Men We Wish We Were: Frank Gilbreth

Every month Primer is recognizing a different individual for their accomplishments, cultural significance, and general awesomeness. This month: Frank Gilbreth.

Frank Gilbreth

“Blessed is the man who makes two blades of grass grow where only one grew before. More blessed is he who multiplies the harvests of toil not merely two-fold, but three-fold or more-fold, for he virtually lengthens life when he adds to its fruitage. Such a man is Frank B. Gilbreth who tells in this book just how he wrought this wonder.”

Those were words written about one of the single most revolutionary and influential men in modern history. While you may never had heard of him, his innovations continue to affect almost every aspect of your life and the lives of almost everyone on the planet.

Frank Bunker Gilbreth.

Who He Was

Born in 1868, Frank Gilbreth grew up on the border of poverty, watching his widowed, school-teacher mother spend what precious free time she had slaving away at the boarding house she had been forced to turn her home into. His mother’s struggles were to have a profound effect on young Frank. At the age of 17 he turned down a chance to study at MIT in favor of working as a bricklayer, sparing his mother yet another financial hardship. And it’s possible that – had Frank been a more selfish man – the world as we know it would not exist.

As a bricklayer, Gilbreth excelled at simplifying his tedious and strenuous work, developing techniques to accomplish the same results with a fraction of the effort. Teaching his methods to the workers around him, Gilbreth’s innovations led to an overnight increase in productivity of 200%. Moving with Ron Swanson-esque efficiency, Gilbreth rose to the rank of supervisor, taking night classes in mechanical drawing to substitute for the schooling he never had. By the age of 27 Gilbreth had already invented several time-saving techniques and devices and had risen to chief superintendent. When his supervisor idiotically refused to make Gilbreth a partner, Gilbreth and his young wife (an industrial psychologist and genius every bit Frank’s equal) started up their own company and their own family. Following years would see the Gilbreths make the impressive feat of revolutionizing the world while simultaneously raising their children.

All twelve of them.

frank gilbreth

Why We Want To Be Him

Unlike the Cheaper By The Dozen comedies (based off the Gilbreths’ story in name only) Frank and Lillian were exceptional parents, not only finding that ever-elusive work-home balance but making it look easy as well. Frank believed adamantly that what worked in the factory would work with the family (and vice versa). These unorthodox and ingenious (and frequently hilarious) principles, even after a hundred years, still have much to teach us about how to get the most out of our own lives.


Even if you haven’t heard of him, the effects of Gilbreth’s work are all around us. The practice of having soldiers assemble their guns blindfolded was developed by Gilbreth. So was the policy of having surgical nurses on hand to pass equipment and instruments (saving truly countless lives). Pedal-operated trash cans, the brightly colored handles on disposable razors, automatic doors, computer shortcuts – even the placement of your kitchen sink in relation to the oven – were developed by the pioneering work of Frank and Lillian.

We have a tendency of making life more complicated than it needs to be, or at the very least, we rarely take the time to make things easier on ourselves. Fortunately, Gilbreth gives us a stunningly simple tool for streamlining our daily lives:


An anagram of the family name, “Therbligs” are the simplest steps it takes to perform any action, from building skyscrapers to folding clothes. For example, turning on a lamp has three therbligs: (1) locate pull-chain, (2) grasp pull-chain, (3) pull pull-chain.

After identifying the therbligs, your next step would be to reduce the time each step would take (the reason we have color-coded buttons) or even eliminate the therblig altogether (leading to the invention of clap-on/clap-off lights). You can use that process to consciously review, organize, and simplify your own routine (and you’ll be as amazed as I was when I discovered just how much pointless extra work I’d been making for myself). As ridiculous as it might at first sound, the thirty seconds you don’t spend looking for your pen in a cluttered desk is thirty seconds you could use giving your quarterly report another scan. That extra two minutes saved in your morning routine can be the two minutes you needed to beat traffic on the way to that big interview. A chore that might once have taken up most of your Saturday morning could even be whittled down to a couple hours with the diligent application of Frank’s principles.

Within reason, of course. Frank nearly met an untimely demise when he attempted shaving with two razors simultaneously.


It’s OK To Delegate

There’s pressure in the modern workplace to become what some experts have dubbed a “work martyr”- someone who continually takes on more duties at the expense of their own wellbeing. That pressure can be even more strenuous on Millennials, trying to push back against an (unfounded and unfair) image of laziness and entitlement. Rather than helping, constantly pushing ourselves to the breaking point more often leaves us stressed, burnt out, and strangely enough, even earning less than our counterparts.

The head of his own company and a constantly-growing household, Gilbreth was asked by plenty of folks how he managed to do it all. Gilbreth’s response was simple:

He didn’t.

Gilbreth shared his workload not only with his wife, but with his children as well, devising ingenious systems for sharing chores, rotating duties, and keeping up their enormous house. Both Frank and Lillian knew that while they could try to do it all themselves, the simple reality was that even if they succeeded, their clients and neighbors alike would remember them more for their spectacular burnout than their strain and efforts. At the end of the day, being effective beats looking effective, and delegation isn’t a symptom of weakness it’s an indication of leadership. Both in business and at home, the Gilbreth’s entrustment of work to others made them stronger as a unit and freer (and certainly less frazzled) as individuals.

The same principles apply to us as well.

There’s nothing wrong with saying that we can’t do something right now, or even asking for someone else to share the burden. Peers and supervisors alike are going to respect and value us more if we’re able to provide quality over quantity, and a few hours here and there can give us invaluable time to develop new skills, sharpen old ones, or simply take care of your needs.

Do Sweat The Small Stuff

Because the small stuff matters.

What Gilbreth knew, and what we could all benefit from realizing, is that time is too precious to waste – even for a second. For Gilbreth, time-motion study wasn’t about improving the productivity of the workplace, it was about improving life itself. As he so eloquently declared:

“We're worn into grooves by Time — by our habits. In the end, these grooves are going to show whether we've been second-rate or champions, each in his way… these are grooves that enrich our lives and make for ease of mind, peace, happiness – achievement.”

Gilbreth’s discoveries and theories were (and continue to be) a challenge for us to step back and really and truly evaluate our own lives. It’s one thing to question how we’re spending our time – Frank’s discoveries urge us to question how we’re not spending it. What are the things we wish we had? What are the things that make us feel truly alive, and why aren’t we doing them now? If you could be given just an extra twenty four hours across a year, how would you want to spend them? Working out? Meeting new people? Discovering new music, new food, new writing? How much richer will our existences be with just a little more of the one resource we can never get back?

Gilbreth died of a heart attack at the age of 55, mid-way through excitedly describing a new theory he had just created. His work was carried on and improved on by his devoted wife, and it continues to affect us all to this day. Frank’s creativity and optimism make him not only one of the most important shapers of the modern world, but a man we wish we were.

To Learn More About Gilbreth:

Cheaper By The Dozen – By Frank Gilbreth Jr. & Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

Primer of Scientific Management – By Frank Gilbreth Sr.

Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth — A Life Beyond “Cheaper by the Dozen” – Jane Lancaster

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown grew up in the deserts of Syria and now lives in the deserts of Nevada. Since his arrival in the New World, his award-winning work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Modern Haiku, The Ocotillo Review, 3rd Wednesday Magazine, and elsewhere. His writing has appeared in Primer for the past seven years.