It is a sad sight to see thousands of students graduated every year from grand institutions, whose object is to make stalwart, independent, self-supporting men, turned out into the world saplings instead of stalwart oaks, "memory-glands" instead of brainy men, helpless instead of self-supporting, sickly instead of robust, weak instead of strong, leaning instead of erect. "There are so many promising youths and never a finished man!"
It takes courage for a young man to stand firmly erect while others are bowing and fawning for praise and power. It takes courage to wear threadbare clothes while your comrades dress in broadcloth. It takes courage to remain in honest poverty when others grow rich by fraud. It takes courage to say "No" squarely when those around you say "Yes." It takes courage to do your duty in silence and obscurity while others prosper and grow famous although neglecting sacred obligations. It takes courage to unmask your true self, to show your blemishes to a condemning world, and to pass for what you really are.
We live ridiculously for fear of being thought ridiculous. The youth who starts out by being afraid to speak what he thinks will usually end by being afraid to think what he wishes. How we shrink from an act of our own. We live as others live. Custom or fashion dictates, or your doctor, and they in turn dare not depart from their schools. Dress, living, servants, carriages, everything must conform, or be ostracized.
It takes courage for a public man not to bend the knee to popular prejudice. It takes courage to refuse to follow custom when it is injurious to his health and morals. To espouse an unpopular cause in Congress requires more courage than to lead a charge in battle. How much easier is for a politician to prevaricate and dodge an issue than to stand squarely on his feet like a man.
Don't be like Uriah Heep, begging everybody's pardon for taking the liberty of being in the world. There is nothing attractive in timidity, nothing lovable in fear. Both are deformities and are repulsive. Manly courage is dignified and graceful. The worst manners in the world are those of person’s conscious "of being beneath their position, and trying to conceal it or make up for it by style."
"The hero," says Emerson "is the man who is immovably centered." A mouse that dwelt near the abode of a great magician was kept in such constant distress by its fear of a cat, that the magician, taking pity on it, turned it into a cat itself. Immediately it began to suffer from its fear of a dog, so the magician turned it into a dog. Then it began to suffer from fear of a tiger. The magician therefore turned it into a tiger. Then it began to suffer from fear of hunters, and the magician said in disgust: "Be a mouse again. As you have only the heart of a mouse, it is impossible to help you by giving you the body of a nobler animal."
Everyone knows that there is not always a way where there is a will, that labor does not always conquer all things; that there are things impossible even to him that wills, however strongly; that one cannot always make anything of himself he chooses; that there are limitations in our very natures which no amount of will-power or industry can overcome; that no amount of sun-staring can ever make an eagle out of a crow.
Opportunity is coy. The careless, the slow, the unobservant and the lazy fail to see it, or clutch at it when it has gone. The sharp fellows detect it instantly, and catch it when on the wing. Show me a man who is, according to popular prejudice, a victim of bad luck, and we will show you one who has some unfortunate crooked twist of temperament that invites disaster. He is ill-tempered, or conceited, or trifling; lacks character, enthusiasm, or some other requisite for success. Disraeli says that man is not the creature of circumstances, but that circumstances are the creatures of men.
What has chance ever done in the world? Has it built any cities? Has it invented any telephones, any telegraphs? Has it built any steamships, established any universities, any asylums, any hospitals? Was there any chance in Caesar's crossing the Rubicon? What had chance to do with Napoleon's career, with Wellington's, or Grant's, or Von Moltke's? Every battle was won before it was begun. What had luck to do with Thermopylae, Trafalgar, Gettysburg? Our successes we ascribe to ourselves; our failures to destiny.
The mathematician tells you that if you throw the dice, there are thirty chances to one against your turning up a particular number, and a hundred to one against your repeating the same throw three times in succession: and so on in an augmenting ratio. What is luck? Is it, as has been suggested, a blind man's bluff among the laws? Is it a ruse among the elements or a trick of Dame Nature? Has any scholar defined luck? Any philosopher explained its nature? Any chemist showed its composition? Is luck that strange, nondescript fairy that does all things among men that they cannot account for? If so, why does not luck make a fool speak words of wisdom; an ignoramus utter lectures on philosophy?
There is something in circumstances; that there is such a thing as a poor pedestrian happening to find no obstruction in his way, and reaching the goal when a better walker finds the drawbridge up, the street blockaded, and so fails to win the race; that wealth often does place unworthy sons in high positions, that family influence does gain a lawyer clients, a physician patients, an ordinary scholar a good professorship; but that, on the other hand, position, clients, patients, professorships, manager's and superintendent's positions do not necessarily constitute success.
