Men Of Business
( Originally Published 1884 )
Hazlitt's Definition of the Man of Business.—The Chief Requisite Qualities.-Men of Genius Men of Business.—Labor and Application Necessary to Success.—The School of Difficulty a Good School. —Conditions of Success in Law.—The Industrious Architect.—The Salutary Influence of Work—Consequences of Contempt for Arithmetic.—Dr. Johnson on the Alleged Injustice of " the World."—Practical Qualities Necessary in Business.—Importance of Accuracy.—Method.—Value of Time.—Promptitude.—Economy of Time.—Punctuality.
" Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings.' —Proverbs of Solomon.
HAZLITT, in one of his clever essays, represents the man of business as a mean sort of person put in a go-cart, yoked to a trade or profession; alleging that all he has to do is, not to go out of the beaten track, but merely to let his affairs take their own course. " The great requisite," he says, " for the prosperous management of ordinary business is the want of imagination, or of any ideas but those of custom and interest on the narrowest scale. But nothing could be more one-sided, and in effect untrue, than such a definition. Of course, there are narrow-minded men of business, as there are narrow-minded scientific men, literary men, and legislators; but there are also business men of large and comprehensive minds, capable of action on the very largest scale. As Burke said in his speech on the India Bill, he knew statesmen who were pedlers, and merchants who acted in the spirit of statesmen.
If we take into account the qualities necessary for the successful conduct of any important undertaking--that it requires special aptitude, promptitude of action on emergencies, capacity for organizing the labors often of large numbers of men, great tact and knowledge of human nature, constant self culture, and growing experience in the practical affairs of life it must, we think, be obvious that the school of business is by no means so narrow as some writers would have us believe. Mr. Helps has gone much nearer the truth when he said that consummate men of business are as rare almost as great poets rarer, perhaps, than veritable saints and martyrs. Indeed, of no other pursuits can it so emphatically be said, as of this, that " Business makes men."
It has, however, been a favorite fallacy with dunces in all times, that men of genius are unfitted for business, as well as that business occupations unfit men for the pursuits of genius. The unhappy youth who committed suicide a few years since because he had been " born to be a man and condemned to be a grocer," proved by the act that his soul was not equal even to the dignity of grocery. For it is not the calling that degrades the man, but the man that degrades the calling. All work that brings honest gain is honorable, whether it be of hand or mind. The fingers may be soiled, yet the heart remain pure; for it is not material so much as moral dirt that defiles greed far more than grime, and vice than verdigris.
The greatest have not disdained to labor honestly and usefully for a living, though at the same time aiming after higher things. Thales, the first of the seven sages, Solon, the second founder of Athens, and Hyperates, the mathematician, were all traders. Plato, called the Divine by reason of the excellence of his wisdom, de-frayed his traveling expenses in Egypt by the profits derived from the oil which he sold during his journey. Spinoza maintained himself by polishing glasses while he pursued his philosophical investigations. Linneaeus, the great botanist, prosecuted his studies while hammering leather and making shoes. Shakspeare was a successful manager of a theatre perhaps priding him-self more upon his practical qualities in that capacity than on his writing of plays and poetry. Pope was of opinion that Shakspeare's principal object in cultivating literature was to secure an honest independence. Indeed he seems to have been altogether indifferent to literary reputation. It is not known that he superintended the publication of a single play, or even sanctioned the printing of one; and the chronology of his writings is still a mystery. It is certain, however, that he prospered in his business, and realized sufficient to enable him to retire on a competency to his native town of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Chaucer was in early life a soldier, and afterwards an effective Commissioner of Customs, and Inspector of Woods and Crown Lands. Spenser was Secretary to the Lord Deputy of Ireland, was afterwards Sheriff of Cork,' and is said to have been shrewd and attentive in matters of business. Milton, originally a schoolmaster, was elevated to the post of Secretary to the Council of State during the Commonwealth; and the extant Order-book of the Council, as well as many of Milton's letters which are preserved, give abundant evidence of his activity and usefulness in that office. Sir Isaac Newton proved himself an efficient Master of the Mint, the new coinage of 1694 having been carried on under his immediate personal superintendence. Cowper prided him-self upon his business punctuality, though he confessed that he " never knew a poet, except himself, who was punctual in any thing." But against this we may set the lives of Woodsworth and Scott the former a distributer of stamps, the latter a clerk to the Court of Session both of whom, though great poets, were eminently punctual and practical men of business. David Ricardo, amidst the occupations of his daily business as a London stock-jobber, in conducting which he acquired an ample fortune, was able to concentrate his mind upon his favorite subject on which he was enabled to throw great light the principles of political economy; for he united in himself the sagacious commercial man and the profound philosopher. Baily, the eminent astronomer, was another stock-broker.
