Preparation For Life Versus Choosing A Vocation
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
It is well to have a mission in life. A well-defined object in life makes a man twice what he would be without it. A mission is something to live for, and if it be a high and earnest one, something to die for. The poor half-witted boy, tramping in the streets of New York, searching everywhere for lost pins, and as he finds one sticking it upon his sleeve, had a mission and although they called him "Pin Jock," they learned at last to have respect for him for the great result accomplished in a few years by cultivating his one poor talent. The great men of the earth have all had a mission, very well defined, which they followed through peril and difficulty—to its full realization. Such were Clarkson, Wilberforce, Burke, The Duke of Wellington and Mr. Gladstone. Such in our country were Washington, Webster, Clay, Lincoln, Sumner and Garfield. All men of purpose, men with an object in life. Nothing is more certain to dissipate the energies with which a man may be endowed, than to be entering into life with no definite and fixed purpose before him. Many a life of failure has resulted from an aimless life. While all this and much more is true concerning the benefits of a mission in life, the mere choosing of a profession, even if it be the right one, is not all of success. To carry on the business of life successfully requires powers of thought, capacity for endurance, and a vigor of constitution that few possess. I therefore put more stress upon thoughtful preparation for life, than I do the mere choosing of a profession. There are certain results in education which all men need, whatever be their vocation. There are certain qualities of character that are essential to success. There is a certain temper, a certain form of dress and address, which are indispensable to the profitable pursuit of one's calling. Culture is, therefore, of greater moment than choosing a profession. The training of the hand to usefulness and skill; the training of the mind to logical thought and accuracy; the training of the will to indomitable persistence; all these are of first importance and the choosing of a vocation of secondary importance. It is not absolutely necessary, therefore, that a boy of six should know precisely what he is going to do at thirty-six. There are long years of special training immediately before him, and the acquisition of a sound education, as broad and extensive as possible, should be the first ambition of every young person. Culture, character, courage, or the lack of these virtues will make or mar success in any field of activity.
It often happens that a youth of twelve or fifteen is not in a position to choose his vocation. His education may not have yet called forth the best powers that are in him. He may not know at this age what talents lie slumbering, what energies are pent up in his restless mind. Educators will develop these and the young man of twenty is much better able to choose his career in life than he ever was before that time. The natural bent of his mind and genius have now had time to assert themselves, and if at this mature age, he follows his best inclination and judgment, he will almost never fail of choosing the right track. An amusing story is told of Lord Chatterton. When a boy of eight years, a friend of the family desired to present him with a silver cup. He asked the boy what devise he should have placed upon it. The boy replied: "arrange it with wings and a trumpet, sounding my name to all the world." The by Chatterton, with such a wish in his thought was hardly able to make a choice of a vocation. And who does not know in looking back at his own experience, how foolish it would have been had we been permitted to follow out some of the blind wishes of our youth-time. It is, no doubt generally true that most men do best by choosing a single vocation and putting into it the devotion and effort of their lives. But it is also true that men are frequently called upon to make a sudden and decisive change in their life work. The young man Garfield was filled with an intense desire to become a sailor on Lake Erie, and we believe that it was something more than a passing whim of a young man's fancy. In a year or two after that we find the same boy with an eager ambition for an education. He is soon fitted fora public school teacher, but his ambition cannot be satisfied with this. With his own earnings he is fully launched upon an educational career at Hiram, then off to Williams and we cannot see that this young man had any ambition, before returning to Hiram as its president, other than the acquisition of a sound and thorough education. The burning desire of his heart was to fit himself for usefulness, and in that ambition his soul was satisfied. He may have thought during some of his early years at Hiram that he had found his life career. Certain it is that he gave to the principalship of Hiram Institute his best thought and his best effort, and certain it is that he met with most distinguished success. But, when in the full tide of a teacher's career, the call came for Garfield to go to the State Legislature, the man was ready for new work, new duties and new success. -In a little while the cry of war was heard throughout the land, and Garfield, the teacher, became Garfield, the soldier, the Colonel, the General, and in four short years won fair renown as a leader of men upon the battle field. And now he was called from the camp and field to an honored station in the council of his country, and for these new responsibilities, the man was ready. How well he worked, how nobly he maintained the honor of the high office which Whittlesey, Giddings and Wade had already made famous, and then at the last when the greatest of legislators was called to take the first place in the land, and became the greatest of heroes through suffering, the man was again ready. At what point in this wonderful career could Garfield have ever chosen a vocation ? And Garfield was not a man of genius. He was a great hearted, noble minded man, with no end of work in him and good everyday common sense. Once in this busy life of his, he chose a profession ; he studied it with becoming zeal and mastered it with that rare ability with which he mastered everything. But Garfield never practiced law and the vocation which he chose was only one of the dreams of a mind born to greater things. As we contemplate his wonderful career, we confess ourselves nonplussed at the thought of Garfield as an attorney.
