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Business Education

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE question is frequently put to me: " Do you think there are as good chances now for young men to make their way in life and for some of them to become wealthy, as in the past, say from a quarter to half a century ago?" Yes, I should unhesitatingly answer, the opportunities are quite as favorable, and in many instances much more so; but as to the young men themselves, that is the question. In fact, the start in life for a young man fifteen years of age is much easier now than it was then. For instance, the parents of such a youth who were intent upon getting him a start in an office in former times were obliged in most instances to pay fifty dollars the first year for the privilege. At the end of the second year he received fifty dollars, and fifty dollars advance for every year afterward until the end of his fifth year, which completed his preliminary business education, or rather his apprenticeship. Then, of course, he was employed according to his value as estimated by his ability and the use which he had made of his five years' experience. Our young man of the present day enjoys the distinction of entering upon business without any idea of apprenticeship, and instead of his parents having to advance any money to his employer, the latter gives him three dollars a week to start with, and before he has spent two years at the business he may - very often unwisely - strike for seven, ten, or perhaps fifteen dollars a week, in many instances. These aspirations would never have entered the head of his grandfather before he had attained his majority and cast his first vote, while he never knew the taste of tobacco, much less thought of" pooling for drinks," as many of the young office boys do now. It was not from such young men as these, but from the training of half a century ago, that the old millionaires who are now the envy of our young men, were made. But the young men of our time want to get wealthy suddenly. They want to reach the goal of their ambition by some imaginary rapid-transit route, and to escape the toil and patient waiting to which their forefathers were subject. Science, it is true, has made rapid strides since the old fellows laid the foundation of their large fortunes, but in all its discoveries science has never yet found the method of dispensing with toil of both brain and muscle in the incipient stages of accumulating wealth. The few who are born to wealth hardly need to be considered. The accumulators among those are comparatively few,-the Vanderbilts, the Goulds, the Astors, and a few others in the Western world being conspicuous exceptions to the general rule of squandering rather than augmenting the wealth left by the hard-working and humble ancestors. In Europe, the Rothschilds and the Barings are prominent exceptions. They, too, made more of what was left them, but, in the majority of instances, the proverbial wings seem to attach themselves magically to the hardest earned accumulations. Most frequently, before the third generation has enjoyed its share, and often sooner, they are recklessly distributed to the millions. This law of distribution affords one of the most remarkable examples of the irony of fate, manifesting its workings and results by inscrutable methods. In the periodical distribution of wealth, the highest order of intelligence rather than the blind happenings of chance would appear to be behind the active and mysterious agencies which carry out what seem in most instances to be the beneficent designs of Providence. No benevolent institution could do the scattering abroad of this surplus wealth in a more general or a more equitable manner, -no, not if all the benevolent institutions in the country should form a grand trust or corporation with the design of engaging in the dissemination of riches. Many young men, as well as some old ones, are under the delusion that the big fortunes now in existence form mountains in the path of modern individual enterprise, which can never be ascended by the present generation, except by lucky chances in speculation, such being the methods, as they presume, by which these mountains attained their present altitudes. Some of the more foolish ones would like to see these stupendous heights above the surface of general prosperity demolished by terrific and destructive forces, ignorant or unmindful of the fact that they constitute the chief fund from which capital is drawn for the development of all great enterprises and for the advancement of civilization. It is necessary that people should be admonished of this fact, especially people of a speculative turn of mind, as the delusion when nurtured is liable to lead its possessor into all kinds of excesses where there may be any apparent promise of profit. They must be constantly reminded that these men whose prosperous ventures in speculation about which they have been reading, had long and toilsome uphill work before they were able to approach the big deals in speculation and investment for which they became celebrated. They should read the text with the context. For instance, when they reflect with great avidity on the immense stroke of luck which attended the bold speculations of the eminent sire of the house of Vanderbilt, they should not omit the account of his hardships for a living in all kinds of weather in Staten Island waters in a row-boat, to purchase which he had earned the money by digging and planting, early and late, a potato garden. These young men, however, want to start with the command of fleets bearing argosies to and from every foreign shore, as the Commodore did afterward. But they must go through the old