The Chances for Success: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 11

Edward Bok does not now remember whether the mental picture had been given him, or whether he had conjured it up for himself; but he certainly was possessed of the idea, as are so many young men entering business, that the path which led to success was very difficult: that it was overfilled with a jostling, bustling, panting crowd, each eager to reach the goal; and all ready to dispute every step that a young man should take; and that favoritism only could bring one to the top.

After Bok had been in the world of affairs, he wondered where were these choked avenues, these struggling masses, these competitors for every inch of vantage. Then he gradually discovered that they did not exist.

In the first place, he found every avenue leading to success wide open and certainly not over-peopled. He was surprised how few there were who really stood in a young man’s way. He found that favoritism was not the factor that he had been led to suppose. He realized it existed in a few isolated cases, but to these every one had pointed and about these every one had talked until, in the public mind, they had multiplied in number and assumed a proportion that the facts did not bear out.

Here and there a relative “played a favorite,” but even with the push and influence behind him “the lucky one,” as he was termed, did not seem to make progress, unless he had merit. It was not long before Bok discovered that the possession of sheer merit was the only real factor that actually counted in any of the places where he had been employed or in others which he had watched; that business was so constructed and conducted that nothing else, in the face of competition, could act as current coin. And the amazing part of it all to Bok was how little merit there was. Nothing astonished him more than the low average ability of those with whom he worked or came into contact.

He looked at the top, and instead of finding it overcrowded, he was surprised at the few who had reached there; the top fairly begged for more to climb its heights.

For every young man, earnest, eager to serve, willing to do more than he was paid for, he found ten trying to solve the problem of how little they could actually do for the pay received.

It interested Bok to listen to the talk of his fellow-workers during luncheon hours and at all other times outside of office hours. When the talk did turn on the business with which they were concerned, it consisted almost entirely of wages, and he soon found that, with scarcely an exception, every young man was terribly underpaid, and that his employer absolutely failed to appreciate his work. It was interesting, later, when Bok happened to get the angle of the employer, to discover that, invariably, these same lamenting young men were those who, from the employer’s point of view, were either greatly overpaid or so entirely worthless as to be marked for early decapitation.

Bok felt that this constant thought of the wages earned or deserved was putting the cart before the horse; he had schooled himself into the belief that if he did his work well, and accomplished more than was expected of him, the question of wages would take care of itself. But, according to the talk on every side, it was he who had the cart before the horse. Bok had not only tried always to fill the particular job set for him but had made it a rule at the same time to study the position just ahead, to see what it was like, what it demanded, and then, as the opportunity presented itself, do a part of that job in addition to his own. As a stenographer, he tried always to clear off the day’s work before he closed his desk. This was not always possible, but he kept it before him as a rule to be followed rather than violated.

One morning Bok’s employer happened to come to the office earlier than usual, to find the letters he had dictated late in the afternoon before lying on his desk ready to be signed.

“These are the letters I gave you late yesterday afternoon, are they not?” asked the employer.

“Yes, sir.”

“Must have started early this morning, didn’t you?”

“No, sir,” answered Bok. “I wrote them out last evening before I left.”

“Like to get your notes written out before they get stale?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good idea,” said the employer.

“Yes, sir,” answered Bok, “and I think it is even a better idea to get a day’s work off before I take my apron off.”

“Well said,” answered the employer, and the following payday Bok found an increase in his weekly envelope.

It is only fair, however, to add here, parenthetically, that it is neither just nor considerate to a conscientious stenographer for an employer to delay his dictation until the end of the day’s work, when, merely by judicious management of his affairs and time, he can give his dictation directly after opening his morning mail. There are two sides to every question; but sometimes the side of the stenographer is not kept in mind by the employer.

Bok found it a uniform rule among his fellow-workers to do exactly the opposite to his own idea; there was an astonishing unanimity in working by the clock; where the hour of closing was five o’clock the preparations began five minutes before, with the hat and overcoat over the back of the chair ready for the stroke of the hour. This concert of action was curiously universal, no “overtime” was ever to be thought of, and, as occasionally happened when the work did go over the hour, it was not, to use the mildest term, done with care, neatness, or accuracy; it was, to use a current phrase, “slammed off.” Every moment beyond five o’clock in which the worker was asked to do anything was by just so much an imposition on the part of the employer, and so far as it could be safely shown, this impression was gotten over to him.

There was an entire unwillingness to let business interfere with any anticipated pleasure or personal engagement. The office was all right between nine and five; one had to be there to earn a living; but after five, it was not to be thought of for one moment. The elevators which ran on the stroke of five were never large enough to hold the throng which besieged them.

The talk during lunch hour rarely, if ever, turned toward business, except as said before, when it dealt with underpaid services. In the spring and summer it was invariably of baseball, and scores of young men knew the batting averages of the different players and the standing of the clubs with far greater accuracy than they knew the standing or the discounts of the customers of their employers. In the winter the talk was all of dancing, boxing, or plays.

It soon became evident to Bok why scarcely five out of every hundred of the young men whom he knew made any business progress. They were not interested; it was a case of a day’s work and a day’s pay; it was not a question of how much one could do but how little one could get away with. The thought of how well one might do a given thing never seemed to occur to the average mind.

“Oh, what do you care?” was the favorite expression. “The boss won’t notice it if you break your back over his work; you won’t get any more pay.”

And there the subject was dismissed, and thoroughly dismissed, too.

Eventually, then, Bok learned that the path that led to success was wide open: the competition was negligible. There was no jostling. In fact, travel on it was just a trifle lonely. One’s fellow-travellers were excellent company, but they were few! It was one of Edward Bok’s greatest surprises, but it was also one of his greatest stimulants. To go where others could not go, or were loath to go, where at least they were not, had a tang that savored of the freshest kind of adventure. And the way was so simple, so much simpler, in fact, than its avoidance, which called for so much argument, explanation, and discussion. One had merely to do all that one could do, a little more than one was asked or expected to do, and immediately one’s head rose above the crowd and one was in an employer’s eye—where it is always so satisfying for an employee to be! And as so few heads lifted themselves above the many, there was never any danger that they would not be seen.

Of course, Edward Bok had to prove to himself that his conception of conditions was right. He felt instinctively that it was, however, and with this stimulus he bucked the line hard. When others played, he worked, fully convinced that his play-time would come later. Where others shirked, he assumed. Where others lagged, he accelerated his pace. Where others were indifferent to things around them, he observed and put away the results for possible use later. He did not make of himself a pack-horse; what he undertook he did from interest in it, and that made it a pleasure to him when to others it was a burden. He instinctively reasoned it out that an unpleasant task is never accomplished by stepping aside from it, but that, unerringly, it will return later to be met and done.

Obstacles, to Edward Bok, soon became merely difficulties to be overcome, and he trusted to his instinct to show him the best way to overcome them. He soon learned that the hardest kind of work was back of every success; that nothing in the world of business just happened, but that everything was brought about, and only in one way—by a willingness of spirit and a determination to carry through. He soon exploded for himself the misleading and comfortable theory of luck: the only lucky people, he found, were those who worked hard. To them, luck came in the shape of what they had earned. There were exceptions here and there, as there are to every rule; but the majority of these, he soon found, were more in the seeming than in the reality. Generally speaking—and of course to this rule there are likewise exceptions, or as the Frenchman said, “All generalizations are false, including this one”—a man got in this world about what he worked for.

And that became, for himself, the rule of Edward Bok’s life.
Did you happen to miss the previous chapter? Read Chapter 10