(Quotes) - Titan: the Life of John D. Rockfeller


Sometimes I write up BookNotes, but since I had read this book so long ago, I decided to write up

instead, and am storing the most interesting quotes (somewhat organized) below:

American Context:

  • Mark Twain singled out the California gold rush as the watershed event that sanctified a new money worship and debased the country’s founding ideals. (33)
  • As farm boys in uniform were exposed to cities and given titillating glimpses of luxury goods and urban sophistication, consumerism received a huge impetus. (71)
  • A new cult of opportunity sprang up, producing a generation of business leaders for whom work was the greatest adventure life afforded. (98)
  • Europe emerged rapidly as the foremost market for American kerosene, importing hundreds of barrels yearly during the Civil War. (102)
  • As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention.” (287)
  • That he created one of the first multinational corporations, selling kerosene around the world and setting a business pattern for the next century, was arguably his greatest feat. As he said, “Our nation was in a state of transition from agriculture to wholesale manufacture and commerce, and we had to invent methods and machinery as we went along.” (228)

Heavy duty-driven Baptist upbringing

  • “His Baptist upbringing also predisposed him to follow the cult of perpetual self-improvement that played so prominent a role in nineteenth-century American culture. (20)
  • Eliza trainer her children to reflect coolly before making decisions; her frequent admonition “We will let it simmer” was a saying John employed throughout his business career. (22)
  • Each night, when they got into bed, they turned to their siblings and said, “Do you forgive me all I have done to you today?” By the time they fell asleep, the air had been cleared of all recriminations or festering anger. (32)
  • “The impression was gaining ground with me that it was a good thing to let the money be my slave and not make myself a slave to money. (32)
  • “It has seemed as if I was favored and got increase because the Lord knew that I was going to turn around and give it back.” (55)
  • A fateful contradiction lay at the heard of this Puritan culture, for the virtues of godly people made them rich, and these riches, in turn, threatened to undermine that godliness. (56)
  • “Because you have got a start, you think you are quite a merchant; look out, or you will lose your head- go steady. Are you going to let this money puff you up? Keep your eyes open.” (Rockefeller to himself) (67)
  • “These intimate conversations with myself, I’m sure, had a great influence on my life I was afraid I could not stand my prosperity, and tries to teach myself not to get puffed up with any foolish notions.” (67)
  • One Sunday, an employee came rushing in to tell Rockefeller that the river was rising dangerously and might sweep away their barrels. Rockefeller, preparing for church, put on his hat with aplomb, said he had to go to prayer, and refused to attend to business. (The barrels survived the flooding intact) (82)
  • To Sunday-school classes, he frequently reiterated his motto, “I believe it is a religious duty to get all the money you can, fairly and honestly; to keep all you can, and to give away all you can.” (190)
  • In fact, his motivation for churchgoing was quite simple: Aside from the spiritual pleasure of prayer, he was loath to give up contact with ordinary people, many of them old friends. The church retained many blue-collar members, enabling Rockefeller to chat amiably with a blacksmith or mechanic. (451)

Fearless, daring and calculating personality

  • “Now James, you can knock my head off but you might as well understand that you can’t scare me.” (84)
  • Daring in design, cautious in execution- it was a formula he made his own throughout his career. (85)
  • Having discarded several older partners, the young man had no real business mentors, heroes, or role models and was beholden to no one. John D. Rockefeller was not only self-made but self-invented and already had an unyielding faith in his own judgement. (88)
  • He believed there was a time to think and then a time to act. He brooded over problems and quietly matured plans over extended periods. Once he had made up his mind, however, he was no longer troubled by doubts and pursued his vision with undeviating faith. Unfortunately, once in that state of mind, he was all but deaf to criticism. He was like a projectile that, once launched, could never be stopped, never recalled, never diverted. (230)

