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Alexander Hamilton’s Advice to His Son Is Even More Relevant 200 Years Later

The founding father knew that presentation won’t save you if the substance is shoddy.

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BY Jessica Stillman - 06 Feb 2018

Alexander Hamilton's Advice to His Son Is Even More Relevant 200 Years Later

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

If you thought helicopter parents were a modern phenomenon, you clearly haven't seen Alexander Hamilton's letters to his son while he was studying law. The founding father is best known these days for being the inspiration for a hit musical, but back in 1800 he was less hip hop muse and more concerned father with very exacting expectations for his fully grown son.

Hamilton wrote:

Rules for Mr Philip Hamilton[:] from the first of April to the first of October he is to rise not later than six o'clock--The rest of the year not later than Seven. If Earlier he will deserve commendation. Ten will be his hour of going to bed throughout the year.

From the time he is dressed in the morning till nine o clock (the time for breakfast Excepted) he is to read Law.

At nine he goes to the office & continues there till dinner time--he will be occupied partly in the writing and partly in reading law.

After Dinner he reads law at home till five o'clock. From this hour till seven he disposes of his time as he pleases. From seven to ten he reads and studies what ever he pleases.

From twelve on Saturday he is at Liberty to amuse himself.

On Sunday he will attend the morning Church. The rest of the day may be applied to innocent recreations.

He must not Depart from any of these rules without my permission.

Bad on parenting, good on productivity

As an example of parenting advice, this will probably strike most people as overkill. (Science suggests this a sensible response -- helicopter parenting not only kills self-confidence and creativity, it's also been shown to be flat out depressing for kids.) But as Deep Work author Cal Newport pointed out when he highlighted the letter on his blog recently, this austere schedule actually contains some essential wisdom that many of us miss out on these days.

Hamilton, he writes, "had learned through experience that doing anything worthwhile with your brain requires a foundation built on thousands of hours of deep work. His schedule for his son was meant to trim waste and get right to the hard cognitive calisthenics needed to get Philip's mind into shape."

It's not news -- then or now -- that doing anything truly important takes hard work, but yet these days we often put less emphasis on this fact, deluding ourselves that making our mark in the world is more about tricks of publicity, productivity, or self-presentation than it is about hard fought excellence.

But the truth, according to Newport, is that you can be the slickest marketer or self-promoter around, and in the longer-term it won't count for anything if what you're selling isn't actually worthwhile. And to create anything worthwhile -- whether that's an idea, a book, or a product -- requires long, focused hours of nose-to-the-grindstone work.

"In our current age, with its emphasis on personal branding, social network marketing, clever retweets and mobile accessibility, it's important to remember that in many fields there's still no substitute for hard brain work," Newport insists. "If you want to make a difference, you can't avoid the necessity of waking up at six to read law before breakfast." (Really, try it. You're way smarter in the morning.)

So turn off Twitter, log off Facebook, forget tinkering with your latest press release or packaging update for now, and get back to work. You don't need to keep the exact schedule of poor, over-supervised Philip Hamilton, but you do need to remember that presentation won't save you if the substance is shoddy.