How to Succeed, or Stepping-Stones to Fame and Fortune

“I have been watching the careers of young men by the thousand in this busy city of New York for over thirty years,” said Dr. Cuyler, “and I find that the chief difference between the successful and the failures lies in the single element of staying power. Permanent success is oftener won by holding on than by sudden dash, however brilliant. The easily discouraged, who are pushed back by a straw, are all the time dropping to the rear–to perish or to be carried along on the stretcher of charity. They who understand and practice Abraham Lincoln’s homely maxim of ‘pegging away’ have achieved the solidest success.”

It is better to deserve success than to merely have it; few deserve it who do not attain it. There is no failure in this country for those whose personal habits are good, and who follow some honest calling industriously, unselfishly, and purely. If one desires to succeed, he must pay the price, work.

No matter how weak a power may be, rational use will make it stronger. No matter how awkward your movements may be, how obtuse your senses, or how crude your thought, or how unregulated your desires, you may by patient discipline acquire, slowly indeed but with infallible certainty, grace and freedom of action, clearness and acuteness of perception, strength and precision of thought, and moderation of desire.

It would go very far to destroy the absurd and pernicious association of genius and idleness, to show that the greatest poets, orators, statesmen, and historians–men of the most imposing and brilliant talents–have actually labored as hard as the makers of dictionaries and arrangers of indexes; and the most obvious reason why they have been superior to other men, is, that they have taken more pains.

Even the great genius, Lord Bacon, left large quantities of material entitled “Sudden thoughts set down for use.” John Foster was an indefatigable worker. “He used to hack, split, twist, and pull up by the roots, or practice any other severity on whatever did not please him.” Chalmers was asked in London what Foster was doing. “Hard at it” he said, “at the rate of a line a week.”

When a young lawyer, Daniel Webster once looked in vain through all the libraries near him, and then ordered at an expense of $50 the necessary books, to obtain authorities and precedents in a case in which his client was a poor blacksmith. He won his case, but, on account of the poverty of his client, only charged $15, thus losing heavily on the books bought, to say nothing of his time. Years after, as he was passing through New York city, he was consulted by Aaron Burr on an important but puzzling case then pending before the Supreme Court. Webster saw in a moment that it was just like the blacksmith’s case, an intricate question of title, which he had solved so thoroughly that it was to him simple as the multiplication table. Going back to the time of Charles II., he gave the law and precedents involved with such readiness and accuracy of sequence that Burr asked, in great surprise: “Mr. Webster, have you been consulted before in this case?”

“Most certainly not. I never heard of your case till this evening.”

“Very well,” said Burr, “proceed.” And when he had finished, Webster received a fee that paid him liberally for all the time and trouble he had spent for his early client.

What the age wants is men who have the nerve and the grit to work and wait, whether the world applaud or hiss. It wants a Bancroft, who can spend twenty-six years on the “History of the United States;” a Noah Webster, who can devote thirty-six years to a dictionary; a Gibbon, who can plod for twenty years on the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire;” a Mirabeau, who can struggle on for forty years before he has a chance to show his vast reserve, destined to shake an empire; a Farragut, a Von Moltke, who have the persistence to work and wait for half a century for their first great opportunities; a Garfield, burning his lamp fifteen minutes later than a rival student in his academy; a Grant, fighting on in heroic silence, when denounced by his brother generals and politicians everywhere; a Field’s untiring perseverance, spending years and a fortune laying a cable when all the world called him a fool; a Michael Angelo, working seven long years decorating the Sistine Chapel with his matchless “Creation” and the “Last Judgment,” refusing all remuneration therefor, lest his pencil might catch the taint of avarice; a Titian, spending seven years on the “Last Supper;” a Stephenson, working fifteen years on a locomotive; a Watt, twenty years on a condensing engine; a Lady Franklin, working incessantly for twelve long years to rescue her husband from the polar seas; a Thurlow Weed, walking two miles through the snow with rags tied around his feet for shoes, to borrow the history of the French Revolution, and eagerly devouring it before the sap-bush fire; a Milton, elaborating “Paradise Lost” in a world he could not see, and then selling it for fifteen pounds; a Thackeray, struggling on cheerfully after his “Vanity Fair” was refused by a dozen publishers; a Balzac, toiling and waiting in a lonely garret, whom neither poverty, debt, nor hunger could discourage or intimidate; not daunted by privations, not hindered by discouragements. It wants men who can work and wait.

That is done soon enough which is done well. Soon ripe, soon rotten. He that would enjoy the fruit must not gather the flower. He who is impatient to become his own master is more likely to become his own slave. Better believe yourself a dunce and work away than a genius and be idle. One year of trained thinking is worth more than a whole college course of mental absorption of a vast series of undigested facts. The facility with which the world swallows up the ordinary college graduate who thought he was going to dazzle mankind should bid you pause and reflect. But just as certainly as man was created not to crawl on all fours in the depths of primeval forests, but to develop his mental and moral faculties, just so certainly he needs education, and only by means of it will he become what he ought to become,–man, in the highest sense of the word. Ignorance is not simply the negation of knowledge, it is the misdirection of the mind. “One step in knowledge,” says Bulwer, “is one step from sin; one step from sin is one step nearer to Heaven.”