Ice, Railroad, and English: Stubbornness Revised

Ice is solid water, right? What if you can’t get the water to be solid? That's exactly the problem people had in the first half of the 1800s because refrigerators were not as popular until after the 1920s. 

Few people in the world had refrigeration or ice.Only if you could take ice from cold places like Massachusetts and sell it to warmer places as far away as India. 

But who would do this? Sell and ship it to other places? You’d have to be out of your mind to even think about such an idea. Well, maybe you can think about it but who would actually do it? 

Only a stubborn person.

That person was Frederic “The Ice King” Tudor. 

Ice isn’t considered a luxury, ice is just... ice. In the 19th century, ice was reserved for the rich and the privileged. Ice represented status. 

Tudor saw everyone wanted ice. If he had ice, people would give him money, and he’d become filthy rich. But how does he send ice from Massachusetts to warmer places without melting? 

In the 1800s he was trying to figure out how to ship a ton of ice long distances? that's SO CRAZY that you have to be the most STUBBORN person ever.

The market was there but the science wasn’t. The first ice he shipped to the Caribbean resulted in large financial losses because you guessed it, the ice melted. Yet Tudor still thought he could sell ice and with each trip, he would learn new techniques to minimize the melting. He’d try multiple techniques such as packing the ice tighter and insulating it with sawdust. 

Tudor’s first customers were scientists in the tropics who needed ice to preserve food and medicines. Then, he expanded to the wealthy who used ice to chill their drinks.

Tudor was clever and he would give away the ice so people could have cold drinks because after people tried their drinks cold they could "never be presented with them warm again," Tudor wrote.

Shipping and selling to the Caribbean and southern parts of the U.S. weren’t enough. He wanted more and started shipping and delivering ice to Calcutta, which was 14,000 miles away and crossed the tropical and warm equator twice. They weren’t sure if the ice would even sell until the extraordinary profits came. 

Tudor proved all the doubters wrong and ice started becoming a key factor in daily life. 

Tudor was stubborn, but he got lucky. The same people who called him “crazy” and “stupid” are now calling him “lucky.” 

Are all stubborn people lucky? Wait until we learn about Crazy Judah.

Crazy Until Lucky

Theodore “Crazy” Judah was a civil engineer who wanted to build a transcontinental railroad so people on either coast of New York or San Francisco didn’t have to travel for six months and maybe even risk their lives trying to go across the wild west or even going down to Panama’s jungles. 

Judah not only envisioned the transcontinental railroad but worked tirelessly and stubbornly to convince others it was feasible. This idea seemed so absurd, they called him “Crazy Judah.”

Judah had many challenges including, financial and even “psychiatric.” Before the Civil War, there was a lot of tension between the North and the South so he knew it would never get done because of the political situation. He opted to go with private investors, but not just wealthy people. He tried to pull a 19th century Kickstarter campaign version where he tried to raise money from people the railroads would benefit. This approach didn’t quite work so he had to find the big investors of the time. 

In 1861, he convinced the “Big Four'' composed by Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins, and Crocker to back the project. They formed a company called the Central Pacific Railroad Company. He went to Washington to lobby Congress and the president one more time. This time, he came back with authorization and federal money. 

The Pacific Railway Act, signed by President Lincoln, provided generous Federal subsidies, grants, and loans for the construction of a transcontinental railroad across the United States. This legislation allowed the Central Pacific Railroad (west-to-east) and the Union Pacific Railroad (east-to-west). Choo Choo! They started working and everything seemed on track until greed got in the way.

The act signed by Lincoln gave generous financial subsidies and grants of land for every mile of track laid. The “Big Four” wanted to be bigger (and richer) and get more federal money if they moved the base of the Sierra Nevada farther west, getting higher fees for every mile of track they built.  

Crazy Judah wanted the railroad but he could not stand their dishonesty so he went back to the East to find new investors who would buy out the old ones. The only feasible way to go from California to New York was by sea through Panama. The Panama Canal hadn’t been built so people needed to hike through the tropical jungles to get to the other side to take another ship to New York. 

