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Teddy Roosevelt’s Strenuous Life Doctrine

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.” 

– Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt had every reason to take it easy. To coast. To live a comfortable, rich man’s life of leisure.

Born into one of New York City’s wealthiest families, TR had no need to find a job, much less one that required hard work. Suffering from debilitating asthma through most of his childhood, doctors demanded that he remain sedentary and avoid all physical exertion. Later, after enduring the horror of both his wife and mother dying on the same day in the same house, he could have given up and succumbed to grief, depression, and self-pity.

But rather than drifting through a life of “ignoble ease,” TR did just the opposite. He worked maniacally hard, both physically and mentally, cramming several lifetimes of careers and adventures into his relatively brief sixty years. He made a name for himself in numerous professional arenas, including science, writing, civil service, law enforcement, ranching, exploration, and, of course, politics. He willed his way to overcome his childhood illness and built his body into a machine. He never shied away from a physical challenge– multi-day cattle drives, big-game hunting, mountain climbing, rowing, tree chopping, boxing, judo, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, tennis, you name it. He refused to slow down.

So, why did TR choose to push himself so hard, despite the silver spoon, the poor health, and the heartbreaking losses? Was he certifiably manic? Running from his demons? An attention-addicted egomaniac? We’ll never really know why.

But I do know how he did it– how he managed to achieve so much in such a short period of time, and, probably most importantly, have a great time doing it.

I believe that all of TR’s personal and professional success can be traced to his single-minded commitment to living what he called “The Strenuous Life.” Living strenuously was his motto, his obsession, his only way of doing things. He once said “I believe in going hard at everything,” and he did just that– full focus, full effort, full enthusiasm, 24 hours a day. Historian Edmund Morris once described TR as an “energetic sleeper.”

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and nature preservationist John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park.

When I first learned of the concept of the Strenuous Life, I was at a very pivotal moment in my life. Perhaps the pivotal moment. It was 2009, during the depths of the financial crisis. I had recently suffered a perspective-shifting health scare. I was almost ten years into a potentially lucrative, yet extremely unsatisfying career, and struggling to figure out my next step. Despite having just earned a graduate degree in finance, I had no interest in a career devoted to building Excel spreadsheets for 70 hours a week. In short, I was drifting and confused.

One evening, I skimmed a few pages of Morris’s Pulitzer-Prize winning The Rise of Theodore Roosevelta book that had been on my shelf for nearly a decade, but that I’d never read. Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. 

While TR’s career achievements were obviously impressive, what grabbed my full attention was his “operating system”– his commitment to the Strenuous Life. He could have easily coasted through his days, but he chose to make them challenging, to make them strenuous. Whether reading a book or pushing a bill through Congress, he chose to pursue all tasks with focus, enthusiasm, and single-mindedness.

While it’s obvious that some of TR’s policies, quotes, and over-the-top obsession with “manliness” are not compatible with today’s culture (and can be downright offensive), his operating system– his strenuous approach to living– holds up more than a century later.

Teddy Roosevelt, John Hance, and the Colgate Party start down the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon. 17 March 1911.

Living strenuously may not be for everyone, but it’s been life-changing for me. In work and play, when I attack each task or goal with enthusiasm and purpose, not only do I accomplish more, I’m also happier throughout the process. And at the end of each day, I can rest more easily knowing that I gave it my all. 

Whether it’s the mind-numbing chore of catching up on email or running a 100-mile ultramarathon, editing a podcast episode or taking my daughters camping, my life is better when I’m leaning in– approaching my days with energy and focused effort. I’m a much better father, husband, friend, co-worker, and human when I’m living the Strenuous Life. 

So when my friends at Ranchlands asked if I’d be interested in hosting a retreat at the Zapata, I asked myself: What would I do if I had free reign of one of the West’s most spectacular guest ranches? How would I squeeze the most out of five days, have the most fun, and learn the most? What would five strenuous days at the Zapata look like? 

Well, here’s what I came up with:

Begin each morning at sunrise, jumpstarting the day with some outdoor exercise.

Climb a few of the 13,000-foot mountains that tower over the ranch.

Explore Great Sand Dunes National Park on horseback.

Spend time with some of the West’s foremost experts on conservation, regenerative agriculture, and land stewardship… and ask them tons of questions.

Record a podcast or two with some of the fascinating team members at Ranchlands

Discuss books and the West with like-minded, curious friends.

Eat amazing food, read books, go to bed early, and sleep energetically.

So that’s exactly what we’re going to do at the 2022 Strenuous Life Retreat. Every day will be focused and full, but not overwhelming. This is by no means a “boot camp” or some kind of macho suffer-fest. The retreat is our opportunity to squeeze the most out of a few days on this renowned ranch, surrounded by smart people, in one of the West’s most breathtaking landscapes. We’ll play strenuously, converse strenuously, and rest strenuously. 

My goal is for you (and me) to leave the retreat satisfied that we made the absolute most out of our days on the Zapata. But perhaps more importantly, I’d want us all to leave the retreat with a new or renewed commitment to applying the concept of living strenuously to our everyday lives.

To learn more about TR and his commitment to the Strenuous Life, here are a few of Ed’s favorite TR books.

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