preliminaries, unless they happen to be sons or grandsons of others like him; even then they cannot afford constant, luxurious repose, but must look diligently after the wealth of which they are virtually only the trustees. The retention and increase of these acquisitions impose a very heavy burden on the mind, which only a few are able to bear without breaking down as Robert Garrett did. When young men read about Jay Gould having made big deals in Erie and other stocks, and a fortune sometimes at a bound, by getting hold of two or more broken-down railroads, putting them together and making a good one out of them, perhaps they say to themselves, " Go and do likewise." But they find their own commands hard to obey, chiefly because they want to take hold of that million of dollars at once without having a dollar of their own, and when they fail in coming up to this impossible idea, they despair of doing anything. These over sanguine youths might find some consolation, or at least a salutary lesson in humility, by turning back to another scene in the checkered career of Mr. Gould when he was working for low wages in a country grocery store, studying at night the art of surveying, and even in his sleep dreaming of a method of increasing his small earnings by the invention of that famous mouse-trap. If the youths in question should become envious of old Daniel Drew when they think of the time that he made millions in Erie by his paper-mill, which turned out the certificates of stock faster than Vanderbilt could purchase them with all the money he could command and borrow, they will find a cooling and tranquil influence exercised on the passion of envy when they picture this fortunate man in early life, when he was a drover suffering untold hardships and miseries, driving his cattle from the West over the Alleghany Mountains in the dead of winter, overtaken by snow-storms, and with no covering to shield him from the blizzard. Instances of ordeals of similar severity in the lives and experience of the greater number of those who have made large fortunes might be cited in sufficient number to swell this volume to several times its purposed dimensions, and all going to show that these men have been nothing but hard-worked helots for the benefit of others, and principally for the benefit and pleasure of posterity, while in their own lives they were constantly subjected to the vilification and abuse of their envious contemporaries. The wealth-producers in question are in general the unconscious and undesigning instruments, in the economy and design of nature, for human evolution to a higher plane of existence. Without them it would seem that the condition we term civilization would come to a standstill or probably retrograde. As a rule, they are charmingly unconscious of what they are doing, but their works follow them all the same. Such are still the chances for a young man succeeding in life and making a large fortune; though, after all, the latter should not be the highest object of human ambition. Success depends, as I have said above, on the young man himself. Of course, circumstances may either favor a man or be very much against him, yet favorable circumstances will avail little or nothing if the individual himself lacks the ability to take advantage of them. If a man has sufficient energy, fixity of purpose, patience, self-denial and self-control, frugality, and economy, he can acquire a competence, or a moderate fortune, except in those rare cases where sickness or misfortune follow him so persistently as to make it impossible; and this is as true at one period of the world's history as another. It was the case twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago, and it is the case now; and just so it will be fifty years or a century from now. The exercise of the qualities that win fortune will win it in any age. No young man should ever despair or be discouraged in the pursuit of wealth so long as he retains the full use of his faculties, provided those faculties are up to the average. That is all that is necessary. It does not require a genius to make a fortune. In fact, the rare individuals with genius are not famous in this line with perhaps the exception of Thomas A. Edison and a few others. Geniuses seem to know things by instinct, except the secret of accumulating wealth, and this latter, after all, is a very ordinary faculty, and does not require a man to be more than a fair scholar, as is proven by the lives of some of our greatest fortune-builders. This species of architecture requires only the exercise of ordinary endowments, directed by common sense and a due regard to the first law of nature self-preservation. I have described elsewhere to some extent the apparent difficulty presented to individual enterprise on the part of young men emerging into business life when they find opposed to their comparatively small means large aggregates of capital managed by corporations or so-called trusts, and I have suggested the remedy: viz., to adopt the tactics of their competitors. Let such young men get together and form combinations of their own to go into such lines of business as may be suited to their tastes and capacities. There is no limit to the size of possible combinations, and consequently no limit to their possible aggregate means for doing business. The remainder is a question of skill, experience, and enterprise. In large combinations, of course, harmony is all-important. But there is nothing in business that a few people with a few million dollars can do but what a few hundred people with the same number of millions of dollars can do just as well. The same salaries which are paid to the employees in a corporation composed of a few millionaires will afford fair wages