Robber Barons

Robber Barons was the name given to exceptionally successful business people in America during the late 19th and early 20th century. Most of the Robber Barons came from humble backgrounds, and started businesses at times when many industries were beginning to grow substantially. 

Robber Barons were both admired as people who became rich and powerful, yet hated as monopolists who exploited their workers. In fact, these Barons were able to create such a large divide between rich and poor that Jay Gould, a gold and railroad Baron, once allegedly said “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.”

In 1890, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was passed, the first law enacted to limit the exploitation scope of the Robber Barons’ business practies. The Sherman Act outlawed monopolies and anything which unreasonably restricted trade, such as price fixing. Over the following decades, more business regulations were enacted, bringing the reign of the Robber Barons slowly to an end.

“No problem“

Cultures which work closely together, at some point, come up with insider jokes about each other. An insider joke is one which just about everyone in the one culture immediately understands. Hopefully, the spirit of these jokes is friendly and good-natured. The Americans have theirs about the Germans. And the Germans have theirs about the Americans.

“No problem” isn’t even a joke, it’s a phrase. More is not necessary, for every German who has experience working with Americans knows what another German means when they speak it: That Americans are often quite naive about a problem, about its seriousness, impact, complexity (from the German perspective).

So when Americans substitute the term ‘opportunity’ for the word ‘problem’, Germans can become a bit nervous. For many problems offer little to no opportunities. They are simply problems. And they need to be dealt with.

“What’s in it for me?”

The benefits need to be clear, concrete, personal. They must answer the simple question: “What’s in it for me?” When Americans make a purchase the key driver is the personal utility of the good or service.

This practical understanding of value is rooted in the United States’ most important contribution to the field of philosophy. Although Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America writes: “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States,” the U.S. became the birthplace of pragmatism.

American thinkers Charles Sanders Pierce, John Dewey and Henry James believed that the meaning and truth of an idea is a function of its observable practical consequences. All ideas are hypotheses which must prove themselves through experience. Statements are validated through action and consequences. Americans prefer practical success – benefit – over principles.

Forward Movement

In the United States, maintaining forward movement is critical to success. Americans purposely set high goals, hoping to “stretch” themselves. And although mistakes will be made, Americans see greater progress in learning from them than in setting modest goals. To be persuasive in the American context means to propose large steps forward and a vision of the future.

Americans say “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” The 19th century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” Americans take action in order to make things happen.


Americans pride themselves on being able to work through adversity, solve problems, have a positive and optimistic attitude. Americans believe in the power of motivation and self-motivation.

Self-help is deeply rooted in the American experience. Americans persuade by proposing how things can be done. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Coined by Elbert Green Hubbard, an American writer, publisher, artist and philosopher who was one of the most influential forces in American business in the early 20th century.

Opportunities in Problems

Americans recognize that problems are an inescapable part of life. Physicist Albert Einstein said that “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Americans, practical and optimistic, believe that  “every cloud has a silver lining,” that there’s a “light at the end of every tunnel.” They see a half-full glass which others view as half-empty.

Instead of dwelling on the problem as such, Americans quickly begin the search for opportunities hidden in a given problem. Difficult situations often require making difficult choices. To be persuasive is to demonstrate that you have searched for and identified an opportunity.


Middle English probleme, from Latin problema, from Greek problēma. Literally, obstacle. From proballein to throw forward. As in problem as a difficult situation.

The term Problem – problem – has in German a second meaning: topic or subject. Because Germans speak English as a foreign language they often use the term problem when referring simply to a topic or subject, and not to a difficult situation.

This leads to a misperception that they are overly problem-oriented, even negative, pessimistic, destructive. Language can be very tricky, especially when it is not your native tongue.

“My only regret ….”

These were the last words of American Nathan Hale just before he was hanged as a spy during the American Revolution. Hale, a teacher, joined the fight in 1775, at the age of 20. He quickly rose to the rank of captain, and, while serving under General George Washington at the battle of Harlem Heights, volunteered to go on a spy mission.

Masquerading as a Dutch schoolteacher, Hale spent a week collecting information on the position of British troops. However, when Hale attempted to return to the American side, he was captured. Based on the information that Hale was carrying, he was quickly accused of spying and sentenced to die.

Faced with his approaching hanging, Hale chose to look at his fate as a positive opportunity to serve, rather than a negative problem which he had to overcome. Consequently, Nathan Hale was hanged on September 22, 1776, without having made any serious attempts to escape his death.

“I have not yet begun to fight”

These were the words of Captain John Paul Jones, an American immigrant who volunteered for service in the Navy. During the American Revolution, he was ordered to sail to European waters where he was expected to attack British ships and seaports and generally create havoc.

In 1779, following Jones’ attack on the coast of Ireland, he sailed a squadron of five ships north around the tip of Scotland to a position near Northern England. There, he met a large merchant convoy that was escorted by two ships in the British navy (including the impressive 44-gun Serapis) and immediately gave chase.


It wasn’t long before the British ships gained the advantage, and Jones’ flagship, the Bonhomme Richard took critical damage and began to sink. Seeing this, the British captain demanded Captain Jones’ surrender.

However, rather than surrender, Jones responded with his now famous words “I have not yet begun to fight.” After this, Jones and his crew increased the ferocity of their attack so much that, despite their inferior ships, inferior training, and initially inferior position, they ultimately won the battle.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, an American author and journalist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, once lost a suitcase containing all but two of his manuscripts. The incident occurred when Hemingway was in Switzerland in 1922, before any of his fiction had been published.

The author had met with journalist and editor Lincoln Steffens who wanted to see more of Hemingway’s work, so Hemingway asked his wife, who was in Paris, to bring him his manuscripts. She packed all of the papers that she could find, but while she was waiting for her train at the Gare de Lyon she left her suitcase unattended for a short time, during which it was stolen.

When Hemingway complained about his loss to American poet Ezra Pound, Pound referred to the incident as a stroke of luck. The poet said that when Hemingway rewrote the stories, he would remember all of the good material, but forget all of the bad material. In this way his so-called problem would actually perfect his work.