Rockefeller: the homebody

  • “I was meeting all the people I needed to meet in my day’s work… My family would rather have me at home - even if I were snoring in an easy chair- than going out for the evening, and certainly I preferred to stay at home. (121)
  • Thus walled off from temptation, Rockefeller was virtually untouched by the decadence of the Gilded Age. (121)
  • He worked at a more leisurely pace than many other executives, napping daily after lunch and often dozing in a lounge chair after dinner. To explain his extraordinary longevity, he later said, doubtless overstating the matter, “I’m here because I shirked: did less work, lived more in the open air, enjoyed the open air, sunshine and exercise.” (122)
  • As the son of a self-absorbed absentee father, he made a point of being an affectionate parent and something of a homebody. (123)

Fear of death

  • As he carefully plotted his moves in order to live to one hundred, Rockefeller placed great store in following the same daily schedule down to the second. (502)
  • As she remained at Forest Hill, John was away for months at a time - remarkable for a man who had been inseparable from his wife. He must have felt that his own health would be jeopardized if he varied his rituals. He was also uncomfortable around illness, which served as an unpleasant reminder of his own mortality. (503)

On his wife:

  • For all that, Laura was no shallow philistine and had a wide range of interest in art, culture, and society. She played the piano for three hours daily and often accompanied John in duets, but she also had a taste for literature and poetry and could be an entertaining conversationalist. (91)
  • As her son said, she “talked to us constantly about duty - and displeasing the Lord and pleasing your parents. She instilled a personal consciousness of right and wrong, training our wills and getting us to ant to do the things we ought to do.” (127)

Monopolies vs Capitalism

  • Worse, the oil market wasn’t correcting itself according to the self-regulating mechanism dear to neoclassical economists. Producers and refiners didn’t shut down operations in the expected numbers, causing Rockefeller to doubt the workings of Adam Smith’’s theoetical invisible hand: “So many wells were flowing that the price of oil kept falling, yet they went right on drilling.” The industry was trapped in a full blown crisis of overproduction with no relief in sight. (130)
  • Rockefeller and other industrial captains conspired to kill competitive capitalism in favor of a new monopoly capitalism. (148)
  • If the most creative and dynamic of economic systems, capitalism can also seem wasteful and inefficient to those who endure its rocky transitions and violent dislocations. By bringing forth superior methods, capitalism renders existing skills and equipment outmoded and thus fosters unceasing turmoil and change. (149)
  • Realizing that the higher the economic peaks the deeper the subsequent troughs, Rockefeller feared booms no less than busts. (150)
  • As the owner of about one quarter of the shares of the old trust, Rockefeller now got a one-quarter share of the new Standard Oil of New Jersey, plus about one quarter of the thirty-three independent subsidiary companies created by the division. (556)
  • At first, investors did not know how to value the shares of these Standard Oil components, since Rockefeller had resisted a New York Stock Exchange listing and the old trust never issued reports to shareholders. As one Wall Street publication warned on the eve of trading, the value of the new companies was “the merest guesswork.” (557)


  • He opted for the Spelman name, thus giving birth to Spelman Seminary, renamed Spelman College in 1924. It developed into one of America’s most respected schools for black women, counting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mother and grandmother among its many prominent alumnae. (240)
  • The most perplexing issue for Rockefeller was how to square philanthropy with self-reliance. His constant nightmare was that he would promote dependence, sapping the Protestant work ethic. (468)
  • A donor’s highest ideal should be to give birth to an institution that would then enjoy a life totally independent of him. (496)
  • “John, we have money,” he told his son, “but it will have value for mankind only as we can find able men with ideas, imagination and courage to put it into productive use.” (472)
  • That Rockefeller placed scientists, not lay trustees, in charge of expenditures was thought revolutionary. This was the institute’s secret formula: gather great minds, liberate them from petty cares, and let them chase intellectual chimeras without pressure or meddling. (472)
  • Rockefeller had surpassed his great rival’s benefactions and must rank as the greatest philanthropist in American history. (566)
  • Of the $530 million he gave away during his lifetime, $450 million went directly or indirectly into medicine. (570)
  • Staunchly convinced that society meter out just deserts, he believed that the rich had been recompensed for superior intelligence and enterprise. (469)
  • Quite apart from the questions of persons converted, the mere commercial results of missionary effort to our own land is worth, I had almost said, a thousand-fold every year of what is spent on missions. (on why to invest in missions) (499)
  • “Here was a means of quickly establishing a basis of conversation and rapport with people he saw, which he enjoyed.” (on J D Rockefeller giving away dimes) (614)