We have abundant illustrations, in our own day, of the fact that the highest intellectual power is not incompatible with the active and efficient performance of routine duties. Grote, the great historian of Greece, was a London banker. And it is not long since John Stuart Mill, one of our greatest living thinkers, retired from the Examiner's department of the East India Company, carrying with him the admiration and esteem of his fellow-officers, not on account of his high views of philosophy, but because of the high standard of efficiency which he had established in his office, and the thoroughly satisfactory manner in which he had con-ducted the business of his department.
The path of success in business is usually the path of common sense. Patient labor and application are as necessary here as in the acquisition of knowledge or the pursuit of science. The old Greeks said, " To become an able man in any profession, three things are necessary nature, study, and practice." In business, practice, wisely and diligently improved, is the great secret of success. Some may make what are called " lucky hits," but like money earned by gambling, such "hits" may only serve to lure one to ruin. Bacon was accustomed to say that it was in business as in ways the nearest way was commonly the foulest, and that if a man would go the fairest way he must go somewhat about. The journey may occupy a longer time, but the pleasure of the labor involved by it, and the enjoyments of the results produced, will be more genuine and unalloyed. To have a daily appointed task of even common drudgery to do makes the rest of life feel all the sweeter.
The fable of the labors of Hercules is the type of all human doing and success. Every youth should be made to feel that his happiness and well-doing in life must necessarily rely mainly on himself and the exercise of his own energies, rather than upon the help and patronage of others. The late Lord Melbourne embodied a piece of useful advice in a letter which he wrote to Lord John Russell, in reply to an application for a provision for one of Moore the poet's sons : " My dear John," he said, " I return you Moore's letter. I shall be ready to do what you like about it when we have the means. I think ;whatever is done should be done for Moore himself. This is more distinct, direct, and intelligible. Making a small provision for young men is hardly justifiable; and it is of all things the most prejudicial to themselves. They think what they have much larger than ' it really is; and they make no exertion. The young should never hear any language but this : ' You have your own way to make, and it depends upon your own exertions whether you starve or not.' Believe me, etc., MELBOURNE."
Practical industry, wisely and vigorously applied, always produces its due effects. It carries a man onward, brings out his individual character, and stimulates the action of others. All may not rise equally, yet each, on the whole, very much according to his deserts.
Though all can not live on the piazza," as the Tuscan proverb has it, " every one may feel the sun."
On the whole, it is not good that human nature should have the road of life made too easy. Better to be under the necessity of working hard and faring meanly, than to have everything done ready to our hand and a pillow of down to repose upon. Indeed, to start in life with comparatively small means seems so necessary as a stimulus to work, that it may almost be set down as one of the conditions essential to success in life. Hence, an eminent judge, when asked what contributed most to succes at the bar, replied, " Some succeed by great talent, some by high connections, some by miracle, but the majority by commencing without a shilling."
We have heard of an architect of considerable accomplishments a man who had improved himself by long study, and travel in the classical lands of the East —who came home to commence the practice of his profession. He determined to begin anywhere provided he could be employed, and he accordingly undertook a business connected with dilapidations one of the lowest and least remunerative departments of the architect's calling. But he had the good sense not to be above his trade, and he had the resolution to work his way upward, so that he only got a fair start. One hot day in July a friend found him sitting astride of a house-roof occupied with his dilapidation business. Drawing his hand across his perspiring countenance, he exclaimed, " Here's a pretty business for a man who has been all over Greece!" However, he did his work, such as it was, thoroughly and well; he persevered until he advanced by degrees to more remunerative branches of employment, and eventually he rose to the highest walks of his profession.
The necessity of labor may, indeed, be regarded as the main root and spring of all that we call progress in individuals, and civilization in nations; and it is doubtful that any heavier curse could be imposed on man than the gratification of all his wishes without effort on his part, leaving nothing for his hopes, desires, or struggles. The feeling that life is destitute of any motive or necessity for action, must be of all others the most distressing and insupportable to a rational being. The Marquis de Spinola asking Sir Horace Vere what his brother died of, Sir Horace replied, " He died, sir, of having nothing to do." " Alas!" said Spinola, " that is enough to kill any general of us all."
Those who fail in life are however very apt to assume a tone of injured innocence, and conclude too hastily that everybody excepting themselves has had a hand in their personal misfortunes. An eminent writer lately published a hook, in which he described his numerous failures in business, naively admitting, at the same time, that he was, ignorant of the multiplication-table; and he came to the conclusion that the real cause of his ill-success in life was the money-worshiping spirit of the age. Lamartine also did not hesitate to profess his contempt for arithmetic; but, had it been less, probably we should not have witnessed the unseemly spectacle of the admirers of that distinguished personage engaged in collecting subscriptions for his support in his old age.
