Successward: The Young Man in Business (Chapter 3)

Successward is the 1895 book written by Edward Bok.

Everyone conversant with the business life of any of our cities, large or small, will, I am sure, agree with me that more business opportunities exist to-day than there are young men capable of embracing them, and that the demand is far in excess of the supply. Positions of trust are constantly going begging for the right kind of young men to fill them. But the material does not exist, or, if it does, it certainly has a most unfortunate way of hiding its light under a bushel; so much so that business men cannot see even a glimmer of its rays. Let a position of any real importance become open, and it is the most difficult kind of a problem to find any one to fill it satisfactorily. Business men are constantly passing through this experience. Young men are desired in the great majority of positions because of their progressive ideas and capacity to endure work; in fact, “young blood,” as it is called, is preferred nowadays in nine positions out of every ten. The young men capable of filling these positions are few. For the most part, the average young man is incapable, or, if he be not exactly incapable (I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt), he is unwilling, which is even worse. That exceptions can be brought up to controvert this statement I know; but in these remarks I am dealing with the many, and not with the few. It is the exception that we find in business to-day a young man who is something more than a plodder—a mere automatic machine. As a general rule, the average young man comes to his office at nine o’clock in the morning; is faithful in the duties he performs; goes to lunch at twelve; comes back at one; takes up whatever he is told to do until five, and then goes home. His work for the day is done. One day is the same to him as another; he has a certain routine of duties to do, and he does them day in and day out, month in and month out. His duties are regulated by the clock. As that points, so he points. Verily it is true of him that he is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. No special fault can be found with his work. Given a particular piece of work to do, he does it just as a machine would. Such a young man, too, generally considers himself hard-worked—often overworked and under-paid—wondering all the time why his employer does not recognize his value and advance his salary. “I do everything I am told to do,” he argues, “and I do it well. What more can I do?”

This is simply a type of a young man who exists in thousands of offices and stores. He comes to his work each day with no definite point or plan in view; he leaves it with nothing accomplished. He is a mere automaton. Let him die, and his position can be filled in twenty-four hours. If he detracts nothing from his employer’s business he certainly adds nothing to it. He never advances an idea; is absolutely devoid of creative powers; his position remains the same after he has been in it for five years as when he came to it.

Now I would not for a moment be understood as belittling the value of faithfulness in an employee. But, after all, faithfulness is nothing more nor less than a negative quality. By faithfulness a man can hold a position a lifetime. He will keep it just where he found it. But by the exercise of this single quality he does not add to the importance of the position any more than he adds to his own value. It is not enough that it should be said of a young man that he is faithful; he must be something more. The willingness and capacity to be faithful to the smallest detail must be there, serving only, however, as a foundation upon which other qualities are built.

Altogether too many young men are content to remain in the positions in which they find themselves. The thought of studying the needs of the next position just above them never seems to enter into their minds. I believe it is possible for every young man to rise above his position, and I care not how humble that position may be, nor under what disadvantages he may be placed. But he must be alert. He must not be afraid of work, and of the hardest kind of work. He must study not only to please, but he must go a step beyond. It is essential, of course, that he should first of all fill the position for which he is engaged. No man can solve the problem of business before he understands the rudiments of the problem itself. Once the requirements of a position are understood and mastered, then its possibilities should be undertaken. It is foolish to argue, as some young men do, that to go beyond one’s special position is made impossible by an employer. The employer never existed who will prevent the cream of his establishment from rising to the surface. The advance of an employee always means the advance of the employer’s interest. Every employer would rather pay a young man five thousand dollars a year than five hundred. What is to the young man’s interests is in a far greater degree to the interests of his employer. A five-hundred-dollar clerkship is worth just that amount to an employer, and nothing more. But a five-thousand-dollar man is fully worth five times that sum to a business. A young man makes of a position exactly what he chooses, either a millstone around his neck or a stepping-stone to larger success. The possibilities lie in every position; seeing and embracing them rest with its occupant. The lowest position can be so filled as to lead up to the next and become a part of it. One position should only be the chrysalis for the development of new strength to master the other just above it.

