The Competitive Spirit

How to Beat the Machine- The Legend of John Henry

Show me the machine… I can beat it!

There are many historical figures that people look up to.

Napoleon. Alexander the Great. Genghis Khan.

Those are some of history’s greatest conquerors and leaders.

Most people have heard these names.

They are immortalized in the sands of time.

Strength By Sonny is all about John Henry.

He would be our patron saint (if there was one).

Today, I will tell you about the legend of how one man beat the machine.

Perhaps, you can too.

Teach em’ while they’re young.

Although John Henry is a tall-tale, he has had a profound impact on my life.

His story laid the initial foundation for my competitive spirit.

I first heard the legend when I was 5 years old.

It was when my preschool teacher, Mrs. R, read John Henry: An American Legend.
** This is an Amazon Affiliate link. I get a small commission if you choose to purchase it, at no additional cost to you.

Mrs. R gave me her copy.

I still have it and take it with me anytime I move.

To this day, it is the most important book I have ever heard.

In fact, I would consider it to be the most important book that any man could read (at any age).

It is a 32 page children’s book with pictures.

And yet it is a masterpiece that teaches you what being a competitive man is all about.

But like I keep saying… simplicity is sexy.

One of the disadvantages of growing up in today’s world is the fact that the most important lessons in life are often hidden.

There are too many distractions that hinder individual instinct.

There are too many distractions that downplay the importance of social skills.

Ultimately, today’s world has made it difficult for boys to become men.

“It’s time I went out into the world.”

John Henry was born to be a steel-driving man- a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives (to blast the rock away in constructing a railroad tunnel.)

In fact, part of the tall tale is the fact that he was born with a hammer in his hand.

He grew up fast.

As he got older, he did a man’s work with his father.

One day he told himself, “I’m taller and stronger than anyone around. It’s time I went out into the world.”

John Henry listened to his heart.

He knew that there was a whole world out there for him.

His time had come to leave the nest and make a name for himself.

He was bred to win.

“My hands are just itchin’ to hold a hammer again.”

John Henry briefly worked on a river boat.

However, it wasn’t his destiny.

His destiny found him when the opportunity arose to work on The First Transcontinental Railroad.

*** For all you history buffs, this was the first railroad that linked the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic. It was a crucial element to America’s Manifest Destiny ideology during the 19th century.

John Henry felt right at home.

He loved his job so much that he and his gang became the fastest team moving westward.

He was the leader because he was the most powerful steel-driver.

This was his calling.

Unlike his experience on the riverboat, this was not work for him.

He was enthusiastic and would often sing as he hammered spikes into the ground.

He would have done the work for free.

There are some people who legitimately feel this way today.

Those people are called entrepreneurs.

What John Henry felt is similar to how most entrepreneurs (and aspiring entrepreneurs) feel.

The work might be back breaking… the hours may be long… it doesn’t matter.

Unconditional love for what you do drives you forward.

I don’t make a dime off of Strength By Sonny at the moment.

I am far more motivated when I am working on this site than I am with my real job.

I love the good and bad of it.

I love the initial brand building phase I am going through right now.

When I’m of king of this domain (years down the road), I will love it too.

The work is demanding.

It is stressful.

I often skim on sleep.

It’s all worth it.

It’s what I was born to do…

“Who can beat that? Try me!”

One day John Henry and his gang were steel-driving through a mountain.

A group of men arrived with a strange machine (a steam drill).

One of the newcomers asserted that it could drill faster than any six men combined.

He challenged, “Who can beat that?”

John Henry proclaimed, “Try me!”

John Henry was a natural born competitor.

He was born to be a steel-driving man.

That was his calling.

In his heart, he knew that no man (or machine) could outwork him.

“I’ll keep swingin’ ‘em, Lawd, Until we win!”

A great contest took place.

Whoever could drill to the other side of the mountain wins.

John Henry versus the Machine (which was fed coal by several men).

The contest lasted several hours.

They were neck and neck.

Finally, John Henry’s competitive spirit completely took over.

He went into over drive.

He blasted away swinging two 20 lb. sledge hammers.

As he was doing this he cried out:


“Ain’t no hammers

Strike such fire,

Strike like lightning, Lawd,

And I won’t tire!”


“Hammers like this, Lawd,

There’s never been!

I’ll keep swingin’ em, Lawd,

Until we win!”


What did that mean?

It meant that John Henry was going to win no matter what.

He would keep swinging until he finished the job.

Winning was the only option.

The machine was no match.

It completely broke down and collapsed.

Yet, John Henry kept hammering away until he broke through to the other side.

When the dust settled, John Henry was found dead.

His heart gave out from the great feat.