to all the capitalists of a co6perative concern, and will help materially in the struggle by enabling them, if necessary, to undersell their competitors. If not pressed, it need not force the competition, but can place the money which might go in that way to the surplus account of the company for further extension and betterments. There are five of these cooperative companies in England, paying almost as large dividends as any of our corporations. Some eminent authorities differ regarding the best field for youthful enterprise. Dr. Chauncey M. Depew thinks a man has the best chance in a young community, whereas Russell Sage, while he does not attach vital importance to environment, thinks it is better for a young man to remain in a big place, if he happens to be there. For my own part, I think the secret of success lies most in the ability to turn the circumstances of the surroundings to the best account, and the man who has the elements of success in his nature and character need care much less for the place in which his lot may be cast than for the adaptation of his means to the end of success in that place. He centers his whole attention and best efforts on the latter, and does not whine over something that he does not possess. The best evidence that a person can give of his ability to do well in some other place is to succeed where he is. The world in general rejects all suppositions or contingent evidence in forming its opinion of his capacity. It simply looks at the result in the abstract. It has no time for excuses. If a man's character and ability, for instance, has been put to the test as a financier or an expert in finance, in a position where there was scope for the fullest demonstration of the highest faculties in this field, and he has wholly failed to manifest any such ability, it is useless, and not only useless but ridiculous, to tell the people that he is an accomplished college professor and a mathematician second only to Sir Isaac Newton. Reviewing briefly the list of successful men, it strikes me that the most brilliant examples made no point of the field of their operations and adventures, and in the majority of cases it would seem that they had little or no choice in the matter. Those who would succeed must cultivate the habit of feeling at home wherever their lot is cast. Emerson in his essay on "Self-Reliance," which every young man should read and every traveler also, makes some signally good remarks on this phase of success and contentment. He says:" It is for want of self-culture that the idol of traveling, the idol of Italy, of England, of Egypt. remains for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so not by rambling around creation as a moth around a lamp, but by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth. I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. Traveling is a fool's paradise. We owe to our first journeys that place is nothing." In the spirit of the philosopher of Concord, let young men, and all men, try to imagine that "place is nothing," and that it behooves them to exert their individuality and most vigorous exertions for their best interests, irrespective of place and surroundings. In other words, let them be themselves and put forth their best energies for their own good and profit, while being careful at the same time to respect the rights of others. It is pertinent to state here that modern girls have a great advantage over the girlhood of their grandmothers. The vocations of the male sex have been thrown open to them, with very little of the old prejudices remaining, and they are enabled to compete with their brothers in almost every walk of life, except that they do not, as a rule, make good speculators, and comparatively few of them, luckily, see any attraction in the stock market. When referring to this subject in my former book and in various magazine articles, I have spoken of college education and its inadequacy to form the minds of youth for the struggles to be encountered in the arena of practical business life. I find that time and experience are bringing many people over to this opinion who were formerly greatly in favor of college education. The conversion of college graduates and classical scholars to this view is not by any means a new thing, though some people talk as if it were. It is toward half a century since Lord Macaulay, himself a very distinguished classical scholar, wrote his famous essay on " The London University," in which he showed that the time-honored classical education of that day was, in a large measure, utterly useless in fitting a young man for practical business; and though Macaulay was an admirer of Greek, almost to the point of adoration. he greatly deplored the time that was spent studying that famous tongue, even in the old universities, to the neglect of a thorough training in English and science which would far better qualify a man for the business by which he is to earn his living and make his way in the world. Many professors and presidents of colleges are convinced of the insufficiency of the existing system, but are shy and slow about confessing that they have been so long on the wrong side; while some of them have become such an integral part of the system that it would almost be like dislocating an arm or a leg to disturb them in the serenity of their ancient notions. Another reason that comes home to them still closer is that the change would deprive many of them of the means of living. But with most it is mere timidity of declaring any change of opinion that would conflict with the old conservatism, grown hoary under the patronage, protection, and endorsement of the most eminent scholars of centuries.

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