportation. Desperate to earn some money when he returned, Grant invested in a Mexican railroad that relied on a new treaty with Mexico … that predictably failed to win approval, bankrupting the railroad and wiping away Grant’s investment. In another attempt, Grant invested (along with his son) in the plan from the unscrupulous Wall Street financier Ferdinand Ward. Do we need to tell the rest of the story? After years of service to his country and concern for everyone else, Grant was broke.
Episode 12: Mark Twain to the rescue.
If Grant wasn’t drinking (which he knew he couldn’t do without slipping), he was smoking. Cigars. Continually. The end of Grant’s story is sad and predictable – aggressive and terminal cancer. Terrified of leaving his family destitute, Grant went on one final mission: to write his memoirs. The sale of his personal notes and recollections could guarantee and income for his family and help recoup some of his tremendous losses. When it became clear that Grant may not survive to finish the project, Samuel Clemens (yeah, Mark Fucking Twain!), stepped in to help him finish. Grant died five days after his memoirs were published.
. . .
Chernow’s biography on Grant is masterful, and it’s where I draw many of these short anecdotes. It also took me over a year to finish his book – not because it’s a difficult read, but because Grant’s story is heartbreaking. In this grand arc of life, would it have been understandable had Grant slipped from humility on one side of the continuum to arrogance on the other? I think so.
I’m reminded of how the Greeks and Romans viewed virtues. The highest calling on the battlefield was bravery, but that wasn’t opposite of cowardice. The opposite of cowardice was carelessness – racing into a fight with no plan and no awareness of the danger. (The Germanic peoples of northern Europe were despised for their “berserker” rage for just that reason.) No, bravery meant understand the risk and accepting the fear … and then making the choice to act with a clear head. It was the balance that defined virtue. It was the balance that was difficult to achieve. It was the balance that defined character.
(It should be noted that Eastern traditions, Confucianism especially, explain virtue the same way – as a balance, not an absolute.)
How could Grant so masterfully achieve this balance? If we look back over his life, we see several struggles: in business, with his relationships, with misplaced trust, with his family, and with alcohol. I think his challenges grounded him, giving him perspective others without those experiences lack. His experiences kept him from tipping over into arrogance, even when it would have been so easy to do. When Grant looked in the mirror, I believe he saw a man who couldn’t think of himself above a woman, above a slave, or above a native person, even when the culture of the day accepted all those as true. That is not to say Grant was perfect. Far from it. Like many of his age, he thought he “knew what was best” for freed slaves and native people … and acted accordingly. His own memoirs admit failure and disappointment with a candor rarely seen in political figures.
That’s what I think we misunderstand about humility, and about virtue in general. We’re looking for absolute, black and white answers. Do this. Do not do that. But true virtue, as Grant understood it, was infinitely more challenging.
Grant’s experience shows us just how difficult balance truly is. But he also shows us that it can be done.
. . .
I sit down with product innovation expert Eric Wilkowske to try to find the balance point between customer empathy and engineering capability.
. . .
Is the customer always right?
. . .
Just like “humility,” customer empathy (the fancy phrase for listening to customers) has become trendy in product innovation circles.
That’s not a bad thing, of course, and I would argue that we have better ways to gauge customer sentiment and behavior than we ever did before, both quantitative – traditional customer surveys, flash surveys at specific moments, web tracking behavior, location tracking behavior, search queries, social media posts, in-store tracking data, facial recognition – and qualitative – focus groups, live chats, sentiment analysis, interviews, human intelligence gathering, ethnography.
In other words, we have more data than ever to help us analyze and interpret both customer desire and willingness to pay for new products and services.
But very little of that data helps us answer a basic question. What will lead to a more successful new product or service: Listening to customers or trusting your instincts? The question may seem like it has an obvious answer, but I’m not so sure. A reporter once asked Henry Ford why he didn’t ask customers what they wanted. Ford snapped back, “If I had asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me they wanted a faster horse.”
Funny, but probably apocryphal, you say. Henry Ford was stepping into a brand-new mode of transportation. People could not envision what they wanted. What’s more, if an ethnographer would have asked the questions, they would have discovered that customers wanted transportation – that was the “job to be done” in their lives, and the horse simply was the frame of reference.
Perhaps you’re right. We can’t know for certain, but let’s explore a more modern example: If Steve Jobs would have asked customers what they wanted in a smartphone in 2006, they would have told him (and did!) that they wanted a physical keyboard. They used their phone (primarily) for typing email and answering calls. Those were their “jobs to be done.” It took Jobs to envision a world of activities that no one could imagine doing on their smartphones – a world that we now take for granted.
Perhaps a more compelling way to phrase the question is this: Is it better to listen to customers or to create a vision of something completely new?
Now that is a high-quality dilemma.