He had defeated the machine and exited this world the same way he entered it… with his hammer in his hand.

How You Can Beat the Machine

How was John Henry able to beat the machine?

He was big.

He was strong.

But it was his heart that pushed him into overdrive.

That’s how you transcend your current capabilities.

You gotta have heart.

Competitors have heart.

We all face a machine in one form or another.

Perhaps it is an opponent.

Perhaps it is an insurmountable task.

Or maybe, just maybe, it is our own fear of failure itself.

Competitors know how to block it all out and just focus on the end goal.

They are guided by their heart’s desire for victory.

They just keep on drilling because they know that they will eventually see the light.

They know they want it more than the competition which is why they are able to bury their adversaries (no matter what advantages they may have)…


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  1. Anonymous
    September 9, 2014 at 3:31 pm — Reply

    At least he died doing what he loved to do. Not living until the age of 80, bitter, and half his body wasted away. Great post!

    • September 11, 2014 at 3:49 am — Reply

      He died competing… honorable way to go.

  2. XAvi
    September 9, 2014 at 3:49 pm — Reply

    Shit Sonny! You’re writing is getting damn good!

    • September 11, 2014 at 3:48 am — Reply

      Thanks man.

  3. Theo
    September 9, 2014 at 4:20 pm — Reply

    Hey Sonny,

    Would you be interested in me translating your article/sites into Spanish?

    • September 11, 2014 at 3:48 am — Reply

      Not at this point.

    September 10, 2014 at 11:38 pm — Reply

    Interesting, I heard the story of John Henry when I was in grade school, but we did not actually read it, but just got the general gist of it. All they said about John Henry was that he was a guy that beat a steam machine in a race and died right after. Literally no emphasis on who he was as a person, his character, or his morals.

    Thanks for sharing this, might read the book sometime.

  5. RAD
    September 11, 2014 at 3:24 am — Reply

    Short and sweet.

    I remember having this book read to me in elementary school and it always stuck with me. Great example of simplicity. Your doing a great job of tying all your content together. Really building the over arching structure of the SBS team.

    Can’t wait for your next post man. I live this shit.

    • September 11, 2014 at 3:44 am — Reply

      Thanks man. Yup best story ever.

  6. Smooth Operator
    September 13, 2014 at 1:04 am — Reply

    When Magic Johnson was asked what was the most important quality to become good at basketball, his answer “DESIRE”.

    Paul Jenka the PUA was asked what’s the most common reason guys failed at picking up women, he said, “THEY HAD NO HEART. THEY DON’T WANT IT BADLY ENOUGH.”

    • September 13, 2014 at 4:30 am — Reply

      The most common reason guys fail at picking up women is that in one way or another… they’re just not good enough.

      I’m talking about the demographic that browses internet forums… they either don’t look good enough, don’t dress well enough, aren’t cool enough, or just don’t possess actual social skills with women.

      there’s also the obvious that the chick might have a man already.

  7. cam..
    September 15, 2014 at 7:07 pm — Reply

    Damn. This has to be top 3 motivational posts! I can relate to it.

    Reminds me of one of my favorite movies “Men of Honor”.. The guy who was born to be a navy diver.

    That last scene where he had to make 12 steps to be reinstated is kinda similar to John Henry’s story. All that bullish they put him through at navy boot camp and he still made it..with a broken leg. Fuk! I’m inspired!

    Awesome Post Sonny. Most def Bookmarking this!

    • September 16, 2014 at 4:16 am — Reply

      Men of Honor is one of my favorite movies.

  8. Brad
    November 20, 2014 at 1:21 am — Reply

    Hey Sonny, didn’t where else to ask this:
    How do you not be a pussy. I am sick of being made fun of, being called a pussy, not going for the girls I want, caring about what others think, etc. and feel like a piece of shit despite my admirable qualities. I’m 15 years old in high school. Sonny, how do you not be a pussy?(the completely unadulterated truth because I know I can trust you).
    Thank you for your time.

    • November 24, 2014 at 12:16 am — Reply

      The easiest way to stop being a pussy is to tell yourself “It’s not okay to be a pussy.”

      It’s not okay to show weakness. It’s not okay to be a girly man. It’s not okay to cry.

      It’s not. Despite what modern society tells men… It’s okay to for a man to show his emotions. It’s okay to show weakness.

      This is a poisonous mindset that is justifying weakness.

  9. December 17, 2014 at 7:51 pm — Reply

    […] beast has been growing in the heart of Texas… a beast that can beat the machine… a beast that was bred to […]

  10. […] would have thought that a book read to me when I was five would propel me to become a lifelong competitor?… But that’s exactly what happened. […]

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