Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour

I picked up “Education of a Wandering Man” by Louis L’Amour book without expectations. Someone had recommended it as a good autobiography of a writer. His life was fascinating. He offered a number of useful insights. What follows are some excerpts with additional commentary.

Education of a Wandering Man
by Louis L’Amour

This is not a traditional autobiography, it’s closer to a rough draft of recollections than a well-organized chronology (for the latter see the biography on the Louis L’Amour website). But I found it fascinating with a number of insights on life in the old West, self-education, and the craft of writing. It also communicates his tremendous love for books and his wide-ranging interests. What follows are a selection of excerpts to give you a flavor for the book, along with some additional commentary.

The Frontier

“Usually I am characterized as a western writer. I do not mind the term, but it is not strictly correct. To me, and to many others, I am a writer of the frontier, not only in the West but elsewhere. Wherever there is a frontier, I am interested; wherever there is a frontier, I am concerned. Much of my writing has to do with men on the western frontier, even when the frontier was east of the Appalachians […]

The frontier is that line beyond which man has not been, or where he is only beginning to go. I am, for example, concerned now (as I have been since I was twelve) about the frontier of outer space […]

This is the final frontier, the frontier without end, and those who explore it will be heroes of the future. There are endless frontiers out there, each one difficult, each one offering fresh discoveries, unexpected challenges, and rewards beyond belief.”
Louis L’Amour in “Education of a Wandering Man

L’Amour was born in 1908, when he was 12 in 1920 the New York Times published a article “Believe Rocket Can Reach Moon” about a presentation by Robert Goddard about how a multi-state liquid-fueled rocket could leave the Earth’s atmosphere and reach the Moon. The article was highly critical but coverage of Goddard’s experiments and theories were doubtless known to L’Amour and captured his imagination.

The Western Pioneers Were Select People, Selected by Themselves

No place I know had the story potential of the West, for stories about people, and those who went west were strongly individual.

The western pioneers were select people, selected by themselves. They chose to break the mold, to leave all they knew behind and venture into a new country, with new problems, new standards. Each was expected to stand on his own feet. He was moving of his own volition, on his own support system.”
Louis L’Amour in “Education of a Wandering Man

In one of my first jobs, an executive moved to the Palo Alto office from New York and set his family up in a small house. They had been living in a large apartment building: his wife became intensely uncomfortable not having people living above, below, and on all sides of her. They ultimately moved back to New York–where he was killed in the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

The pioneers faced a different problem, having to survive with little human contact for days or weeks at a time.

Someday I Would be Writing, with Knowledge, of What I was Experiencing

It is never easy to be hungry, never easy to be alone, never easy to believe in oneself when nobody else does. The rough times were made smoother by the realization that it was all grist for the mill, and that someday I would be writing, with knowledge, of what I was experiencing then. I had that advantage over many others who traveled the same road.”
Louis L’Amour in “Education of a Wandering Man

Entrepreneurship is often an emotional roller coaster. I think entrepreneurs are well served to keep a journal or log of their journey, capturing events and their reactions an insights about them. I think this helps to provide a useful emotional distance from all of the setbacks and near misses that pockmark the paths of market exploration.

 A Place that Lies Beyond the Pale of the Law or Fringing it

“Those who have never ventured away from the security of their cities, their diplomatic corps, or their business relationships must understand that there is a half-world out there, a place that lies beyond the pale of the law or fringing it: a world of people who move about, cross borders, lose themselves in crowds; a half-world that knows where illegal papers can be obtained, visas, licenses, whatever is necessary.

One comes to it easily if one mingles with that sort of people, those who live on the fringe. There are ways to pass borders, to avoid checkpoints, and to exist away from the eyes of officials. I am sure it is not as easy as it once was, but I am equally sure it goes on still.”
Louis L’Amour in “Education of a Wandering Man

I can remember leaving the comfort of a regular job and starting company in 1994, it felt like living on the fringe compared to the safety of a cubicle–although the wilds of Silicon Valley are several orders of magnitude safer than the places that L’Amour is writing about here. But the primordial soup of new startup formation has considerably fewer rules but more emphasis on trusted relationships, references, and a reputation for expertise and fair dealing.

A Myriad of Microcosms

“Our world is made up of a myriad of microcosms, of tiny worlds, each with its own habitues, every one known to the others. A neighborhood bar or café can be a comforting place to go, to talk with friends or acquaintances, people unknown just a few blocks away. Often, driving down a street, I notice such places and am tempted to drop in, listen, and enter briefly another small world people have created for themselves.

In some neighborhoods it is not a good idea at all, and better you should keep driving.”
Louis L’Amour “The Education of a Wandering Man”

These small worlds are not disjoint but partially overlapping: there are networks and hierarchies. This is true for communities and companies. Some barriers are solid like a highway or a wall that separates two neighborhoods. Some are based on distance, like the assignment of a team to multiple buildings where a 5-minute walk or a phone call can deter collaboration compared to folks in the next few cubes. Some barriers are based on habit or longstanding tradition, or a difference in world view driven by distinct experiences in two different groups.

In “A City is Not a Tree” Christopher Alexander suggests that cities naturally develop a “semi-lattices” with partially overlapping memberships  and complex relationships between groups and members: “The units of which an artificial city is made up are always organized to form a tree…within this structure no piece of any unit is ever connected to other units, except through the medium of that unit as a whole. The enormity of this restriction is difficult to grasp. It is a little as though the members of a family were not free to make friends outside the family, except when the family as a whole made a friendship.” But real life has both intimate groups that are messily intertwingled.

