Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Causes of Failure

Horace Greeley has truly said: “If any man fancies that there is some easier way of gaining a dollar than by squarely earning it he has lost the clew to his way through this mortal labyrinth, and must henceforth wander as chance may dictate.” Look about you; how many there are who are determined to share all the good things of this world without exchanging an equivalent. They go into business, but are not content to wait patiently, adding one dollar to another, and thus rendering to mankind an equivalent for this wealth for which they are asking. This excessive haste to become rich is one of the most frequent causes of failure. When a young man has decided to work with a will, and to accumulate every dollar he legitimately can he has made a long stride toward success. We do not deprecate a desire to be some one in the world, but we do most emphatically frown upon the desire to get wealth by speculation or illicit means. We most earnestly advise all young men to choose a calling, become thoroughly master of that calling, then pursue that vocation to success, avoiding all outside operations. Another man who has dealt in stocks all his life may be able to succeed, but your business is to stick to your vocation until, if necessary, you fairly wring success from it.

Moses Taylor was a successful merchant, he had long deposited with the City Bank, and was finally made its president. The late Commodore Vanderbilt often tried to induce him to enter into his grand speculations, but of no avail. At last the crash of ’57 came. The bankers called a meeting to discuss the situation. One bank after another reported drafts of from sixty to even ninety per cent. of their specie. When Mr. Taylor was called he replied: “The City Bank contained this morning $400,000; to-night we had $480,000.” This was the kind of a bank president such principles made him.

Hardly anything is more fatal to success than a desire to become suddenly rich. A business man now counts his wealth by the thousands, but he sees a grand chance to speculate. This is a little risky, of course, but then the old adage: “Never venture, never have.” I admit I may lose, but then all men are subject to loss in any business, but I am reasonably sure of gaining an immense amount. Why! what would folks think? I would be a millionaire. I would do so and so. Thus he indulges in this sort of reasoning, goes into a business of which he knows nothing and loses all. Why wouldn’t he? Men who have made a study of that business for years, and who have amassed a fortune in it, are daily becoming bankrupt. What an idiot a man makes of himself when he leaves a calling in which he has been eminently successful to embark in a calling which is, at best, uncertain, and of which he knows nothing. Once for all, let me admonish you: If you would succeed never enter outside operations, especially if they be of a speculative nature. Select a calling, and if you stick to your calling, your calling will stick to you.

Frequent changes of business is another cause of failure, but we have treated this subject quite thoroughly elsewhere in this work. Therefore it seems to us that to add more here would be superfluous. True it is that some men have succeeded who have seemingly drifted about. Dr. Adam Clark has said: “The old adage about too many irons in the fire conveys an abominable lie. Keep them all agoing—poker, tongs and all.” But Dr. Clark seems to forget that the most of the people who try to follow his advice, either burn their fingers or find their irons cooling faster than they can use them. We cannot all be Clarks if we try, and to follow this method the most of us will fail; but we can, by following one line of procedure, at last bring success.

Extravagance of living is another prolific cause of bankruptcy. A man imagines that by hiring a horse and driving in the park he will show people that he is as good as the neighbor who drives his own horse. He deludes himself with the idea that this sort of extravagance will, in the eyes of his fellow-men, place him on an equal footing with millionaires.

Dr. Franklin has truly said: “It is not our own eyes, but other people’s, that ruin us.” It has been said that the merchant who could live on five hundred a year, fifty years ago, now requires five thousand. In living, avoid a “penny wise and pound foolish” custom. A man may think he knows all about economy and yet be ignorant of its first principles. For instance, a business man may save every imaginable piece of writing paper, using all the dirty envelopes that come in his way. This he does instead of using a neat letter head and clean paper, at a slight additional cost, and vast gain in the influence which such a letter carries over the other. Some years ago a man stopped at a farm house over night. After tea he much desired to read, but found it impossible from the insufficient light of one candle. Seeing his dilemma, the hostess said: “It is rather difficult to read here evenings; the proverb says, ‘You must have a ship at sea in order to be able to burn two candles at once.'” She would as soon have thought of throwing a five dollar bill into the fire as of setting the example of burning two candles at once. This woman saved, perhaps, five or six dollars a year, but the information she thus denied her children would, of course, out-weigh a ton of candles. But this is not the worst of it.

