From God to Garcia

My heart goes out to the man who . . . . when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions. . . .Civilization is one long, anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks will be granted. He is wanted in every city, town and village—in every office, shop, store and factory. The world cries out for such: he is needed and needed badly—the man who can “Carry a Message to Garcia.”–Elbert Hubbard

The list of the world’s bestselling books over time (factoring out recent publishing phenomena like Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code) is a fascinating sociological study in its own right. It includes several books around which whole cultures have been organized (The Bible, Quotations from Chairman Mao), and others that changed the way people thought and learned (The McGuffey Readers, Dr. Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care). And coming in at #6 is perhaps the most unlikely bestseller in the history of either unlikeness or bestsellers: Elbert Hubbard’s forgotten business classic, A Message to Garcia (1899)

It requires enormous optimism to consider A Message to Garcia a book at all. At 1500 words, it is barely a pamphlet—about the size of a typical undergraduate term paper—and it reads like an undergraduate term paper too. It is full of hyperbole, wild assertions, sloppy thinking, and evidence that doesn’t quite fit its conclusions. Hubbard wrote it in less than an hour as filler text for a magazine that he edited. In its original version, it did not even have a title.

The “book” is built around a single narrative and a single observation. The narrative concerns the journey of Andrew Rowan, an army lieutenant tasked by President William McKinley to deliver a message to Calixto Garcia, a Cuban nationalist leader whose help McKinley was seeking in the coming war with Spain. The observation is that Rowan simply took the message to Garcia without asking where the man was or how to find him. He figured it out for himself.

Upon this observation was built all of the profits of history’s most unlikely bestseller. And, to be fair it is a reasonably good observation. Business leaders loved it, and bought the book in bulk for their employees (largely because it told them not to go on strike). The phrase “take a message to Garcia” became a shorthand way of summing up a business philosophy: “don’t ask stupid questions, just figure out what needs doing and get it done.”

As I said, this is a reasonably profound insight, but it is hardly a unique one. Latter-day Saints may recognize it as the secular version of D&C 58:26: “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant.” I used to quote that all the time at BYU when I was objecting to the policies on beards and socks.

As I work my way through the New Testament this year in Gospel Doctrine, I am beginning to suspect that this might also be the main point—or at least one of the main points—of the Gospels. The Jesus of the New Testament rarely tells people what they should do. Rather, he tells them that they should already know what to do and should just find the spiritual will to do it. He tells us to just get the message to Garcia.

Take perhaps the most famous example in the New Testament: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This golden rule, which exists in almost every human religion, does not actually tell us how to treat other people. It doesn’t give us any list of encouraged, or proscribed, behavior. Rather, it tells us that we already know how to treat other people because we know how we want to be treated. We just need to do it.

Or consider the two great commandments in Matthew 22:37-40: “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and love thy neighbor as thyself.” There are no instructions here. No lists of what it means to love God or to love others-just the injunction to love and the assumption that we know—or can figure out for ourselves—what that means. And when a certain lawyer asks who his neighbor is (Luke 10:29), Jesus gives the parable of the Good Samaritan, a narrative that communicates, along with its profound gospel truths, a message that goes something like “you know perfectly well who I mean by your ‘neighbor,’ so stop asking stupid questions and looking for loopholes.”

The Gospel is other people, the Savior tells us, and we don’t need to ask what that means because we already know. We know what people need because we are people and we need things. We know what love looks like when it is made a principle of action because we know how to treat the people we love, and we know what it means when somebody loves us. It is not a question of knowledge, but a question of will. We know who our neighbor is; we just have to decide that it is time to get God’s message to Garcia.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I had never heard of this book before. Thanks for the powerful message.

  2. Jack Hughes says:

    “Garcia” was required reading when I first joined the Marines years ago, and probably still is. I heard right-wingers have latched onto it’s supposedly anti-socialist subtext, but I have long appreciated the simple message of getting done what needs to be done, and thinking for one’s self. Thanks for dusting it off.

  3. I loved this post. Thank you. It reminded me of things. it made me consider my recent parenting efforts. And it made me consider my own actions (in inaction) regarding some difficult circumstances: Do I perhaps already know what I need to do? If not, how do i figure that out? And if so, how do I muster the courage to do that? Those questions, I think, are the core questions to any situation that troubles us.

  4. This was great — a needed uplift this morning! Thanks for enlightening us!

  5. I have found that terrible delegators are the ones that love to quote “the message to Garcia” story.
    The dialog usually goes something along these lines:

    “I want you to do a task. I won’t say what, just do something.”
    “Ok, I’m back and I did X, Y, and Z.”
    “I wanted you to do A and B!”
    “Why didn’t you say so?”
    “Let me tell you about Garcia.”

  6. Jack Hughes says:

    My wife’s extended family works that way. Whenever they get together, nobody is ever told, or even asked to do anything. You are just supposed to “know” what needs doing. And if you don’t….

    Irritates the crap out of me.

  7. I remember hearing at least one GA use this story in a PH session of general conference way back in the day. Kind of in the same vein as President Kimball’s “Do it” slogan.

  8. I’ve been slowly coming to the realisation that all those things I find inspirational – images on Pinterest, blog posts about making vision boards, even meditating – are helping me to figure out a thing I already know. Thanks for this catalyst to bump right over the inevitable “why do I find these things useful/praiseworthy?” question. Because they help me care more, take ownership, and build my spiritual willpower.

    We know what people need because we are people and we need things. Yes.

  9. Thanks for this, Mike. And welcome to BCC!

  10. In the biography of President Marion G. Romney by F. Burton Howard, he says that when speaking on his mission, President Romney stuck to the scriptures, works by James E. Talmage and quotes by General Authorities (p. 70). The only non-LDS work he occasionally referenced was A Message to Garcia (pp. 255 – 256, n. 7) of which he quoted from memory.

  11. Wise words — that seem so simple, and yet in my application I so often find myself in a terrible snarl.

    Also, I rescued a stack of old Hubbard pamphlets from the disposal of a library by my in-laws. They’re beautiful vintage type design, but a little goofy in content. Which we relate to just fine.

  12. doctordoctorstein2013 says:

    Andrew Rowan reminds me of the Abraham who took his son Isaac up Mount Moriah. Just do it! But there’s also that other Abraham, the one who questioned God’s plan for destroying Sodom.

  13. I have not heard of this before now, but it seems like something that I need to get add to my collection.

    Not living where we have a used bookstore,I try to buy used books from, partially because they treat their workers well. (The fact that their prices are also reasonable and physically spending time in Powells is a favorite thing that can only be done after traveling thousands of miles, is also part of the draw to online shop there.

  14. My mission president loved to recite “Message to Garcia”. Every couple of zone conferences, here it would come again. I’m afraid that I used it a couple of times myself in meetings with subordinates during my career in management. Many years later I really wish I’d encouraged more questions and discussion. More marching morons were not what we really needed.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Michael, I thought you might like to know that I just this moment used this post as the basis for a message I just gave over the pulpit in F&T meeting.

  16. maustin66 says:

    Kevin, that is exactly what I wanted you to do, but I didn’t say anything b/c I wanted you to figure it out for yourself.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, I was an agent unto myself there.

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