We do not believe that all men, or any considerable number of men, could enter upon four totally different lines of action and succeed in all. But we do believe that it is entirely possible for a man to succeed nobly in any one of two or three avocations, for which his powers fit him, to an adequate degree. A man who is thoroughly educated, and has his powers under complete control, need not be everlastingly tied to one profession. Of course, if a boy of fifteen starts with the idea of being a clergyman, for instance, and educates himself for that one thing, and narrows down his education to suit that one line of work, sees sermons in stones, homilies in flowers, theological argument in the sky and trees and sunshine, and goes through life with that sort of educational blinders upon his eyes, it is not to be expected that he will change his tactics at thirty-four and become a celebrated lawyer or physician. But suppose you had kept the theological notion out of the boy's head until he had acquired a solid education, until he had read widely, and looked into his capabilities with the eye of reason, he then might enter upon any one of these three and do very great credit to himself. In a. college class a few years ago, composed of thirty men, sixteen entered college with the idea more or less firmly rooted of becoming ministers of the gospel. They studied together four years. Three of the sixteen carried out the purpose with which they entered college. The other thirteen, wisely or unwisely, chose to follow other professions. We can speak for four or five of them and say that they acted the part of wisdom. The training of college-life brought forcibly to the minds of these young men the question of a life career, and upon more mature reflection, under the guidance of more knowledge and insight into character, they chose other lines of work, and, as we firmly believe, are serving God still in other walks of life. In the author's career as a teacher, he has seen this matter of choosing a vocation made the subject of very grave solicitude upon the part of scores of young men. And he has almost always found it the case that when a young man chooses a vocation very early in his educational career', and holds to it with strange tenacity of purpose, he almost always fails of acquiring the broadest culture and the most useful education. Indeed, the choice of a vocation, in early years of study at the academy, has hopelessly ruined the prospects of more than a dozen men of the author's acquaintance. Let a young man of seventeen, of ordinary conceit and talent, get the " theological bee in his bonnet," or the idea of becoming a civil engineer, and unless he is a young man of more than ordinary good sense, he is utterly useless forever after.
In saying all this we do not wish to argue against the choosing of a vocation, but against the necessity which some writers advance of choosing that vocation in boyhood. It is possible, of course, to point to a great many men who have chosen their life careers and pursued them with unrelenting zeal to the highest eminence and the greatest success. But that this policy is not a safe one for the majority of men to pursue we are well assured. The fact is, that a great majority of men do not develop until they are about twenty years of age, and it is almost impossible to determine that for which they are best fitted. To such men there is only one hope of excellence, and that is, to develop the man by the best system of education, and wait for the kindly heat of culture to arouse the latent possibilities of his mind. We believe, therefore, that the preparation for a good and honored life is one of vastly more importance than the mere choosing of a vocation. Whoever a man is, and wherever he labors, sound culture will prove one of the most powerful aids which he can summon to his life-work ; and we cannot yield the first place to "getting a right start in life," as the saying goes, important and necessary as it is.