Disturbing advice from a poor boy named Fred

by | December 30, 2013

Fred was born in a one-room, dirt-floor, dilapidated shack near Hillsboro, Maryland. His mother was taken from him soon after his birth. He never knew his father.

Until the age of ten, all he had to wear was a coarse linen shirt reaching to his knees — no socks, shoes, underwear, pants, or jacket year-round.

He had no bed. To survive freezing winter nights on a cold, damp clay floor, he would sleep in a bag used for hauling corn. His bare feet were severely cracked from the frost.

All he had to eat was boiled cornmeal mush, which he ate with his bare hands.

When he was ten years old, a kind family in Baltimore took him in. He was given new clothes, three solid meals a day, and a bed to sleep in.

But most importantly, the mistress of the home, Sophia, began teaching him how to read, beginning with the alphabet.

To Fred’s anguish, the reading lessons were aborted by Sophia’s husband, Hugh, who explained to Sophia in Fred’s presence that education would do nothing but make poor Fred discontent with his circumstances.

Fred later wrote of the experience in his autobiography,

“These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things…

“I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man…From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”

Frederick Douglass, a black slave in the late 1820s, “set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”

Over the next seven years, Frederick tenaciously learned how to read and write in secret, resorting to the most creative strategies to escape detection from his masters. His hunger for education could not be satisfied, his thirst for learning could not be quenched.

His master’s words were proven right; once Frederick was educated, he could no longer tolerate slavery. At the risk of torture and even death, Frederick escaped to freedom at the age of twenty. He spent the rest of his life as a social reformer, orator, writer, and statesman.

Do you, like Frederick, hunger and thirst for learning, growth, progress, and freedom? What are you willing to sacrifice and suffer to break free from the chains that limit your potential, the fears that stifle your voice, the distractions that deflect you from living your purpose?

As we learn from the life of Frederick Douglass, I know of no better way to unleash a person’s greatness than through voracious, persistent reading of great books.

Study the lives of your greatest heroes and I guarantee that they were self-educators, avid readers, lifelong learners.

With first-world comfort comes the curse of complacency. Break that curse with a commitment to read more this year than you ever have.

Never, ever take your ability to read and learn in freedom for granted. Remember the staggering price Frederick Douglass and others like him paid for their education. Sear Mark Twain’s words into your brain:

“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”

The more you read, the freer you become. The freer you become, the greater value you can create. The greater value you create, the more you prosper, the greater your legacy.

Just ask Fred, the boy who raised himself from the nightmare of slavery to the joy of freedom through self-education.

(For more tools to break from your limitations and live your purpose, click here to download my free toolkit now.)

Reading challenge

I challenge you to read at least twelve great books — one book per month — over the next twelve months.

Need some recommendations? Check out my list of favorites. Also, here are the books that knocked my socks off recently:


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