A substantial success means several things. It calls, in the first place, for concentration. There is no truth so potent as that which tells us that we cannot serve God and Mammon. Nor can any young man successfully serve two business interests, no matter how closely allied; in fact, the more closely the interests the more dangerous are they. The human mind is capable of just so much clear thought, and generally it does not extend beyond the requirements of one position in these days of keen competition. If there exists a secret of success, it lies, perhaps, in concentration more than in any other single element. During business hours a man should be in business. His thoughts should be on nothing else. Diversions of thought are killing to the best endeavors. The successful mastery of business questions calls for a personal interest, a forgetfulness of self, that can only come from the closest application and the most absolute concentration. I go so far in my belief of concentration to business interests in business hours as to argue that a young man’s personal letters have no right to come to his office address, nor should he receive his social friends at his desk. Business hours are none too long in the great majority of our offices, and with a rest of one hour for luncheon, no one has a right to chop off fifteen minutes here to read an irrelevant personal letter, or fifteen minutes there to talk with a friend whose conversation distracts the mind from the problems before it. Digression is just as dangerous as stagnation in the career of a young man in business. There is absolutely no position worth the having in business life to-day to which a care of other interests can be added. Let a man attempt to serve the interests of one master, and if he serves him well he has his hands and his head full.

There is a class of ambitious young men who have what they choose to call “an anchor to the windward” in their business; that is, they maintain something in addition to their regular position. They do this from necessity, they claim. One position does not offer sufficient scope for their powers or talents, does not bring them sufficient income; they are “forced,” they explain, to take on something in addition. I have known such young men. But so far as I have been able to discern, the trouble does not lie so much with the position they occupy as with themselves. When a man turns away from the position he holds to outside affairs, he turns just so far away from the surest path of success. To do one thing perfectly is better than to do two things only fairly well. It was told me once, of one of our best-known actors, that outside of his stage-knowledge he knew absolutely nothing. But he acted well—so well that he stands to-day at the head of his profession, and has an income of five figures several times over. All-around geniuses are rare—so rare that we can hardly find them. It is a pleasant thing to be able to talk well on many topics; but, after all, that is but a social accomplishment. To know one thing absolutely means material success and commercial and mental superiority. I dare say that if some of our young men understood the needs of the positions they occupy more fully than they do, the necessity for outside work would not exist.

Right in line with this phase of a young man’s work comes the necessity of his learning that he cannot do evening work and be employed the entire day as well. It is the most difficult thing for ambitious young men to understand that night-work is physically and mentally detrimental to the best business success. Let a machine run night and day, and before long it will break down; and what a mechanism of iron and steel cannot bear, the human organism certainly cannot stand. If a young man employs his evenings for work, he unfits himself for his work during the day. The mind needs diversion, recreation, rest; and any mentality kept at a certain tension for more than seven or eight hours per day will sooner or later lose its keen perceptive powers. No young man true to his best and wisest interests will employ his evenings in the same line of thought as that which engrosses him during the day. Mental work is unlike manual labor in that it tires without physical exhaustion; and because the worker does not feel it as much when he uses his head for ten or twelve hours per day as he would if he used the muscles for that period of time, he goes, nevertheless, unconsciously beyond his powers of strength. Unknown to him, the strain leaves its mark upon the mind. Youthful vigor throws its effects off for a while, but not permanently; and a man’s early breakdown when he should be at the zenith of his powers in middle life is very often directly traceable to an overtaxing of his powers in early life. But not only is the effect of a future character; it is noticeable at the time of the indiscretion. It is seen in the inability of the mind to respond quickly to some suggestion at the office; and how can it be otherwise when the mind has been worked beyond its normal capacity? There is no question in my mind whatever that a young man is untrue to the interests of his employer when he allows himself to work during the evening hours. Although he may not be conscious of it himself, he does not come to his work the following morning as fresh as he might if the mind had been given a season of diversion and rest.