The business man, by such costly stinginess, consoles himself that he is saving. As he has saved a few dollars in letter paper, he feels justified in expending ten times that amount for some extravagance. The man thinks he is a saving man. The woman is a saving woman, she knows she is a saving woman. She has saved five or six dollars this year in candles, and so feels justified in buying some needless finery, which could gratify nothing but the eye. She is sure she understands economy, yet she starves the mind to clothe the body in finery. She is something like the man who could not afford to buy more than a penny herring for his dinner, yet hired a coach and four to take it home. Saving by retail and wasting by wholesale. Nowadays we use kerosene and thus our light is both good and cheap, but the principle remains.

Wear the old clothes until you can pay for more; never wear clothes for which you owe anyone. Live on plainer food if need be. Greeley said: “If I had but fifty cents a week to live on, I’d buy a peck of corn and parch it before I’d owe any man a dollar.” The young man who follows this principle will never be obliged to live on parched corn. How few people keep an itemized account of their expenses. Spendthrifts never like to keep accounts. Buy a book; post in it every night your daily expenditures in the columns; one headed “Necessaries,” the other “Luxuries,” and you will find that the latter column will be at least double the former. Indeed, in some cases it will exceed it ten times over.

It is not the purchase of the necessaries of life that ruin people, but the most foolish expenditures which we imagine necessary to our comfort. Necessary to our comfort; Ah! what a mistake is that, as many a man will testify who is perpetually dunned by uneasy creditors. It is the sheerest kind of nonsense, this living on credit. It is wicked. Yet a gentleman recently told the writer that he personally knew a clergyman who had been preaching for years on a salary exceeding seven hundred dollars per year, and of late on twelve hundred per year; yet, this man of the gospel to-day owes his college debts. A man loaned him money to go through school, and he has never been “able” to repay that money, although he has practiced the most “rigid economy.”

Stuff! this man knows nothing of the first principles of economy. In my opinion, there are many clergymen who will have to answer for the sin of extravigance: There are many more who will have to answer for the sin of slothfulness. The Bible says: “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work.” Ah! there is a part of the commandments too often skipped flippantly over. Many a clergyman would be horrified if asked to do any labor on the seventh day; but would be equally horrified if accused of sinning by attending to a foreign business, thereby neglecting to do all his labor during the six other days.

God gives us ample time to do our work, and it is a sin to leave any of it undone. God expects a man to choose some calling, and He also expects that man to master that calling, and He expects him to do his utmost to excel in that calling. No clergyman can spend four days out of a week in some foreign work, and in the two remaining days thoroughly prepare himself for the Sabbath work. For two reasons: One is, he disregards the law of concentration, divides his mind and thoughts; hence, loses force and influence. The other, that God does not approve of other than our best effort.

This preacher will occupy one hour in preaching a twenty-five minute discourse, and then complain because people are not interested in his sermons. We do not justify Sabbath-breaking, nor a lack of religious interest, but the preacher who is unwilling to take any responsibility upon himself for such a state of things is lacking somewhere. We speak of the clergyman simply as illustrative of our idea in this matter. The same rule applies to the lawyer, physician, or merchant—the mechanic, artist or laborer. If I was a day laborer building a stone wall I’d study my work and push it so vigorously that I would soon be, if not the best, at least one of the best workmen anywhere to be found. Strive to be an authority. Wasted opportunity; there is the root of thousands of failures.

A recent paper states that nine-tenths of our young lawyers fail from lack of study. Here is a thought for the clergyman who thinks he should have a better place. Of course there are circumstances to be considered, but the man of determination bends circumstances to his will. A man imagines himself capable of filling a higher place than he does. He imagines himself a Webster, a Lincoln, a Garfield, a Spurgeon—’but vainly waits for circumstances to favor his deserved promotion. Look at Spurgeon; was he picked up bodily and placed in the pulpit he now stands upon? No, but he was full of the Holy Ghost, and without thought of what he deserved began preaching in the street. Was Talmage placed in the Tabernacle because he was of real inferiority to other preachers. No; but he was original, he borrowed from no one, he did his best, he fits the notch in which he is placed. Did people get down on their knees to Beecher, begging him to occupy Plymouth church? They recognized the necessity of concentration; and, although you see them in other fields, at times, still it was not until they had mastered their first undertaking. Elihu Burritt mastered over forty different languages by taking one at a time.

The writer, in early youth, learned a lesson which has ever been of inestimable benefit to him. The next lessons would begin Fractions, something we never had taken. We began to glance through that part of the book, and soon became thoroughly convinced that we should never be able to master their intricacies, at once becoming despondent. Coming home at night, he spoke of his discouragement, when his father set to work explaining the first principles. Thus, step by step, the stubborn principles were mastered, and to-day, if there is any part of Arithmetic in which he excels it is in Fractions.

