Some of them hated it. Some of them loved it. All of them learned from it.
Since George Washington’s inauguration, 44 men have occupied the White House to perform one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Some defined their terms with great accomplishments or grave misjudgments; others barely made a mark on history. Yet all strove to fulfil their mandate to the best of their abilities and live up to the incredible expectations placed upon them.
Whether they succeeded or failed, our fascination with presidents’ leadership styles, habits, decisions and personalities continue long after they leave office. Their perspectives and pronouncements are dissected over and over as we seek to understand what these men, who went through an experience most Americans can barely conceptualize, can teach us about life.
In honour of Presidents’ Day, we’ve rounded up a list of some of the best advice from 32 presidents past and present on how to do and be your best, no matter how challenging your job is.
George Washington, 1789-1797: “Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company.”
John Adams, 1797-1801: “You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.”
Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1809: “When angry, count 10, before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.“
James Monroe, 1817-1825: “It is by a thorough knowledge of the whole subject that [people] are enabled to judge correctly of the past and to give a proper direction to the future.”
John Quincy Adams, 1825-1829: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
Andrew Jackson, 1829-1837: “Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”
Martin Van Buren, 1837-1841: “All the lessons of history and experience must be lost upon us if we are content to trust alone to the peculiar advantages we happen to possess.”
John Tyler, 1841-1845: “Wealth can only be accumulated by the earnings of industry and the savings of frugality.”
Millard Fillmore, 1850-1853: “An honorable defeat is better than a dishonorable victory.”
James Buchanan, 1857-1861: “A long visit to a friend is often a great bore. Never make people twice glad.”
Abraham Lincoln, 1861-1865: “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.”
Ulysses S. Grant, 1869-1877: “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”
Rutherford B. Hayes, 1877-1881:“For honest merit to succeed amid the tricks and intrigues which are now so lamentably common, I know is difficult; but the honour of success is increased by the obstacles which are to be surmounted. Let me triumph as a man or not at all.”
James Garfield, 1881: “Be fit for more than the thing you are now doing. Let everyone know that you have a reserve in yourself; that you have more power than you are now using. If you are not too large for the place you occupy, you are too small for it.”
Chester Arthur, 1881-1885: “Good ball players make good citizens.”
Grover Cleveland, 1885-1889, 1893-1897: “Whatever you do, tell the truth.”
Teddy Roosevelt, 1901-1909: “We must dare to be great; and we must realise that greatness is the fruit of toil and sacrifice and high courage.”
William Taft, 1909-1913: “Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood.”
Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1921: “One cool judgment is worth a thousand hasty counsels. The thing to be supplied is light, not heat.”
Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb … Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1945: “Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world which you will find before you.”
Harry S. Truman, 1945-1953: “I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.”
Dwight Eisenhower, 1953-1961: “Neither a wise man or a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”
John F. Kennedy, 1961-1963: “Life is never easy. There is work to be done and obligations to be met — obligations to truth, to justice, and to liberty.”
Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963-1969: “If we succeed, it will not be because of what we have, but it will be because of what we are; not because of what we own, but, rather because of what we believe.”
Richard Nixon, 1969-1974: “The American dream does not come to those who fall asleep.”
Jimmy Carter, Jr., 1977-1981: “Piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989: “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993: “No problem of human making is too great to be overcome by human ingenuity, human energy, and the untiring hope of the human spirit.”
Bill Clinton, 1993-2001: “If you live long enough, you’ll make mistakes. But if you learn from them, you’ll be a better person. It’s how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit.”
George W. Bush, 2001-2009: “Life takes its own turns, makes its own demands, writes its own story, and along the way, we start to realise we are not the author.”
Barack Obama, 2009-present: “One voice can change a room. And if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city. And if it can change a city, it can change a state. And if it can change a state, it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world. Your voice can change the world.”
Additional editing and reporting by Jill Klausen and Elizabeth Wilke.
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