Some Good Habits
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
A French writer has said, that it is only the first step that counts. The beginning of an enterprise is a sure prophecy of its ending, and a right start upon the journey of life will almost always insure success. It is this start which gives direction to our life-work, and which leads, ultimately, to its end. We can-not then emphasize too strongly - the necessity of inculcating right habits at the start. These are the foundation of character, and character is the foundation of life. Good habit is as strong as evil habit, and oftentimes the only way to extirpate a bad habit is to supplant it by a good one. Bishop Butler, in his Analogy, said : "As habits belonging to the body are produced by external acts, so habits of the mind are produced by the execution of inward practical purposes ; that is, by acting upon the principles of obedience, veracity, justice and charity." And he goes on to impress the importance of careful self-discipline and the advisability of making a firm resistance to temptation. "These," says he, "tend to make virtue habitual, so that at length it may become more easy to do good than to sin." Thus evil habits may be rooted out and good ones developed along the line of new activities, until the character and life yield to the new order of things, and a man's life is laid right on the foundation of good and healthful habit.
But it is vastly better to have started right with good habits. Make sobriety a habit, and inebriety will be a disgusting sin. Make prudence a habit and reckless waste of money, time or talent will become revolting to any man. Make the love of pure air a habit, and the man will find nothing to enjoy in the fumes of poisonous nicotine. Make any good action habitual ; let the virtues become habits, and the man is forever fortified against the allurements of evil. Prudence, devoted application, industry, dispatch, integrity and cheerfulness are all habits, and not beliefs. They can be acquired and we may become bound by the power of these forces, as well as those which wreck and destroy. It is therefore all important for the successful man to, have acquired early in life certain habits, that will be of inestimable value to him as he advances in his life-career.
One of these is prudence. In the game of base-ball it is heavy batting and swift running that wins the scores: Fine fielding, swift throwing, good catching, are excellent qualities in their places; but the man who has the skill to strike hard and the prudence to take only safe hazard in running his base is the best player in the end. It is only the "home-runs" that score. So the game of life is won, less by fine fielding than by strong hitting at the bat. But a man may get a fine hit and ruin everything in running his base.
He takes a wild hazard, perhaps, and does not reach the goal. In fear, he fails to take an easy chance, and is put out when he might have scored his run. The - exercise of prudence would have saved him in either case. There is always some point in one's life work, where the runs score, where prudence and well directed effort will win the game. It is a man's business to see that point, and direct all his powers with skill and wisdom so as to take advantage of the favorable opportunity, and force in his run while the enemy are demoralized with excitement and bad fielding. There is nothing more useful to a man than this habitual exercise of prudence. It is a good substitute for talent and will serve a good purpose where even culture will fail. The man who knows when to speak, and when to keep silent, is armed with one powerful weapon for the battle of life. Many a grand enterprise has been ruined by the volubility of the man who is intrusted with carrying it out. Some men do not seem to know that they must not tell all their affairs on the street, even before their plans are fully matured. They have not the prudence to keep quiet, when they should not talk.
So, too, a man should know when to act and when to refrain from acting. Men often rush wildly about and consume their energies by misdirected labors. They work hard, but it does not count. They work all about the main issue, but do not seem able to send home the thrusts that make their work a success. Such men become plodders and use up the valuable energy of their lives upon trivial details, that have no bearing upon the real end .for which they are laboring. For example, I have known a student to imagine that it would be a wise thing to write out carefully his translations of a Latin author. And so he goes at his task. With painful labor he thumbs his dictionary and weighs his words with that deliberation that some men would use in questions of state. He consumes his vitality in Iabors that can, at the best, yield him only small return for the time and effort expended. How much better to read orally, to read over and over again, to exercise the memory, to read at last "with your feet on the fender" and your thought fed and stimulated by the thoughts of the author. The man who writes is engaged only in an exercise of English composition. The man who reads orally, "with the spirit and the understanding also," will accomplish far more as a Latin scholar than his plod-ding neighbor, forever busy with his little things. The simple tact to know what to do and when to do it, is of priceless value in a life-work. The world's great workers are all misers of time and effort. They do not spare their energies, but they waste nothing on useless labors that do not count in the great aggregate of brilliant success. Moralists are forever debasing genius and exalting the idea of tireless work. The plodder, they say, is the man who accomplishes the great things in life. Well, yes, if he plods to a purpose. But there is no use of a man, with only a man's lifetime before him, trying to carry off a mountain, one sand at a time. He cannot scoop the ocean dry with a teaspoon, and the plodder needs prudence as well as genius. He needs to know what work is useful and what is not. He needs to know that work, in and of itself, has no power to bring success, that in and of itself it is not even a blessing.
Many people lack the prudence necessary to a wise use of money. There are hundreds of persons all about us that do not know what they ought to buy and what they ought to refrain from buying. Thousands are made poor by the habit of spending money on every foolish thing they see that pleases their fancy. They waste money. on clothes and finery. They waste it on sweet-meats and nick-nacks, they spend somewhere and somehow every cent of their income, and seem to think they are oppressed because they cannot have more money to waste on spendthrift habits. Such people lack prudence, and in this particular it is a very universal lack of the American people. With only a few exceptions, we spend our money too lavishly. We do not exercise ordinary prudence in the purchases we make for ourselves and families. We buy too costly food and raiment. We rent too fine houses. We live at too expensive a rate, and the habit of extravagance is slowly settling down upon us, to the ruin of the poor, and the discontent and uneasiness of the great middle classes of American labor. This lack of prudence in what we buy is bringing, each year, untold sorrow upon our people.
Thus the habitual exercise of prudence is a tower of strength to any man. Armed with this he need not fear in life's conflict. He will know when to strike, and where, and how, and his native wisdom will carry him through every trying crisis to the triumphant realization of his hope and aim. In human life there is no sense so great as common-sense.
