Julius Kruttschnitt, Sr., the one-time chairman of the Southern Pacific Railroad, worked 18 hour days “for considerable lengths of time” during a 43-year career with the railroad that was interrupted by his untimely death.
My seemingly indefatigable great-great grandfather was one of several industry leaders asked to respond to a 1920 Cosmopolitan article, “The Pace That Kills”, by Dr. Woods Hutchinson. The doctor argued that it’s better to keep working hard than to sit idle and dwell on your ills.
Kruttschnitt’s response offers a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of a great American workaholic, one who carefully honed a philosophy of work that was largely lost on future generations. Though he agreed with Hutchison on the curative power of work, Kruttschnitt issued an enigmatic caveat. “I could not see that any injurious results could be traced to the amount of work done, provided, however, it was done in a way not to cause irritation or worry.”
What could Kruttschnitt, who began his railroad career measuring ties to ensure train safety, possibly mean by working in a way that didn’t cause irritation or worry? Could he be saying that he had mastered the art of taking it easy at work? Probably not. Perhaps he was counting as work the many fine meals he took on dining cars, traveling from one inspection to another? That’s doubtful.
Kruttschnitt leaves future generations to ponder the following perplexing statement:
“I am convinced, from personal experience also, that one can train oneself to eliminate most, if not all, of the worry of work. I believe firmly that the amount of work a man does will not hurt him provided he does it in the right way.”
Ah-ah. So there should be no limit to the amount of work someone can do, as long as they have mastered the art of worry-free work. But how did Kruttschnitt train himself not to worry about his work, even as workers died building the railroad and passengers sometimes died riding it?
We know from his waistline that he indulged himself in the pleasure of food. We know from obituaries that he dabbled in astronomy. And we know from a memoir left behind that he used the early morning to “clear his mind,” no doubt practicing a form of transcendental meditation that’s popular in the family to this day.
But Kruttschnitt probably wasn’t referring to any of these things. His other writings speak to a belief that that one should love one’s work.
That’s the case that Kruttschnitt made in an illuminating, philosophical address to graduating students at the McDonogh School for boys near Baltimore, where he taught for five years after college. The accomplished railroad man recommended that students find work that gives them great satisfaction then immerse themselves in it.
“You can avoid worry if your whole soul is in your work by always doing your very best,” he said, adding that most of the world’s work is done by men of moderate ability. “But we can make up for our deficiency in ability by indefatigable industry….Watch the clock closely in the morning, so as to save your employer from doing so, but forget to watch it in the afternoon,” he said.
Kruttschnitt actually addressed the issue of worry in his speech. It is not work that kills men, he said: it is worry. “Work is healthful; you could hardly put more on a man than he could bear. Worry is rust upon the blade….You can avoid worry if your whole soul is in your work by always doing your very best.”
Kruttschnitt certainly practiced what he preached. From his youth, he told reporters, he wanted to be a railroad man. Even during the five years he taught at McDonogh, he honed his knowledge of engineering and the general sciences. Because of this study, “he acquired a far broader grasp of physics, chemistry, mathematics and astronomy than is usual in business leaders,” according to one memoir published after his death.
Very late in his life, after he had retired from the railroad, and shortly before he died, Kruttschnitt was asked why he had no time for hobbies. His response: building a railroad was the best hobby that anyone could have.
Despite working hard his entire life, Kruttschnitt wasn’t a complete stranger to stress. Late in his Cosmopolitan post, he allows that stress can indeed kill.
“If he does not do it in the right way, I suppose he can kill himself in a reasonable length of time by working only an hour or two a day or perhaps by not working at all.”
In the end, that may be the most fascinating tenent of Kruttschnitt’s philosophy of work: It’s not working at all that can really kill you.