( Originally Published 1879 )
The man who has no occupation is in a bad plight.. If he is poor, want is ever and anon, pinching him; if he is rich, ennui is a more relentless tormentor than want. An unoccupied man cannot be happy—nor can one who is improperly occupied. We have swarms of idlers among us, the worst of whom are gentlemen idlers; that is, men who pursue no useful occupation, and sponge their way, often enjoying the luxuries of life, living upon the hard earnings of others—the cancers of community—pseudo patterns of bipeds—leeches on the body politic.
In this widespread and expanding country, no one need be without some useful occupation. All trades and professions are open, from the honest hod carrier, up to the highest place in the agricultural, commercial and mechanical departments, and from the humblest, but not least useful teacher of A. B. C., up to the pinnacle of professional fame. Those occupations that require manual labor, are the surest, most healthy, and most independent.
A man or woman with no business, nothing to do, is an absolute pest to society. They are thieves, stealing that which is not theirs; beggars, eating that which they have not earned; drones, wasting the fruits of others' industry; leeches, sucking the blood of others;: evil-doers, setting an example of idleness and dishonest living; hypocrites, shining in stolen and false colors; vampires, eating out the life of the community. Frown upon them, O youth. Learn in your heart to despise their course of life.
Many of our most interesting youth waste a great portion of their early life in fruitless endeavors at nothing. They have no trade, no profession, no Object before them, nothing to do; and yet have a great desire to do something, and something worthy of themselves.
They try this and that, and the other; offer themselves to do anything and everything, and yet know how to do nothing. Educate themselves, they cannot, for they know not what they should do it for. They waste their time, energies, and little earnings in endless changes and wanderings. They have not the stimulus of a fixed object to fasten their attention and awaken their energies; not a known prize to win. They wish for good things, but have no way to attain them; desire to be useful, but little means for being so. They lay plans, invent schemes, form theories, build castles, but never stop to execute and realize them. Poor creatures ! All that ails them is the want of an object—a single object. They look at a hundred, and see nothing. If they should look steadily at one, they would see it distinctly. They grasp at random at a hundred things and catch nothing. It is like shooting among a scattered flock of pigeons. The chances are doubtful. This will never do—no, never. Success, respectability, , and happiness are found in a permanent business. An early choice of some business, devotion to it, and preparation for it, should be made by every youth.
When the two objects, business and character, as the great end of life, are fairly before a youth, what then? Why, he must attain those objects. Will wishes and prayers bring them into his hands ? By no means. He must work as well as wish, labor as well as pray. His hand must be as stout as his heart, his arm as strong as his head. Purpose must be followed by action. The choosing of an occupation, however, is not a small thing; great mistakes are made and often the most worthy pursuits are left. The young man who leaves the farm-field for the merchant's desk, or the lawyer's or doctor's office, thinking to dignify or ennoble his toil, makes a sad mistake. He passes by that step from independence to vassalage. He barters a natural for an artificial pursuit; and he must be the slave of the caprice of customers, and the chicane of trade, either to support himself or to acquire a fortune. The more artificial a man's pursuit, the more debasing is it, morally and physically. To test it, contrast the merchant's clerk with the plow-boy. The former may have the most exterior polish, but the latter, under his rough outside, possesses the true stamina. He is the freer, franker, happier, and nobler man. Would that young men might judge of the dignity of labor by its usefulness, rather than by the superficial glosses it wears. Therefore, we never see a man's nobility in his kid gloves and toilet adornments, but in that sinewy arm, whose outlines, browned by the sun, betoken a hardy, honest toil, under whose farmer's or mechanic's vest a kingliest heart may beat.
Above all, the notion that the "three black graces," Law; Medicine and Ministry, must be worshiped by the candidate for respectability and honor, has done incalculable damage to society. It has spoiled many a good carpenter, done injustice to the sledge and the anvil, cheated the goose and the shears out of their rights, and committed fraud on the corn and the potato field. Thousands have died of broken hearts in these professions—thousands who might have been happy at the plow, or opulent behind the counter; thousands, dispirited and hopeless, look upon the healthful and independent calling of the farmer with envy and chagrin; and thousands more, by a worse fate still, are reduced to necessities which degrade them in their own estimation, rendering the most brilliant success, but a wretched compensation for the humiliation with which it is accompanied, and compelling them to grind out of the miseries of their fellow men the livelihood which is denied to. their legitimate exertions. The result of all this is, that the world is full of men who, disgusted with their vocations, getting their living by their weakness instead of by their strength, are doomed to hope-less inferiority. " If you choose to represent the various parts in life," says Sydney Smith, "by holes in a table of different shapes—some circular, some triangular, some square, some oblong—and the persons acting these parts by bits of wood of similar shapes, we shall generally find that the triangular person has got into the square hole, the oblong into the triangular, while the square person has squeezed himself into the round hole." A French writer on agriculture observes that it is impossible profitably to improve land by trying forcibly to change its natural character—as by bringing sand to clay, or clay to sand. The only true method is to adapt the cultivation to the nature of the soil. So with the moral or intellectual qualities. Exhortation, self-determination may do much to stimulate and prick a man on in a wrong career against his natural bent; but, when the crisis comes, this artificial character thus laboriously induced will break down, failing at the very time when it is most wanted.
No need of spurs to the little Handel or the boy Bach to study music, when one steals midnight inter-views with a smuggled clavichord in a secret attic, and the other copies whole books of studies by moonlight, for want of a candle, churlishly denied. No need of whips to the boy-painter, West, when he begins in a garret, and plunders the family cat for bristles to make his brushes. On the other hand, to spend years at college, at the work-bench, or in a store, and then find that the calling is a wrong one, is disheartening to all but men of the toughest fibre. The discovery shipwrecks the feeble, and plunges ordinary minds into despair. Doubly trying is this discovery when one feels that the mistake was made in defiance of friendly advice, or to gratify a freak of fancy or an idle whim. The sorrows that come upon us by the will of God, or through the mistakes of our parents, we can submit to with comparative resignation; but the sorrows which we have wrought by our own hand, the pitfalls into which we have fallen by obstinately going on our own way, these are the sore places of memory which no time and no patience can salve over.
Be what nature intended you for, and you will succeed; be anything else, and you will be ten thousand times worse than nothing.
It is an uncontroverted truth, that no man ever made an ill-figure who understood his own talents, nor a good one who mistook them. Let no young man of industry and perfect honesty despair because his profession or calling is crowded. Let him always remember that there is room enough at the top, and that the question whether he is ever to reach the top, or rise above the crowd at the base of the pyramid, will be decided by the way in which he improves the first ten years of his active life in securing to himself a thorough knowledge of his profession, and a sound moral and intellectual culture.