Writers and people engaged in public speaking are purveyors of the most powerful commodity of all, words. We are people who are interested in collecting clauses, assembling adjectives and positioning verbs in such as way as to educate, inform and inspire people to action. Words are persuasive. Words are permanent. Words are powerful. Words can convey hope and communicate happiness. Words can declare war and proclaim peace. Words can collapse governments and build nations.
Winston Churchill said, “Words are the only things that will last forever.” Words collected in a structured and considered way can bring about change across time and history. What was penned centuries ago on parchment and papyrus can live and breathe today on Kindle and ipad. The genre of words that has possibly impacted most has been called New Thought Literature. Today, we would more readily know this as Personal Development or self-improvement. Russell H. Conwell was one of its pioneers and originators. His words have inspired millions over the last 150 years. Though his early years are fascinating, there was one significant event that took place that instigated his lifelong immense productivity and the one speech he is best remembered for, “Acres of Diamonds.” Yet, his legacy is significantly more that just one speech.
Russell H. Conwell was born February 15, 1843 South Worthington, Massachusetts into a poor farming family. His family, though poor, were dedicated in obtaining the best education they could for their son and committed all they had to send him to Yale collage. The call to enlist in the Army interrupted his studies and he joined up as Captain from 2nd year of the Civil War. It was while serving in this capacity that an event would take place that would shape his life forever.
In Conwell’s platoon was a young boy, who though not physically able to fight, wanted to serve and was dedicated to following Conwell, John Ring, became his aide-decamp. Conwell’s men gave him a symbol of their support; a ceremonial sword crafted of the highest quality, and in ancient Latin was engraved, “True Friendship is Eternal.” After one fierce fire fight Conwell’s retreated his men across a bridge for safety only to realise that his sword was left hanging in his tent. Without thought of his own safety, John Ring returned to the camp and rescued the sword and started back across the now severely burning bridge back to his beloved officer. Both sides in the battle stopped firing as he struggled against the flames and smoke and while he achieved his aim and rescued the sword, John Ring died, clutching the precious sword, a few days later. So impacted by this dedication Conwell vowed that from that day forward he would live two lives, one life for himself and the one for the life of John Ring. He committed to work eight hours for himself and eight for Johnny Ring. His life turned on this one event. His life long productivity was marked by this commitment to working sixteen hours a day.
When only 27, as Conwell told it, he was riding in 1870 in a camel caravan along the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers when he heard a guide weave tales to entertain his American tourists. He was deeply impressed by a legend about a prosperous Persian farmer, Ali Hafed. Lured by the stories of a Buddhist priest, Ali deserted his fruitful lands to search for immense wealth in mythical diamond fields. Far and wide Ali Hafed roamed, footsore and weary. Youth and wealth disappeared, and he died by suicide far from home, an old and disillusioned pauper, and his farm was sold. The farm, however, was not just agricultural land but on a closer search, acres of fabulous diamonds were found on Ali Hafed’s own land. To the other tourists, this was just another alluring story, but in Conwell’s mind a great truth had been sown. To him it said: “Your diamonds are not in far-away mountains or in distant seas; they are in your own back yard if you will but dig for them.” There are diamonds in the dirt.
By the end of his life, in 1925, Conwell’s famous speech had been given over 6000 times. The powerful words and themes in Acres of Diamonds are as fresh today as they were 140 years ago. Acres of Diamonds might seem from another era, but Conwell was one of the original American motivational speakers and his talk can still inspire. It costs next to nothing to buy, can be read in about half an hour. There’s no need to look beyond yourself and your immediate circumstances to find the seeds of your fortune. One need not look elsewhere for opportunity, achievement, or fortune—the resources to achieve all the good things we desire are present, exactly where we are right now. There are, diamonds in the dirt right under our feet.
Russell H. Conwell leaves an amazing legacy, universities, hospitals, more than 40 books, a thriving church and thousands, if not millions of people impacted by his life. And, for the most part, it turned on one event, an act of sacrifice.
Has there been one event in your life that changed everything? Have you searched near and far only to realise what you were looking for was, “under your feet?” I would love to hear your stories, please write to me and let me know.
Sources: If you would like to know more about the life and work of Russell H. Conwell you can find a full copy of the text of his biography and a mp3 download from here. Image of the pen and sword from Dani Simmonds
This speech was prepared for and given on 2nd November for my CC Project 2 at Toastmasters International public speaking association at the Heart of England Club For this speech I was awarded “Best Speaker” for the evening.