“Never cross bridges until you come to them.” A man should plan ahead, but he should be hopeful—not confident—should never borrow trouble, and must avoid all extremes. Another cause of failure is: The habit of endorsing without security. No one should ever endorse any man’s paper without security or an equivalent. I hold that no man has a right to ask you to endorse his paper unless he can either endorse for you or give good security. Of course there are cases where a brother, who is young and cannot give security, can be helped into business; but his habits must be his security, and his duty is to have made his previous life a guarantee of his ability to safely conduct the business. But even in such cases a man’s first duty is to his family, and he should never endorse, even a brother’s paper, to a greater amount than he feels that he could reasonably lose.

A man may be doing a thriving manufacturing business—another man comes to him and says: “You are aware that I am worth $20,000, and don’t owe a dollar; my money is all locked up at present in my business, which you are also aware is to-day in a flourishing condition. Now, if I had $5,000 to-day I could purchase a lot of goods and double my money in a few months. Will you endorse my note for that amount?” You reflect that he is worth $20,000, and, therefore, you incur no risk by endorsing his note. Of course, he is a neighbor; you want to accommodate him, and you give him your name without taking the precaution of being secured. Shortly after he shows you the note, cancelled, and tells you, probably truly, that he made the profit expected by the operation. You reflect that you have done him a favor, and the thought makes you feel good.

You do not reflect, possibly, that he might have failed for every dollar that he was worth, and you would have lost $5,000. You possibly forget that you have risked $5,000 without even the prospect of one cent in return. This is the worst kind of hazard. But let us see—by and by the same favor is again asked, and you again comply; you have fixed the impression in your mind that it is perfectly safe to endorse his notes without security. This man is getting money too easily. All he has to do is take the note to the bank, and as either you or he are considered good for it, he gets his cash. He gets the money, for the time being, without an effort. Now mark the result: He sees a chance for speculation outside of his business—a temporary investment of only $10,000 is required. It is sure to come back even before the note is due. He places the amount before you and you sign in a mechanical way.

Being firmly convinced that your friend is perfectly responsible, you endorse his notes as a matter of course. But the speculation does not develop as soon as was expected. However, “it is all right; all that is needed is another $10,000 note to take up the former one at the bank.” Before this comes due the speculation turns out a dead loss. This friend does not tell you that he has lost one-half his fortune—he does not even tell you that he has speculated at all. But he is now thoroughly excited, he sees men all around making money—we seldom hear of the losers—”he looks for his money where he lost it.” He gets you to endorse other notes at different times upon different pretenses until suddenly you are aware that your friend has lost all his fortune and all of yours. But you do not reflect that you have ruined him as well as he has ruined you.

All this could have been avoided by your gentlemanly but business-like bearing on the start. If you had said: “You are my neighbor, and of course, if my name will be of use to you at the bank, you can have it. All I ask is security. I do not at all distrust you, or your plan, but I always give security when I ask such a favor and I presume that you do.” If you had simply asked security he could not have gone beyond his tether, and, possibly, very likely would not have speculated at all. What the world demands is thinking men. Let justice rule in all business transactions. How many men would not waste another man’s property, but would waste that which belongs to his family! Ah! we want more men who will recognize family demands for justice, as well as other people’s demands—men who have the brains to comprehend that it is possible to cheat their own family as well as their neighbor.

Another frequent cause of failure is a neglect of one’s business. There are many causes for this. One thing is certain, a man will attend to his business in proportion to the amount of interest he has in that business. This applies to all vocations, either in the professions, business, or manual labor. If we see a man playing checkers day after day in some corner-store, although the game itself may be no harm, still it is wrong for that man to waste valuable time.

Then there are pool and billiards. How many young men have been ruined for life, and possibly eternally damned, just by beginning a downward course at the billiard room. There is a peculiar fascination in the game of pool or billiards which cannot be described. Of course it is only a game for the cigars—yes, that’s it; one habit leads to another. The young man who smokes goes in and in one evening’s fun, “wins” fifteen or twenty cigars. He argues that he has got smoking material for two or three days or a week for nothing, but listen: He plays pool for ten cents a game. If he beats, his opponent pays; if his opponent beats, he pays. Each game is distinct by itself, and has no bearing on any previous game. Now, if you play and win two out of three games right straight along, you are steadily losing.

