Timothy Dexter – The man who carried coals to Newcastle … and turned a profit

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Timothy Dexter was a colourful 18th century American businessman noted for his eccentricity and his eerily acute business sense that in most cases flouted common sense.

Among others his business feats include:

  • delivering warming pans to the West Indies, where they were sold for a profit for use as ladles in the local molasses industry
  • shipping gloves to Polynesia, where they were bought by Portuguese merchants on their way to China, who coincidentally anchored there at the time his shipment arrived
  • amassing early Continental Dollars during the Revolutionary War, when they were almost worthless, and selling those for a huge profit after the war was over and trade with Europe resumed

His most hilarious exploit in my opinion was, however, literally carrying (shipping) coals to Newcastle and selling them with a margin. The reason this was possible at all quite simply is that mine workers were on strike at the time just when his shipment arrived that so blatantly ignored the common proverb.

Being mostly uneducated self-proclaimed ‘Lord’ Dexter was largely shunned by most of his contemporary New England socialites, who actively tried to make fun or take advantage of him by giving him obviously ill-advised business advice, most of which turned out to be just the right advice at the right time and situation – however foolish under normal circumstances.

Dexter also became an author in his later years having written the book A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress, which is no less peculiar than his life and business undertakings. It’s mostly comprised of incoherent rambling and complaints about politics, the clergy and his wife. The book – of course – became immensely popular despite its complete lack of punctuation, which made it almost impossible to read. Reacting to that particular criticism brought forth against his book in its second edition he added a page with 13 lines of punctuation marks instructing readers to distribute them as they please.

Nobody told me it was impossible

Now, if there’s anything to be learned from the peculiar, sui generis life of Timothy Dexter it is that you shouldn’t take things for granted or live by other people’s standards and opinions. French writer Jean Cocteau is often quoted to once have said: “Nobody told me it was impossible, so I did it.”

In Through the Looking-Glass the White Queen advises Alice to practice believing in at least “six impossible things before breakfast”.

I’m not saying you should approach business and life in a careless, happy-go-lucky manner. Nearly always winning against all odds the way Timothy Dexter did requires an inordinate amount of luck and while a certain amount of luck is part of being successful in life and business, too, you shouldn’t rely on serendipity alone when making important decisions.

However, walking the well-trodden path and doing what others think is right will get you nowhere. Take calculated risks, experiment with novel approaches, defy conventional wisdom and really try thinking outside the box.

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