Public Relations

  • “We have gone upon the principle that it were better to attend to our business and pay no attention to the newspapers, with the idea that if we were right they could not permanently injure us, and if we wrong all their comments, though favorable, would not make it right.” (267)
  • It remains of the great case studies of that a single journalist, armed with the facts, can do against seemingly invincible powers. (of Ida Tarbell) (443)
  • A single citizen has promised to bail out Wall Street. (of J D Rockefeller) (543)
  • During the 1907 panic, Rockefeller, for the first time, appeared civic-minded to the general public and garnered lavish praise. (544)
  • Garfield was the first of many presidential contenders who grappld with the quandary of whether it made better sense to court Rockefeller’s money or capitalize on public animosity against him. (211)
  • Businessmen such as Rockefeller preferred to think of themselves as victims of political extortion, not as initiators of bribes. (209)

Management skills/technique

  • Taking for granted the growth of his empire, he hired talented people as found, not as needed. (177)
  • His correspondence is replete with inquiries about sick or retired employees. Reasonably generous in wages, salaries, and pensions, he paid somewhat above the industry average. (177)
  • Rockefeller worked by subtle hints, doling out praise sparingly to employees and budging them along. At first, he tested them exhaustively, yet once he trusted them, he bestowed enormous power upon them and didn’t intrude unless something radically misfired. “Often the best way to develop workers - when you are sure they have character and think they have ability - is to take them to a deep place, throw them in and make them sink or swim.” ( 178)
  • As soon as you can, get someone whom you can rely on, train him in the work, sit down, cok up your heels, and think out some way for the Standard Oil to make some money. (190)
  • Few outsiders knew that one of Rockefeller’s greatest talents was to manage and motivate his diverse associates. As he said, “it is chiefly to my confidence in men and my ability to inspire their confidence in me that I owe my success in life.” (223)
  • He saw Rockefeller as a man of superior judgement who was far more adept in reacting to ideas than initiating them. (614)
  • As the organization grew, he continued to operate by consensus, taking no major initiative opposed by board members. (Rockefeller and the board of Standard Oil) (224)
  • Because all ideas had to meet the supreme test of unanimous approval among strong-minded men, Standard Oil made few major missteps. (224)
  • Rockefeller was a unique hybrid in American business: both the instinctive, first-generation entrepreneur who founds a company and the analytic second-generation manager who extends and develops it. (227)
  • He preferred outspoken colleagues to weak-kneed sycophants and welcomed differences of opinion as long as they weren’t personalized. (228)
  • Once a year, each employee had the right to appear before the executive committee and argue for a higher salary, and Rockefeller always reacted pleasantly. (233)
  • The committee system galvanized their energies while providing them with general guidance. The committees encouraged rivalry among local units by circulating performance figures and encouraging them to compete for records and prizes. (229)


  • At Ormond beach, Rockefeller for the first time developed true friends, not just golf cronies or acquaintances. He was belatedly learning to live more fully, more freely, than ever before. (611)
  • “A very wondrous person with a sense of humour: he loved to tell jokes, starting out with something serious. He was warm, friendly, and accessible, and he never preached.” (John III on his grandfather) (628)
  • When he stepped down from Standard Oil, he was probably worth about $200 million - $3.5 billion today - whereas, thanks to the internal combustion engine, his fortune soard to $1 billion by 1913 - surely history’s most lucrative retirement, and one that must have softened the sting of press vituperation. (343)