Another good habit is that of attention to duty, and this should be assiduously cultivated by all who expect to succeed. There is no kind of work that does not require attention, that does not need to have the powers of the mind riveted upon it. Even the most menial task of hand labor can be improved by careful attention to the work, and all forms of high and responsible toil imperatively demand the closest attention and the most unflinching devotion to duty. The pleasures and frivolities of life must be crowded out. Indolence, the besetting sin of all high endeavor, must be conquered. The powers of mind and body must be all subservient to the high call of duty, and with attention riveted to the main issue of his life-work, the man must be willing to spend and be spent for the noble privilege of success. Indifference has ruined many an enterprise. How often do we spoil. our work because the mind will wander off to other things! It slips from our control, and we go on working with a dead hand, because the mind is in Utopia.
One of the crying defects of all school training is the listlessness and lack of attention so common among students. Boys and girls read over their lessons with the mind not riveted to the work. The lesson fails from lack of attention. The fault of to-day becomes a disease of to-morrow, and a superficial education is the result. Students thus fitted for life's duties, enter upon the work of a vocation. The habits of the school-room follow them. They are as listless in the store or office as they were at their tasks in school. Such power as the man possesses is not under control. He soon becomes an idler, and failure is written all over him because he has not secured the benefits of a good habit. The greatest need of the hour in all departments of labor, is employees who can give attention to business. Men who can devote their time and energies to the work that they are hired to perform. Men no longer seem to think that they are called upon to bestow any pains upon the labor they are paid for. The chief idea seems to be to put in certain hours in a given place in the most listless, incompetent labor. If the time is used or wasted, if the employer's money comes regularly at stated intervals, to the mind of most men, the end of all labor has been reached. People complain that capital is degrading labor. Rather, labor is degrading itself by unspeakable incompetence and listlessness. God forbid any tyrannies of capital in this land ; but unless men learn to put something beside task-work into labor, there is serious trouble, just ahead. Money will not long be wasted on incompetence. The laborer must come to the simple common-sense view of the case and give an honest day's labor for an honest day's payŚlabor that means something and has a thought in it. At the present time men are too anxious to draw high salaries for very poor service. The desire to draw honest pay for dishonest work is destroying confidence everywhere, and widening the gulf between consolidated millions and the sinews of hand labor.
The habit of attention to duty should be a part of our early education. Young children cannot hold the attention long upon any one subject but there is no reason why the habit of childhood should be carried into mature years. As the mind grows stronger, its powers may be enlisted for a longer and longer period in a given task, until the attention can be centered unflaggingly for hours upon the same subject. And a man is of little use to himself or the world who cannot hold all his powers under control for six hours at a stretch. It is such attention that is needed all along the journey of life, and it should be one of the mental habits acquired in every course of school training.
Another habit closely akin to that of attention is thoroughness. That bent of mind that goes to the bottom of a subject, that spirit of perservance that endures to the end. This habit once fully formed enables a man always to do his best; it holds him to the end of his task with the same eager devotion that he entered upon it. Cheerfully, industriously he keeps upon his way, until he arrives in due course of time at the full completion of his labors. For the lack of this nothing can atone. In our time, with its pressing labors and all consuming care, there is danger of slighting our work. Men think that if a task is speedily done, it does not matter much whether it is well done. And it is marvelous how much shoddy and sham and dishonest job-work is allowed everywhere. The habit of quick work is being cultivated to the disregard of thoroughness. No man learns his trade completely before he tries his hand at a piece of work that he generally spoils. This is the age. of " short cuts." We have foreign languages " mastered in six weeks." We have quick routes to the lawyer's profession and to the medical profession. Men are imperfectly trained to enter upon the most responsible and most important duties. The result is a - nation of bunglers, where thorough work is no longer demanded, where superficiality prevails and sham and shoddy are fine arts. There is pressing need of the opposite of this course which is so prevalent. We need thoroughness in education, thoroughness in industrial life, thoroughness in professional life, thoroughness all along the line.
To be thorough it is not necessary that we be slow. Indeed, dispatch is one of the natural results of a complete knowledge of one's business and the best methods by which his work is to be done. There is nothing, probably, that points out a first-class work-man more surely than the rapidity with which he turns off his work. He is a master of true celerity, He knows his business completely and. the most expeditious way of performing it. True thoroughness is as far removed as possible from the habit of droning on the one hand, and that of " smart and facile activity" on the other, It is quickness born of knowledge and experience and is a most valuable acquisition for any man. A thorough study of one's vocation, a careful mastery of fundamental principles will often give a man the knack of doing his work quickly and well. He thus becomes an accurate, punctual, competent man, whose services will be sought after and for whom wages and work are always waiting. Thorough preparation for the work of life would do away with almost all the paid incompetence that is now employed in all departments of human toil. It would soon raise industrial labor to the rank of a profession and make artisans, clerks and farmers a respected and honored class of men, whose sons would be willing to tread in the steps of their fathers, even after the college days were over. It is to be devoutly hoped that in the bright days just before us, a higher ideal of professional skill shall prevail, an ideal which can be attained only by a perfect mastery of those deep principles and high arts upon which successful work depends. It is to be hoped that thoroughness will take the place of the superficial and dishonest practices of today.
Thus our habits may be turned to account as helpers in the struggle of life. Good habits are our friends. We have seen that they may be cultivated, and there is no good reason why a man may not marshal the' mighty power of habit upon his side in the fight. Habit of mind, habit of heart, habit of hand may be directed to the noble ends of life and become a source of strength unmeasured in the arena of the world's work. To supplant evil habit and develop good habit should be the serious work of every right-minded man.