By Shane Parrish
March 4, 2016
IDEAS
Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

Many are unaware that the department store J.C. Penney was originally the work of a man named, appropriately, James Cash Penney. Penney was raised in Missouri by a father who doubled as a preacher and a farmer. After a career full of turbulence, James became manager of a Golden Rule store in Evanston, Wyoming. The stores traded in dry goods — grain, flour, beans; anything that wouldn’t spoil. After a few years of success, Penney was offered his own store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and took his shot.

Penney turned the venture into a great success, and by 1913 had ownership of 34 Golden Rule stores which were renamed J.C. Penney. He’d go on to expand the chain into a dominant national department store chain that continues on today, albeit in a less prosperous form.

In 1949, Penney published a very slim book called My Experience with the Golden Ruleit didn’t describe in detail his retail experience, but instead his thoughts on the Rule itself. The little volume has some beautiful passages worth sharing. He speaks with a bit of a Southern Baptist tone, but whether you are a spiritual person or not, the lessons hold.

On the Teachings of Life

He starts with a refrain which echoes our favorite from Joseph Tussman:

On The Challenge of Ethical Principles

On the Value of Having One’s Principles Tested

Penney proceeds to tell the story of his father forcing him to start earning his own money if he wants new clothes. Upon earning a small amount, he buys a pig and uses the earnings from the first pig to bankroll the purchase of many more, until he’s got about a dozen. It’s then that his father tells him he must get rid of the pigs due to complaints, even though James would have to take a loss on the sale.

On Holding Fast to Ethics When You’re Riding High

Penney spends some time discussing his relationship with employees and his hope to develop them to their highest purpose. His basic idea is that “…to hire a man and literally leave him as is, is the beginning of a degree of human dissatisfaction that can go to any length.”

And then he returns to the Golden Rule:

On Advice to Young Men in Finding Their Purpose and Career

Penney closes with an admonition that the purpose of life is to find the calling to which you can devote your time and energy and feel fulfilled. As he makes clear, devoting your energy to something which you care about and feel fulfilled by is the highest purpose you can achieve:

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