Again some consider themselves born to ill-luck, and make up their minds that the world invariably goes against them without any fault on their own part. We have heard of a person of this sort who went so far as to declare his belief that if he had been a hatter, people would have been born without heads! There is, however, a Russian proverb which says that Misfortune is next door to Stupidity; and it will often be found that men who are constantly lamenting their luck, are in some way or other reaping the consequences of their own neglect, mismanagement, improvidence, or want of application. Dr. Johnson, who came up to London With a single guinea in his pocket, and who once accurately described himself in his signature to a letter addressed to a noble lord, as Impransus, or Dinnerless, has honestly said, " All the complaints which are made of the world are unjust; I never knew a man of merit neglected; it was generally by his own fault that he failed of success."
Washington Irving, the American author, held like views. " As for the talk," said he, " about modest merit being neglected, it is too often a cant, by which indolent and irresolute men seek to lay their want of success at the door of the public. Modest merit is, however, too apt to be inactive, or negligent, or uninstructed merit. Well-matured and well-disciplined talent is always sure of a market, provided it exerts itself; but it must not cower at home and expect to be sought for. There is a good deal of cant, too, about the success of forward and impudent men, while men of retiring worth are passed over with neglect. But it usually happens that those forward men have that valuable quality of promptness and activity without which worth is a' mere inoperative property. A barking dog is often more useful than a sleeping lion."
Attention, application, accuracy, method, punctuality, and dispatch are the principal qualities required for the efficient conduct of, business of any sort. These, at first sight, may appear to he small matters; and yet they are of essential importance to human happiness, well-being, and usefulness. They are little things, it is true; but human life is made up of comparative trifles. It is thé repetition of little acts which constitutes not only the sum of human character, but which determines the character of nations. And where men or nations have broken down, it will almost invariably be found that neglect of little things was the rock on which they split. Every human being has duties to be performed, and, therefore, has need of cultivating the capacity for doing them; whether the sphere of action be the management of a household, the conduct of a trade or profession or the government of a nation.
The examples we have already given of great workers in various branches of industry, art, and science,. render it unnecessary further to enforce the importance of persevering application in any department of life. It is the result of every-day experience, that steady attention to matters of detail lies at the root of human progress; and that diligence, above all, is the mother of good luck. Accuracy is also of much importance, and an invariable mark of good training in a man accuracy in observation, accuracy in speech, accuracy in the transaction of affairs. What is done in. business must be well done; for it is better to accomplish perfectly a small amount of work, than to half do ten times as much. A wise man used to say, "Stay a little, that we may make an end the sooner."
Too little attention, however, is paid to this highly important quality of accuracy. As a man eminent in practical science lately observed to us, " it is astonishing how few people I have met with in the course of my experience who can define a fact accurately." Yet in business affairs, it is the manner in which even small matters are transacted, that often decides men for or against you. With virtue, capacity, and good conduct in other respects, the person who is habitually inaccurate cannot be trusted ; his work has to be gone over again; and he thus causes an infinity of annoyance, vexation and trouble.
It was one of the characteristic qualities of Charles James Fox, that he was thoroughly pains-taking in all that he did. When appointed Secretary of State, being piqued at some observation as to his bad writing, he actually took a writing-master, and wrote copies like a school-boy until he had sufficiently improved himself. Though a corpulent man, he was wonderfully active at picking up cut tennis balls, and when asked how he contrived to do so, he playfully replied, " Because I am a very pains-taking man." The same accuracy in trifling matters was displayed by him in things of greater importance; and he acquired his reputation, like the painter by " neglecting nothing."
Method is essential, and enables a larger amount of work to be got through with satisfaction. " Method," said the Rev. Richard Cecil, " is like packing things in a box; a good packer will get in half as much again as a had one." Cecil's dispatch of business was extraordinary, his maxim being, " the shortest way to do many things is to do only one thing at once;" and he never left a thing undone with a view of recurring to it at a period of more leisure. When business pressed, he rather chose to encroach on his hours of meals and rest than omit any part of his work. DeWitt's maxim was like Cecil's: " One thing at a time." " If," said he, " I have any necessary dispatches to make, I think of nothing else till they are finished; if any domestic affairs require my attention, I give myself wholly up to them till they are set in order."
A French minister, who was alike remarkable for his dispatch of business and his constant attendance at places of amusement, being asked how he contrived to combine both objects, replied, " Simply by never postponing till tomorrow what should be done to-day." Lord Brougham has said that a certain English states-man reversed the process, and that his maxim was, never to transact today what could be postponed till tomorrow. Unhappily, such is the practice of many beside that minister, already almost forgotten; the practice is that of the indolent and the unsuccessful. Such men, too, are apt to rely upon agents, who are not always to be relied upon. " If you want your business done," says the proverb, " go and do it; if you don't want it done, send some one else."