How many might have been giants who are only dwarfs. How many a one has died "with all his music in him." It is astonishing what men who have come to their senses late in life have accomplished by a sudden resolution. Arkwright was fifty years of age when he began to learn English grammar and improve his writing and spelling. Benjamin Franklin was past fifty before he began the study of science and philosophy. Milton, in his blindness, was past the age of fifty when he sat down to complete his world-known epic, and Scott at fifty-five took up his pen to redeem an enormous liability. "Yet I am learning," said Michael Angelo, when threescore years and ten were past, and he had long attained the highest triumphs of his art.
"Eloquence must have been born with you," said a friend to J. P. Curran. "Indeed, my dear sir, it was not," replied the orator, "it was born some three and twenty years and some months after me." Speaking of his first attempt at a debating club, he said: "I stood up, trembling through every fiber, but remembering that in this I was but imitating Tully, I took courage and had actually proceeded almost as far as 'Mr. Chairman,' when, to my astonishment and terror, I perceived that every eye was turned on me. There were only six or seven present, and the room could not have contained as many more; yet was it, to my panic-stricken imagination, as if I were the central object in nature, and assembled millions were gazing upon me in breathless expectation. I became dismayed and dumb. My friends cried, 'Hear him!' but there was nothing to hear." He was nicknamed "Orator Mum," and well did he deserve the title until he ventured to stare in astonishment at a speaker who was "culminating chronology by the most preposterous anachronisms." "I doubt not," said the annoyed speaker, "that 'Orator Mum' possesses wonderful talents for eloquence, but I would recommend him to show it in future by some more popular method than his silence." Stung by the taunt, Curran rose and gave the man a "piece of his mind," speaking quite fluently in his anger. Encouraged by this success, he took great pains to become a good speaker. He corrected his habit of stuttering by reading favorite passages aloud every day slowly and distinctly, and spoke at every opportunity.
A poor Irish lad, so pitted by smallpox that boys made sport of him, earned his living by writing little ballads for street musicians. Eight cents a day was often all he could earn. He traveled through France and Italy, begging his way by singing and playing the flute at the cottages of the peasantry. At twenty-eight he was penniless in London, and lived in the beggars' quarters in Axe Lane. In his poverty, he set up as a doctor in the suburbs of London. He wore a second-hand coat of rusty velvet, with a patch on the left breast which he adroitly covered with his three-cornered hat during his visits; and we have an amusing anecdote of his contest of courtesy with a patient who persisted in endeavoring to relieve him of his hat, which only made him press it more devoutly to his heart. He often had to pawn his clothes to keep from starving. He sold his "Life of Voltaire" for twenty dollars. After great hardship he managed to publish his "Polite Learning in Europe," and this brought him to public notice. Next came "The Traveler," and the wretched man in a Fleet Street garret found himself famous. His landlady once arrested him for rent, but Dr. Johnson came to his relief, took from his desk the manuscript of the "Vicar of Wakefield," and sold it for three hundred dollars. He spent two years revising "The Deserted Village" after it was first written. Generous to a fault, vain and improvident, imposed on by others, he was continually in debt; although for his "History of the Earth and Animated Nature" he received four thousand dollars, and some of his works, as, for instance, "She Stoops to Conquer," had a large sale. But in spite of fortune's frown and his own weakness, he won success and fame. The world, which so often comes too late with its assistance and laurels, gave to the weak, gentle, loving author of "The Vicar of Wakefield" a monument in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.
A kite would not fly unless it had a string tying it down. It is just so in life. The man who is tied down by half a dozen blooming responsibilities and their mother will make a higher and stronger flight than the bachelor who, having nothing to keep him steady is always floundering in the mud. If you want to ascend in the world tie yourself to somebody.
Take two acorns from the same tree, as nearly alike as possible; plant one on a hill by itself, and the other in the dense forest, and watch them grow. The oak standing alone is exposed to every storm. Its roots reach out in every direction, clutching the rocks and piercing deep into the earth. Every rootlet lends itself to steady the growing giant, as if in anticipation of fierce conflict with the elements. Sometimes its upward growth seems checked for years, but all the while it has been expanding its energy in pushing a root across a large rock to gain a firmer anchorage. Then it shoots proudly aloft again, prepared to defy the hurricane. The gales which sport so rudely with its wide branches find more than their match, and only serve still further to toughen every minutest fiber from pith to bark. The acorn planted in the deep forest shoots up a weak, slender sapling. Shielded by its neighbors, it feels no need of spreading its roots far and wide for support.
To fix a wandering life and give it direction is not an easy task, but a life which has no definite aim is sure to be frittered away in empty and purposeless dreams. "Listless triflers," "busy idlers," "purposeless busybodies," are seen everywhere. A healthy, definite purpose is a remedy for a thousand ills which attend aimless lives. Discontent, dissatisfaction, flees before a definite purpose. An aim takes the drudgery out of life, scatters doubts to the winds, and clears up the gloomiest creeds. What we do without a purpose begrudgingly, with a purpose becomes a delight, and no work is well done nor healthily done which is not enthusiastically done.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Architects of Fate, by Orison Swett Marden)