Former President Teddy Roosevelt (TR) led one of the most exhilarating, adventurous and joyful lives in human history. It was a life built on four pillars, and the good news is every one of them is available to you. In fact, if you truly commit yourself to these four pillars it is almost impossible to not lead a healthy, fulfilled life.
1. Focus on the work at hand: Roosevelt famously urged people to be “in the arena” fighting the good fight and not critics or spectators on the sidelines of life. How did this manifest in his career, which saw him rise to the presidency at the age of 42? Simple. He focused on the work that was in front of him at the moment and not on plotting and scheming his way to some higher office. TR’s modus operandi was to put everything he had into whatever work he was doing and success, achievement and all the rest would follow.
How many people do you know who spend half their time and energy schmoozing and bullshitting and the rest on performing their actual work?Mindfulness is all the rage these days. Well, putting all of your attention on what is right in front of you is the quintessence of mindfulness and is exactly what TR did. Operating this way allowed TR to bust the rapacious corporate trusts, build the Panama Canal and conserve 230,000,000 acres of land, among numerous accomplishments.
2. Immersion in Nature: We all know that being in nature does wonders for the soul. I’m convinced that’s because our homo sapiens brains developed when we humans lived in nature as hunter-gatherers. It’s why we feel “at home” walking through a forest or a meadow. TR from his earliest days had an almost ethereal attraction to nature. At age seven he founded the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History, which housed all manner of dead insects and taxidermied animals he’d collected.
At age 25 Roosevelt unknowingly used nature to heal his broken heart. He’d lost his young wife and his mother, both unexpectedly, in the same house, on the same day. As if this story could get any more tragic, the date was February 14, 1884, Valentine’s Day. His wife, Alice, had given birth to their first child two days prior and the pregnancy had masked a serious kidney disease. His mother, Mittie, died after a brief spell of Typhoid Fever, which Roosevelt thought was only a bad cold.
At the time TR was a rising political star who had been elected Republican Leader of the New York State Assembly at the ripe old age of 23. But losing the two people he cherished most led him to quit politics and become a cowboy in the Badlands of Dakota Territory where he bought a cattle ranch 35 miles north of the town of Medora.
He spent those days surrounded by nature, observing the meadowlarks and magpies, and watching the cottonwood trees flow with the breeze while the sun set over the hill in front of his ranch house. One day he got on his horse with nothing but a rifle, a few biscuits and a blanket and spent a week riding the prairies of the Badlands, living mostly off some antelope he killed. In effect, he was allowing the beauty and spirituality of nature to heal his fractured soul. I actually wrote a movie about this episode of TR’s life that sold to American Film Company, but unfortunately, it never made it to a theater near you.
Roosevelt’s connection with nature was sacrosanct and nothing, not even holding the highest office in America, was going to break that. As president he traveled all the way to California to hike through Yosemite with famed naturalist John Muir. He also took regular walks outside the White House, paying particular attention to identifying the birds he’d studied his entire life.
3. Living the strenuous life (i.e. exercise): TR was a sickly child who was plagued by asthma. His father’s insistence that he work extra hard on his physical condition to combat his weak body might be the best thing that ever happened to him. It led TR to live what he called “the strenuous life,” which meant brisk exercise on a regular basis. At Harvard he boxed and played football.
In his cowboy years in the Badlands TR insisted on taking part in the cattle roundup, an incredibly grueling, month-long endeavor requiring 18 hours in the saddle in addition to branding calves, both of which Roosevelt did. In Roosevelt’s 1885 journal entry about the roundup you can just feel the energy and exhilaration that vigorous physical activity brought him:
“We know much toil and hardship out here, but we feel the beat of hardy life in our veins and ours is the glory of work and the joy of living.”
As president, TR insisted on riding his horse, alone, through Rock Creek Park in Washington. He used to skinny-dip in the Potomac River during the winter. And he even boxed regularly in the White House until one of his sparring partners punched him so hard he lost the sight in his left eye for the rest of his life.
4. Ironclad Integrity: Great, so TR focused on the work at hand, loved immersing himself in nature and exercised vigorously. But what good would any of that have been were he a serial philanderer? Or a pathological liar? Or a corrupt politician lining his pockets? Luckily, he was none of those things. Roosevelt lived Ralph Waldo Emerson’s axiom that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind.”
TR summed it up this way: “I care not what others think of what I do, but I care very much about what I think of what I do! That is character!” He didn’t fool around on his wife, Edith. He loved all six of his kids dearly. Bottom line: Unless you’re a sociopath, I don’t see how anyone can feel authentic peace inside unless they have solid integrity. Without it, I think Roosevelt’s life would have crumbled like a house of cards.
Will you be president of the United States if you focus on your work, get out in nature, exercise vigorously and lead an honest life? Probably not. But it is almost guaranteed that you will be content and fulfilled. All four of Roosevelt’s pillars are available to just about everybody. They’re there for the taking.