Dignity: a Certain Serenity and Pride that was Theirs Completely

“Yet there was no better time to learn about what the West had actually been. Many of those who lived it were still alive, and as the years of their future grew fewer, they were more willing to talk of what had been. Old feuds were largely forgotten, and time had given the past an aura.

The old cowboy might appear to be as dry as dust, he might scoff at some of the stories, but he was a figure of romance in his own mind (although he would never have admitted it) or he would not have become a cowboy in the first place. As the years slipped away, he began to want to tell his stories, and I was often there, a willing listener, knowing enough to sift the truth from the romance.

In every town there was at least one former outlaw or gunfighter, an old Indian scout or a wagon master, and each with many stories ready to tell.

One story engendered another, and sitting on a bench in front of a store I’d tell of something I knew or had heard and would often get a story in return, sometimes a correction. The men and woman who lived the pioneer life did not suddenly disappear; they drifted down the years, a rugged, proud people who had met adversity and survived. Once, many years later, I was asked in a television interview what was the one quality that distinguished them, and I did not come up with the answer I wanted. Later, when I in the hotel alone, it came to me.


They all had dignity, a certain serenity and pride that was theirs completely. They might be poor, they might be eking out at the last a precarious living, but they had dignity.

They knew where they had been and what they had seen and done, and were content. Something was theirs, something within themselves, that neither time passing nor man nor hard times could take from them.

I have worked beside them, eaten at their tables, sat beside them in sunlight and moonlight and firelight. I never knew one of the old breed who did not have it.”
Louis L’Amour “Education of a Wandering Man”

This passage relates to his travels in the 1930’s (L’Amour was born March 22, 1908 so he would have been in his 20’s) talking with western pioneers in their old age. I liked his “sunlight and moonlight and firelight” suggesting multiple contexts and multiple kinds of conversations.

One Becomes a Writer by Writing

“One is not, by decision, just a writer. One becomes a writer by writing, by shaping thoughts into proper or improper words, depending upon the subject, and by doing it constantly. There was so much I needed to learn that could only be learned by doing, by sitting down with a typewriter or a pen and simply writing.”
Louis L’Amour “Education of a Wandering Man”

I don’t think this is true just for writers. The intention to develop a capability or expertise normally precedes proficiency and is accompanied by a willingness to persist in spite of mistakes and performance that falls short of your expectations or goals. I think any creative job or profession requires more than rote memorization and the ability to simply follow directions–it has to be learned by doing.

It’s Risky to Break Up Teams that are Used to Working Together

“They put a number of us to digging holes four feet square and down to hardpan for concrete piers to support a building soon to be erected. There were at least a dozen of us on the job and the ground was partly frozen. After we got down a short distance, water had to be bailed out, so progress was slow. There was a husky young German, a couple of years older than I, and we got into a contest to make the work more fun. The average was two and a half holes per day, while several were doing three.

The German and I were doing four holes a day apiece. Our boss was an easygoing Irishman who saw what was going on and wisely stayed out of it, but the management in its wisdom decided he was not gung-ho enough as a boss and brought in a new man. Knowing nothing of any of us, he came suddenly into the area and found the German and me leaning on our shovels, having just finished our second holes for the day, while nobody else had finished one. He promptly fired both of us for loafing, along with another chap who had been doing three holes a day. In his first day on the job he had fired his three best men.

That, too, was education. I learned that when I was in charge I should keep my eyes open and understand the situation before I moved. And I learned it is also risky to break up teams that are used to working together. No matter what seems to be gained, much is also lost.”
Louis L’Amour “Education of a Wandering Man”

It’s a poor manager who confuses form with substance or who cannot be bothered to examine the results before tinkering with work process and team composition. Sometimes it’s a form of nostalgia or a desire for familiarity: “here is the way we did it at the last place I worked.” But teams hold tacit knowledge that can be easily lost if relationships are disrupted or severed. I remember watching a documentary on the construction of the Empire State Building that mentioned that teams formed in the construction of the lower floors. As the building rose to a height of several dozen stories, they would not go up to work if a member was absent: the stakes for breaking in a new team member 50 stories up were too high, the margin for misunderstanding or miscommunication too narrow to permit errors.

Each Rejection was Cushioned by My Expectations for Other Manuscripts

“Slowly, I was learning what had been written and how writers approached their various subjects, while always I was trying to get my own work published, first with poetry, then with articles and stories. But they got nowhere at all.

There was a steady flow of rejection slips. Once in a while, a handwritten word, Sorry, appeared on a slip. I was grateful for even that bit of attention.

My secret was that no sooner did I put something in the mail than I wrote something else and sent it off. Each rejection was cushioned by my expectations for the other manuscripts.  Too many writers put their all into one script, and when it is rejected they are devastated.”

Louis L’Amour “Education of a Wandering Man”

There is a lot to recommend in L’Amour’s approach to getting published. I think entrepreneurs should strongly consider it for their pursuit of sales opportunities. It’s better to pursue a number of prospects in parallel for several reasons:

  • You have very little control of the prospect’s time or final decision. You have some influence obviously, but in the end it’s the customer’s buying process that matters more than your sales process.
  • Once you have made a good offer, if you follow up too quickly, before the prospect has a chance to respond, you will find that you are “negotiating with yourself” and risk not actually discovering the prospects real needs or real objections.
  • To some extent it’s a “numbers game” in that it’s difficult to predict when a single sale may close, but if a half dozen opportunities all fail to progress you likely have one or more problems with your approach: value proposition, missing features, poor presentation, etc.

SKMurphy Take

Highly recommended. I have not really captured the flavor of the personal adventures L’Amour recounts or the incredible variety of books he read in his life.  But I hope I have shared some of the value that entrepreneurs may gain from his perspective on writing and life on the frontier.

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