Every game you lose is ten cents gone that you can not possibly win back. If you play twenty-five games, (and it won’t take long for good players to do that in an evening), and you win two out of three, you will then be out at least eighty cents. If you win twenty-four out of the twenty-five, you would be out ten cents. Don’t you see that the percentage is against the player. You never heard of a man making anything playing pool or billiards unless he was in the business. You have personally seen many young men working by the day who admit that they have spent from $100 to $1,000 during the three to five years they had played. Now, why is it some succeed while others fail?

There is one thing that nothing living ever naturally liked except a vile worm, and that is tobacco; yet, how many people there are who cultivate this unnatural habit. They are well aware that its use does harm. It is a harder job to learn it than to learn to like castor oil, yet they will persist in it until they learn to long for it. Young lads regret that they are not men; they would like to go to bed boys and wake up men. Little Charlie and Harry see their fathers or uncles smoke, if not, then they see somebody’s father or uncle puffing along the street, “taking comfort,” and they think that is one of the essentials of being a man. So they get a pipe and fill it with tobacco, and as the parents, instead of persisting until they gain their affections, slowly teaching them to detest wrong, fly to pieces and say, “I will whip you if I see you doing that again.” So little Charlie and Harry get out behind the barn and light up. By and by Charlie says, “Do you like it, Harry”? And that lad dolefully replies, “Not very much; it tastes bitter.” Presently he turns pale and soon offers up a sacrifice on the altar of fashion. But the boys stick to it, and at last conquer even their appetites, learning to prefer their quid to the most delicious peach.

I speak from personal knowledge, for I have seen the time that I never felt prouder than when behind a five or ten cent cigar or meerschaum. But that time is passed with me, and I never see a poor clerk going along the street puffing a cigar which he must know he can ill-afford to buy, but I think of what a man once said in speaking of a cigar: “It is a roll of tobacco with fire on one end and a fool on the other.” One cigar excites the desire for another, hence the habit grows on a person. These remarks apply with ten fold force to the use of intoxicants. No matter how bountifully a man is blessed with intelligence, if the brain is muddled, and his judgment warped by intoxicating drinks, it will simply be impossible for him to succeed, to his utmost bounds, at least.

Orators for years have told you of the degradation and want that the “social glass” brings us to. Stories innumerable have been told of husbands leaving all they loved in this world to satisfy these unnatural desires. One habit indulged leads to another. We have seen how even the “innocent” habit of smoking may have an influence in deciding a young man to take the next step. Once in the billiard room it is not hard to see how the young can be led on to drink, first one thing, then another. We will say nothing of cards. Card-playing, gambling, is only the natural result of these other evils, that is, they tend that way, they go with it and it goes with them. Where one is found you will often find the other.

The coroner can tell you more about the results of bad habits than I can. To those who to-day may be so unfortunate as to be under the fascination of any habit, let me say that you can overcome that habit, and learn to detest it, too. Young man, you desire to be rich and succeed, but you disregard the fundamental principles of success—hence fail. Why wouldn’t you? You might as well expect to build a fine house without a foundation. You desire to gain wealth, yet you spend twenty cents every day on one extravagance or another, which, with interest, would amount to over $19,000 at the end of fifty years. There is food for thought for you. When you again wish to yourself that you were rich, and then take ten cents out of your pocket in the shape of a cigar, and proceed to burn it up, just let the thought pass through your mind, “What a fool I make of myself every day.”

A man recently told the writer that he spent one dollar every day in treating and smoking. He is an ice dealer in New York City, and has done a good business for thirty years. I cannot say how long he has been spending this dollar a day, but I do know that one dollar earned each day, with interest, will make a man worth over $475,000 within fifty years. There is enough wasted by the average person within twenty-five years to make any family well off. The pennies are wasted in the desire to get the dollars. The dollars are not half so essential to success as the pennies. The old saying: “Honesty is the best policy,” is surely true in more ways than one. There is more ways than one to succeed in this world.

A man may succeed in National honor, and yet have little of this world’s goods. Many a Congressman, who has but little money, who sometimes feel the need of money, would not exchange places with a Rothschild. But it is not necessary to be either a Rothschild or a Webster, in order to succeed. It is a question in my mind, whether that man, who has lived wholly for self, is happy, even though he be rich as Croesus or as honored as Demosthenes.

Therefore let us not entirely lose sight of the fundamental law of success.—”Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” “Put yourself in his place.” What is success? It is doing our level best. It is the making the most of our abilities. If we do not do this we both sin, and lose the goal of earthly happiness.

“And is it too late?
No! for Time is a fiction, and limits not fate.
Thought alone is eternal. Time thralls it in vain.
For the thought that springs upward and yearns to regain
The pure source of spirit, there is no Too late.”