I know whereof I speak when I touch upon this subject. In common with other young men who are wiser than their best advisers, I made the mistake of evening work. For several years I gave up four or five evenings of each week to literary work. My family, my best friends, my physician, warned me to desist. But I knew better. Others, I conceded, undoubtedly had suffered from what I was doing, but I should not. I was strong, young, and of excellent physique. I could stand it; others could not; in fact, I was an exception to the rest of the human race. Two or three years went by, and I was proud of proving to my advisers that I was right and they were wrong. But suddenly, with scarce a warning, the blow came. Irritability and nervousness came first; everything annoyed me. The closing of a door, or the sudden entrance of a person into the room, caused me to start. The harder I worked the less I seemed to accomplish. I could not understand it. Then I began to lie awake for a half-hour after I retired; after a while the half-hour lengthened into an hour, then into two hours. Finally I had insomnia. After a bit my digestion did not seem to be as regular; a heavy feeling possessed me after eating. I was ordered away; stayed a week when I was told I should remain for a month. But, of course, I knew better. And what is the result? For the past three years I have suffered from an indigestion as constant as it is keen; and to-day I have to regulate my food, my hours, and my habits, with the pleasing prospect that at least two years of such living are ahead of me before I can hope for relief. And why? Simply because of working, years ago, when I should have been resting. But then I did not understand it. I do now, and I wish that every young man who reads these words might profit by my error. I am fortunate to get off with nothing more serious than indigestion, but even that affliction has pains which only those who have suffered them can begin to fully realize. Night-work, when employed in the day, does not pay; on the contrary, it kills. I wish fervently and sincerely that five, eight, or ten years ago I might have reached this point of wisdom. I did not, but I write it now and here as a warning to young fellows who value their health, their happiness, their peace of mind, and a comfortable feeling in the pits of their stomachs.

A fatal error in the case of many young men is that they reach a point where they make no progress. Now stagnation in a young man’s career is but a synonym for starvation, since there is no such thing as standing still in the business world of to-day. Either we go backward or we go forward. When a young man fails to keep abreast of the possibilities of his position he recedes constantly, if unconsciously, perhaps. The young man who progresses is he who enters into the spirit of the business of his employer, and who points out new methods to him, advances new ideas, suggests new channels and outputs. There is not a more direct road to the confidence of an employer than for that employer to see that any one of his clerks understands the details of his business better than himself. That young man commands the attention of his chief at once, and when a vacancy occurs he is apt to step into it, if he does not forge over the shoulders of others. Young men who think clearly, who can conceive, create, and carry out, are not so plentiful that even a single one will be lost sight of. It is no special art, and it reflects but little credit upon any man, to simply fill a position. That is expected of him; he is engaged to do that, and it is only a fair return for a certain payment made. The art lies in doing more than was bargained for; in proving greater than was expected; in making more of a position than has ever been made before. A quick conception is needed here, the ability to view a broad horizon; for it is the liberal-minded man, not the man of narrow limitations, who makes the success of to-day. A young man showing such qualities to an employer does not remain in one position long.

Two traps in which young men in business often fall are a disregard for small things, and an absolute fear of making mistakes. One of the surest keys to success lies in thoroughness. No matter how great may be the enterprise undertaken, a regard for the small things is necessary. Just as the little courtesies of every-day life make life worth the living, so the little details form the bone and sinew of a great success. A thing half or three-quarters done is worse than not done at all. Let a man be careful of the small things in business, and he can generally be relied upon for the greater ones, provided, of course, that he possesses broadness of mind. The man who can overcome small worries is greater than the man who can override great obstacles. When a young man becomes so ambitious for large success that he overlooks the small things, he is pretty apt to encounter failure. There is nothing in business so infinitesimal that we can afford to do it in a slipshod fashion. It is no art to answer twenty letters in a morning when they are, in reality, only half answered. When we commend brevity in business letters we do not mean brusqueness. Nothing stamps the character of a house so clearly as the letters it sends out.