An indolent country gentleman had a freehold estate producing about five hundred a year. Becoming involved in debt, he sold half the estate, and let the remainder to an industrious farmer for twenty years. About the end of the term the farmer called to pay his rent, and asked the owner whether he would sell the farm. " Will you buy it?" asked the owner surprised. " Yes, if we can agree about the price." " That is exceedingly strange," observed the gentleman; pray, tell me how it happens that, while I could not live upon twice as much land for which I paid no rent, you are regularly paying me two hundred a year for your farm, and are able, in a few years, to purchase it." The reason is plain," was the reply ; " you sat still and said Go, I got up and said Come; you lay in bed and enjoyed your estate, I rose in the morning and minded my business."
Sir Walter Scott, writing to a youth who had obtained a situation and asked for his advice, gave him in reply this sound counsel : " Beware of stumbling over a propensity which easily besets you from not having your time fully employed I mean what the women call dawdling. Your motto must be, Hoc age. Do instantly whatever is to be done, and take the hours of recreation after business, never before it. When a regiment is under march, the rear is often thrown into confusion because the front does not move steadily and without interruption. It is the same with business. If that which is first in hand is not instantly, steadily, and regularly dispatched, other things accumulate behind,. till affairs begin to press all at once, and no human brain can stand the confusion."
Promptitude in action may be stimulated by a due consideration of the value of time. An Italian philosopher was accustomed to call time his estate: an estate which produces nothing of value without cultivation, but, duly improved, never fails to recompense the labors of the diligent worker. Allowed to lie waste, the product will be only noxious weeds and vicious growths of all kinds. One of the minor uses of steady employment is, that it keeps one out of mischief, for truly an idle brain is the devil's workshop, and a lazy man the devil's bolster. To be occupied is to be possessed as by a tenant, whereas to be idle is to be empty; and when the doors of the imagination are opened, temptation finds a ready access, and evil thoughts come trooping in. It is observed at sea, that men are never so much disposed to grumble and mutiny as when least employ-ed. Hence an old captain, when there was nothing else to do, would issue the order to " scour the anchor!"
Men of business are accustomed to quote the maxim that Time is money; but it is more; the proper improvement of it is self culture, self improvement, and growth of character. An hour wasted daily on trifles or in indolence, would, if devoted to self improvement, make an ignorant man wise in a few years, and, employed in good works, would make his life fruitful, and death a harvest of worthy deeds. Fifteen minutes a day devoted to self improvement, will be felt at the end of the year. Good thoughts and carefully gathered experience take up no room, and may be carried about as our companions everywhere, without cost or incumbrance. An economical use of time is the true mode of securing leisure: it enables us to get through business and carry it forward, instead of being driven by it. On the other hand, the miscalculation of time involves us in perpetual hurry, confusion, and difficulties; and life becomes a mere shuffle of expedients, usually followed by disaster. Nelson once said, " I owe all my success in life to having been always a quarter of an hour before my time."
Some take no thought of the value of money until they have come to an end of it, and many do the same with their time. The hours are allowed to flow by unemployed, and then, when life is fast waning, they be think themselves of the duty of making a wiser use of it. But the habit of listlessness and idleness may already have become confirmed, and they are unable to break the bonds with which they have permitted themselves to become bound. Lost wealth may be replaced by industry, lost knowledge by study, lost health by temperance or medicine, but lost time is gone forever.
A proper consideration of the value of time will also inspire habits of punctuality. "Punctuality," said Louis XIV., " is the politeness of kings." It is also the duty of gentlemen, and the necessity of men of business. Nothing begets confidence in a man sooner than the practice of this virtue, and nothing shakes confidence sooner than the want of it. He who holds to his appointment and does not keep you waiting for him, shows that he has regard for your time as well as for his own. Thus punctuality is one of the modes by which we testify our personal respect for those whom we are called upon to meet in the business of life. It is also conscientiousness, in a measure; for an appointment is a con-tract, express or implied, and he who does not keep it breaks faith, as well as dishonestly uses other people's time, and thus inevitably loses character. We naturally come to the conclusion that the person who is careless about time is careless about business, and that he is not the one to be trusted with the transaction of matters of importance. When Washington's secretary excused himself for the lateness of his attendance and laid the blame upon his watch, his master quietly said,
" Then you must get another watch, or I another secretary."
The person who is negligent of time and its employment is usually found to be a general disturber of others' peace and serenity. It was wittily said by Lord Chesterfield of the old Duke of Newcastle—" His Grace loses an hour in the morning, and is looking for it all the rest of the day." Every body with whom the unpunctual man has to do is thrown from time to time into a state of fever: he is systematically late; regular only in his irregularity. He conducts his dawdling as. if upon system; arrives at his appointment after time; gets to the railway station after the train has started; posts his letter when the box has closed. Thus business is thrown into confusion, and every body concerned is put out of temper. It will generally be found that the men who are thus habitually behind time are as habitually behind success; and the world generally casts them aside to swell the ranks of the grumblers and the railers against fortune.