Product innovation happens to be an area where I have deep, personal experience. I’ve participated in the development and launch of over 100 new products and services in a staggering variety of industries: Consumer goods, medical devices, aircraft parts, packaged cheese, special education curriculum, computer security software, agricultural moisture sensors, a patient storytelling platform, bandages that prevent dogs from (over) licking wounds, and bovine sexual health.
Sometimes I was an employee. Sometimes I was a leader. Sometimes I was a consultant. Some of them were mine.
In all my examples, I’ll bet you’re stuck on that last one. Yes, I worked on a cow sex product. And I’ll bet you’re dying to know.
Let’s talk about (cow) sex.
You’ll need a little context, but you don’t need to be a dairy farmer to understand it. Here goes: When female cows cycle into estrus (aka “go into heat”), they will mount each other in what appears to be mating behavior. The biological reasons aren’t important; it’s enough to know that it’s a female mounting a female. The bull, if he’s around, does the “real thing” and mates with the cow. The issue in a modern dairy farm is that natural mating is unpredictable. The economics of modern dairy operations rely on continually pregnant and/or nursing cows. A missed window of pregnancy translates into lost income. Profit margins are too tight to rely on randy bulls to take care of business.
In modern operations, a technician will artificially inseminate cows just as they come into heat. The trick is to know when to inseminate. Bull semen is expensive, and the vet’s time is as well. To solve the problem, they watch for mounting behavior – or if they’re not there (and they can’t be) they rely on cowhands to watch for it, hoping they’ve identified the correct animal. Experienced cowhands claim high accuracy and a “good eye” for mounting … a conclusion that usually is not borne out by the data.
Therein lies the problem statement: We need a reliable way to detect heat in a specific cow at just the right time.
My client had developed just such a product. It’s a brilliant idea, and today, you can buy them at any farm supply distributor. Imagine a scratch-off lottery ticket with a very sticky adhesive back. Place the “ticket” on the business end of the cow. Each time that animal is mounted (remember it’s the mountee, not the mounter, that’s in estrus), part of the silver will be scratched off – just like scratching a coin on a lotto ticket. The more times the animal is mounted (three happens to be the magic number for timing), the more material is scratched off. Now, if you’re creative enough to have a fluorescent color under the material instead of lotto numbers, a vet can simply scan a herd and inseminate the correct cows with freakishly good accuracy.
It’s cheap, smart, and easy. You’d think that product would be a runaway success, wouldn’t you?
You’d be wrong.
And if you think you know the reason, I’ll bet you’d be wrong about that too.
It all came down to the answer to this question: Do we develop a product that clearly works better than the alternative, or do we develop a product that makes money for the agricultural products distributor?
There is no obvious yes or no answer to that question.
Operators clearly needed a better solution, but distributors are the only efficient way to get product to a decentralized and localized market. Did I mention that the product is far cheaper to produce than any alternative – basically pennies per sticker? That sounds great to the end consumer, but terrible to the distributor’s revenue. Without motivated distribution partners, your innovation may languish for years while you try to sell to tens of thousands of busy farmers yourself.
Let’s assume you want to succeed before you go broke, what do you do?
You redesign the product to require some level of expert interpretation – ideally with an expensive new piece of technology that the distribution partner can sell along with the cheap ticket. (That’s precisely what they did.)
Not all my product development projects are as interesting a cow reproduction, but none of them were straightforward.
In each case, the answer was unclear as I was in the thick of it. Many times, even after the product hit the market, the right decision still wasn’t clear in retrospect.
Answers to these dilemmas, in my experience, come in two flavors.
The first is the predictable “yes” or “no” answer, backed up with strong viewpoints, a few high-profile examples, and catchy phrases – “The customer is always right!” or “People will know what they want when we show it to them!” Most reasonable people will tell you these black and white answers are silly, yet they’ll run out to buy the books and attend the seminars of anyone who has the confidence (hubris) to claim to know the answer.
The reason why option 1 is attractive is obvious. The second flavor is deeply unsatisfying – it depends or it’s a balance of the two. Clarity is power, and we flock to those solutions (and people) who can give us definitive answers to difficult questions. What they miss in that there are not simply two variables – two extremes – to choose between. There is a third variable: Time, also known as context. It may seem as though you can find some formula or methodology that will predict the right balance point for the right time and the right situation, but history (and my own experience) tells us that we can’t predict the future in complex, human situations.
Context is what makes yes or no answers so difficult. Most of the time, you fail. In my experience, even when you do everything right (and “right” is a loaded word), most products fail to make a return on their investment. That goes for so-called “breakthroughs” (the automobile) as well as incremental products (a third headlight that follows your steering wheel).
Definitive answers only give a false sense of confidence. True confidence (aka the “Quiet Ego”) requires walking the balance between two equally invalid extremes.
. . .
Books and Reference Materials
The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
By: Ulysses S. Grant (with help from Samuel Clemens)
Ulysses S. Grant: The American Presidents Series: The 18th President, 1869-1877
By: Josiah Bunting III