The fear of making mistakes keeps many a young man down. Of course errors in business are costly, and it is better not to make them. But, at the same time, I would not give a snap of the finger for a young man who has never made mistakes. But there are mistakes and mistakes; some easy to be overlooked, and others it is better not to blink at in an employee. A mistake of judgment is possible with us all; the best of us are not above a wrong decision. And a young man who holds back for fear of making mistakes loses the first point of success.

I know there are thousands of young men who feel themselves incompetent for a business career because of a lack of early education. And here might come in—if I chose to discuss the subject, which I do not—the oft-mooted question of the exact value of a college education to the young man in business. Far abler pens than mine have treated of this; it is certainly not for me to enter into it here. But I will say this: a young man need not feel that the lack of a college education will stand in any respect whatever in the way of his success in the business world. No college on earth ever made a business man. The knowledge acquired in college has fitted thousands of men for professional success, but it has also unfitted other thousands for a practical business career. A college training is never wasted, although I have seen again and again five-thousand-dollar educations spent on five-hundred-dollar men. Where a young man can bring a college education to the requirements of a practical business knowledge it is an advantage. But before our American colleges become an absolute factor in the business capacities of men, their methods of study and learning will have to be radically changed. I have had associated with me both kinds of young men, collegiate and non-collegiate, and I must confess that the ones who had a better knowledge of the practical part of life have been those who never saw the inside of a college and whose feet never stood upon a campus. College-bred men and men who never had college advantages have succeeded in about equal ratios. The men occupying the most important commercial positions in New York to-day are self-made, whose only education has come to them from contact with that greatest college of all, the business world. Far be it from me to depreciate the value of a college education. I believe in its advantages too firmly. But no young man need feel hampered because of the lack of it. If business qualities are in him they will come to the surface. It is not the college education; it is the young man. Without its possession as great and honorable successes have been made as with it. Men are not accepted in the business world upon their collegiate diplomas, nor on the knowledge these imply. They are taken for what they are, for what they know.

The young man engaged in business to-day in this country has advantages exceeding those of any generation before him. And I do not say this simply as an echo of what others before me have said, or to use a platitudinous phrase. There never was a time in the world’s history when a young man had the opportunity to make something of himself that he has at the present day. He lives in a country where every success is possible; where a man can make of himself what he may choose; where energy and enterprise are appreciated, and a market is always ready for good wares. Young men have forged to the front wonderfully during the past ten years. Employers are more than ever willing to lay great responsibilities on their shoulders. Salaries are higher than ever; young men never before earned the incomes which are received by some to-day. All success is possible.

But a young man must be alert to every opportunity. He cannot forget himself for a moment in business. A man’s best working years are not many, and when they are upon him he must make hay, and all the hay he can. No young man can afford to reach the age of thirty without feeling that he is settled in a business way. Before that time he flounders; but at thirty the floundering time should be over. He should have found that special trade or profession for which he thinks he is most capable. This age is generally accepted, I believe, for the reason that a man is most likely to do his best work between thirty and forty; after forty a man’s work is not apt to have that energy and snap that is born of youth, and the tendency is first shown in his willingness to deputize details to others. I do not mean to say that a man begins to decline at forty; on the contrary, he is at his prime, and he remains so for ten or fifteen years. But he is better for judgment than he is for working out details. A man’s real work, his energetic work, his laborious work, is generally done before he reaches thirty-five.