Unfortunately, Judah contracted yellow fever on the trip to New York and died on November 2, 1863. 

Six years later, after the Civil War ended, the two sides of the railroad met in Promontory on May 10, 1869, completing the transcontinental railroad and Crazy Judah’s dream. 

A Matter of Stubborn Luck

There’s a similarity between Ice King Tudor and Crazy Judah. Perseverance? Grit? Stubbornness? 


LUCK contributed greatly to their success! They both got lucky. Of course, they got lucky because they eventually got what they wanted. 

Anyone can get lucky after years of relentless commitment to their vision. 

Tudor knew he could make a fortune by selling natural ice. It was bizarre and I don’t know if I would have done it but Tudor was certain he could at least try and after decades of trying, he was selling ice successfully and making a fortune. 

Back in the 1850s, Crazy Judah had this dream of a transcontinental railroad. He was so committed to his long term vision that he even gave up his life.

They were both willing to die for their vision and their dream. We can look back and say, “Wow, they were disciplined.” That is what we think when we look back and see their successes. People just thought they were stubborn. 

You need to be so stubborn to get lucky and to get successful [1]. 

If you truly believe in yourself and what you are doing the world becomes like putty in your hands. The entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen wrote once, “The world is a very malleable place. If you know what you want, and you go for it with maximum energy and drive and passion, the world will often reconfigure itself around you much more quickly and easily than you would think.” 

Tudor and Judah knew this well and recognized that if they wanted to be successful in their endeavors, they needed to go all in. Whether that meant being called names, stubborn, or crazy. They knew what they were doing was worth it but also incredibly challenging because it was easy someone would have done it already. 

Many of us have a negative perception of stubbornness. We may associate it with the old person or the ignorant person who refuses to adapt to the new changes or learn from anyone. 

No, that’s not what I’m talking about. 

I’m referring to the ability to know and believe in yourself while also having a bold and courageous vision that you know you may not achieve, but you try because trying is the only way to know. Naval Raviktant explains, “If a man invests all of his money, all of his time, and all of his intellect into giving the world what it needs...the world will have no choice but to give him what he wants.” 

If you’re ambitious with big dreams, you will be called stupid, crazy, naïve, and of course stubborn.

Back in 2016, I moved to the U.S. at the beginning of high school. I didn’t know any English. Yet I wanted to learn it quickly and be at the same or higher level than my peers. I was a go-getter and ambitiously stubborn. 

Before the first day of freshman year, I told myself, “I will learn English in one day.” What do you think would happen? It’s super ambitious and probably outright dumb to even think about learning a language in one day. I didn’t care and I attempted it. And it didn’t happen, but I tried again and told myself, “One week.” Nothing, but I tried again and told myself, “One month.” I was closer to my goal and learned some words and phrases. I tried again and told myself, “Six months.”

At the end of the six months, I was fluent and could communicate with my teachers and classmates. The following year, I took college level and honors classes and the journey began! (Read more about my high school story).

Teachers and older people told me many times, “It will take you about two or three years” or sometimes they knew I didn’t care, they’d try to warn me and said, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” I just said I can open my mouth bigger and chew faster. Honestly, they were probably right as to most people it takes two or three years and I was doing more than other students. 

But I knew who I was and where I wanted to go. When you know those two things, be stubborn because luck will be on your way. 

That’s what it takes. You have to be so stubborn to believe it would work, and you will get “lucky.”




[1] Before you tell me, yeah they were stubborn and they made it. But what about the ones who were stubborn and failed? Fair point, and classic survivorship bias example. This method isn’t for everyone, it’s for people who are highly ambitious and willing to take great risks to be successful.  I wrote more about this bias and how you can get around it here

Thanks to Praveen, Charlie, and Hac for reading drafts of this essay. 

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Tags: historypersonalphilosophy