*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on May 26, 2019. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
Now that Oprah’s had her say, let’s listen to Genghis.
Recent (and soon-to-be recent) area college grads could learn a lot from the world’s greatest conqueror, if they just set aside daydreams of diplomas and debt long enough to read a letter the Great Khan wrote 800 years ago, in May 1219, during which he reflected on his life and revealed the qualities that enabled him to dominate the world.
Cap-and-gown season typically brings an on-rushing horde of mega-successful speakers from coast to coast. They’ll all make fine speeches, but who would pass up the opportunity to hear from Genghis Khan?
Because sometimes, even among the highest-achieving high achievers, warriors can steal the show. In 2014, retired Adm. William McRaven delivered a truly memorable commencement address at the University of Texas, which was later turned into a best-selling book, “Make Your Bed.” McRaven revealed that, sure, not everyone’s going to hunt a global terrorist tomorrow—but everyone regularly rises to confront a tough world. Even Navy SEALs can pass on life lessons.
So can Mongol warlords.
If the higher the achievement, the greater the speaker’s demand, then by any standard, Genghis Khan would have as many speaking invitations as defeated enemies. He took twice the terrain than any other person that’s ever lived—and then ruled it. In a quarter century, his Mongol army conquered more land and people than four full centuries of the Roman Empire. At its height, the Mongol Empire was roughly the physical size of the African continent. On today’s map, that would translate to about 30 countries with more than 3 billion people, according to scholar Jack Weatherford, a figure which would place his reach well beyond even Facebook’s digital ‘empire.’ Genghis Khan came from nothing to dominate the world as nobody else ever has, or likely ever will again. (Acknowledging, of course, that they played by a very different set of violent rules in those days.)
So it’s intriguing that, on May 15, 1219, Genghis Khan wrote a letter filled with honest self-reflection and a personal request to a renowned Chinese Taoist monk known as Master Changchun (a copy of which was preserved by the monk’s followers). At the time, Genghis Khan was advancing westward on one of his final campaigns against a neighboring empire that spanned much of modern Afghanistan and Iran (he ultimately won). What was so important to write while at war?
Genghis Khan’s letter showed that he saw the world as it was, without frills. He knew the magnitude of what he’d accomplished, and wrote simply that he’d united “the whole world in one empire.”
Despite this, he was self-critical: “I have not myself distinguished qualities.” Perhaps to physically reinforce this sentiment, he reported he had but a single “coat” and wore the “same tatters” as his troops. He declared that he despised “luxury” and always exercised “moderation.”
He cared so much for his fellow hordesmen he thought of them as his “children,” and was so committed to them that he said, “At military exercises I am always in the front, and in time of battle am never behind.”
Not long after Genghis Khan wrote that letter, he passed on some core leadership lessons to his sons. Weatherford has also translated Genghis Khan taught them that, “without a vision of a goal, a man cannot manage his own life, much less the lives of others.” As well, that vision “should never stray far from the teachings of the elders,” in anchoring new objectives to old truths.
The truth of the 800-year-old letter, of course, is less about its textual content than what its sending says about its sender. Beyond self-reflection, the letter included a sincere request for knowledge about Taoism. The warlord Mongol and the wise monk eventually spent several months together, during which time Master Changchun taught Genghis Khan all he knew. In gratitude, Genghis Khan granted grounds in Beijing to Master Changchun upon which the monk built the Monastery of the White Clouds, which still stands most of a millennia later.
Genghis Khan lacked nothing in life yet thirsted for knowledge. He teaches us that even when you have everything, you can still need something.
Practice self-reflection and continually seek wisdom. That advice is as good today as it was 800 years ago, for Mongol conquerors and modern college-grads alike.