And not only must he practically make himself between thirty and forty, but he must not spend all that he earns. He must lay aside a goodly portion of his earnings. It is a cruel but a hard fact that the business world has very little use for what are termed old men nowadays; and in these times of keen competitive strife a man is judged to be old very early from the cold commercial point of view. He may not consider himself as being old, but he is no longer considered to be “in the race” with the younger men, who naturally have quicker perceptions and whose sense of alertness is necessarily keener. The most successful man at forty is very often the man who is quietly pushed aside at sixty. If young men earning good incomes between thirty and forty would look a little ahead, and consider the inevitable fact that as they grow older their value is very apt to lessen in a commercial sense, they would save themselves much after-humiliation and sorrowful retrospection. It is hard for a young man at, say, thirty-five, in the full flush and vigor of manhood, to realize that a time will come when others as clever as himself and a bit cleverer will pass him by. But the cold fact exists, nevertheless, and he is wise who, at his prime, thinks of a time which is almost sure to come to every man who lives.

And yet, while a young man may be ambitious for success in business, he cannot afford to get impatient or restless. Not long ago I received a letter from a young fellow which particularly reflected the feeling that I mean. He wrote me that he was twenty, and was impatient because he did not make the progress in his business which he felt that he should. He confessed that he was not so very much dissatisfied with his salary, which was twenty-two dollars per week, although he thought it ought to be forty dollars. Unfortunately for him, however, his employers did not seem to think so, and he was quite sure he was “being kept back.” He conceded that he was “becoming impatient,” but insisted that he had reason to feel so.

Well, I felt precisely the same way when I was twenty; only my salary was eighteen dollars and thirty-three cents per week, and I felt quite sure that the figures ought to be reversed. And there were several positions just beyond me, too, which I felt I should justly be asked to occupy. But I was not, and, of course, I felt aggrieved. I considered myself imposed upon. Now when I look back upon that time I can see that the reason my salary was not thirty-three dollars and eighteen cents was simply because I was incapable of earning that amount. I was not worth it to my employer. And the reason I did not get those several positions just ahead of me was because I could not have filled them if I had gotten them—not one of them. But I am a little more than twenty now, and my correspondent, when he is about ten years older, will understand a great many things that are not very clear to him just now. Of course he probably will not choose to believe this; youths of twenty are not apt to believe much that is told them, since they have so little to learn!

But, if I were back to twenty again, and, with my later knowledge, were earning twenty-two dollars per week, I should not only be satisfied, but I should be intensely thankful. I think, too, that the knowledge that there were thousands of men of forty and fifty years who were not earning as much would help me to endure the ordeal. I think that instead of rebelling at the fact that I was earning twenty-two dollars, I should rather devote my time to trying to find the best way of doubling it. I might not be able to make twenty-five dollars for a year or two, but I should endeavor to do so. In fact, if we look over the field, there are more young men of twenty-one who are worth less than twenty-five dollars per week than there are who are worth that or more. And one proof of this is found in the fact that in New York City alone there are tens of thousands of young men at that age who are not earning eighteen dollars per week. In addition to all this I might be tempted to believe that too rapid advance might not be the best thing in the world for me. Too large an income, even when deserved, is far often more of a hindrance to a young man of twenty-one or thereabouts than a help. What I should feel willing to do would be this: if I felt that my employer was a man of honor and judgment I should leave myself in his hands for a while. I should do him the courtesy of believing that he knew more than I did. A man at fifty is sometimes apt to know more—if only a very little more—than a boy of twenty; and if I had his confidence and felt that I was pleasing him with my services, I should let him go at that—for a time, at any rate.

There are hundreds of young men in business to-day who feel just as restless and impatient as did this correspondent. But these young men should bear a few things in mind. They should remember, first of all, that between the years of twenty and twenty-five a young man acquires rather than achieves. It is the learning period of life, the experience-gaining time. Knowledge that is worth anything does not come to us until we are past twenty-five. The mind before that age is incapable of forming wise judgments. The great art of accurate decision in business matters is not acquired in a few weeks of commercial life. It is the result of years. It is not only the power within himself, but the experience behind him, that makes a successful business man. The commercial world is only a greater school than the one of slates and slate-pencils. No boy, after attending school for five years, would consider himself competent to teach. And surely five years of commercial apprenticeship will not fit a young man to assume a position of trust, nor give him the capacity to decide upon important business matters. In the first five years—yes, in the first ten years—of a young man’s business life he is only in the primary department of the great commercial world. It is for him, then, to study methods, to observe other men—in short, to learn and not hope to achieve. That will come later. Business, simple as it may look to the young man, is, nevertheless, a very intricate affair, and it is only by years of closest study that we master an understanding of it.

The electric atmosphere of the American business world is all too apt to make our young men impatient. They want to fly before they can even walk well. Ambition is a splendid thing in any young man. But getting along too fast is just as injurious as getting along too slow. A young man between twenty and twenty-five must be patient. I know patience is a difficult thing to cultivate, but it is among the first lessons we must learn in business. A good stock of patience, acquired in early life, will stand a man in good stead in later years. It is a handy thing to have and draw upon, and makes a splendid safety-valve. Because a young man, as he approaches twenty-five, begins to see things more plainly than he did five years before, he must not get the idea that he is a business man yet, and entitled to a man’s salary. If business questions which he did not understand five years before now begin to look clearer to him, it is because he is passing through the transitory state that divides the immature judgment of the young man from the ripening penetration of the man. He is simply beginning. From that point he will grow, and his salary will grow as he grows. But Rome was not built in a day, and a business man is not made in a night. As experience comes, the judgment will become mature; and by the time the young man reaches thirty he will begin to realize that he did not know as much at twenty-five as he thought he did. And when he is ready to learn from others he will begin to grow wise. And when he reaches that state where he is willing to concede that he has not a “corner” in knowledge, he will be stepping out of the chrysalis of youth.

And so to a young man in business or just starting in business I would say, remember these very essential truths.

Above all things, before a young man attempts to make a success he should convince himself that he is in a congenial business. Whether it be a trade or a profession—both are honorable and productive—let him satisfy himself, above everything else, that it enlists his personal interest. If a man shows that he has his work at heart his success can be relied on. Personal interest in any work will bring other things; but all the other essentials combined cannot create personal interest. That must exist first; then two thirds of the battle is won. Fully satisfied that he is in that particular line of business for which he feels a stronger, warmer interest than for any other, then he should remember:

First, that, whatever else he may strive to be, he must, above all, be absolutely honest. From honorable principles he can never swerve. A temporary success is often possible on what are not exactly dishonest, but “shady” lines. Such success, however, is only temporary, with a certainty of permanent loss. The surest business successes—yes, the only successes worth the making—are built upon honest foundations. There can be no “blinking” at the truth or at honesty, no half-way compromise. There is but one way to be successful, and that is to be absolutely honest; and there is but one way of being honest. Honesty is not only the foundation, but the capstone as well, of business success.

Second, he must be alert, alive to every opportunity. He cannot afford to lose a single point, for that single point might prove the very link that would make complete the whole chain of a business success.

Third, he must ever be willing to learn, never overlooking the fact that others have long ago forgotten what he has still to learn. Firmness of decision is an admirable trait in business. The young man whose opinion can be tossed from one side to another is poor material. But youth is full of errors, and caution is a strong trait.

Fourth, if he be wise he will entirely avoid the use of liquors. If the question of harm done by intoxicating liquor is an open one, the question of the actual good derived from it is not.

Fifth, let him remember that a young man’s strongest recommendation is his respectability. Some young men, apparently successful, may be flashy in dress, loud in manner, and disrespectful of women and sacred things. But the young man who is respectable always wears best. The way a young man carries himself in his private life ofttimes means much to him in his business career. No matter where he is, or in whose company, respectability, and all that it implies, will always command respect.

And if any young man wishes a set of rules even more concise, here it is:

Get into a business you like.

Devote yourself to it.

Be honest in everything.

Employ caution; think out a thing well before you enter upon it.

Sleep eight hours every night.

Do everything that means keeping in good health.

School yourself not to worry; worry kills, work does not.

Avoid liquors of all kinds.

If you must smoke, smoke moderately.

Shun discussion on two points—religion and politics.

And last, but not least, marry a true woman, and have your own home.

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