Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Self-reliance

Of all the elements of success, none is more essential than self-reliance,—determination to be one’s own helper, and not to look to others for support. God never intended that strong independent beings should be reared by clinging to others, like the ivy to the oak, for support.

“God helps those who help themselves,” and how true we find this quaint old saying to be. Every youth should feel that his future happiness in life must necessarily depend upon himself; the exercise of his own energies, rather than the patronage of others. A man is in a great degree the arbiter of his own fortune. We are born with powers and faculties capable of almost anything, but it is the exercise of these powers and faculties that gives us ability and skill in anything. The greatest curse that can befall a young man is to lean, while his character is forming, upon others for support.

James A. Garfield, himself one of the greatest examples of the possibilities in our glorious Republic, once said:—

“The man who dares not follow his own independent judgment, but runs perpetually to others for advice, becomes at last a moral weakling, and an intellectual dwarf. Such a man has not self within him, but goes as a supplicant to others, and entreats, one after another, to lend them theirs. He is, in fact, a mere element of a human being, and is carried about the world an insignificant cipher, unless he by chance fastens himself to some other floating elements, with which he may form a species of corporation resembling a man.” The best capital with which a young man can start in life, nine times out of ten, is robust health, good morals, fair ability and an iron will, strengthened by a disposition to work at some honest vocation.

We have seen in the preceding pages that a vast majority of our great men started life with these qualifications and none other. The greatest heroes in battle, the greatest orators, ancient or modern, were sons of obscure parents. The greatest fortunes ever accumulated on earth were the fruit of great exertion. From Croesus down to Astor the story is the same. The oak that stands alone to contend with the tempest’s blast only takes deeper root and stands the firmer for ensuing conflicts; while the forest tree, when the woodman’s axe has spoiled its surroundings, sways and bends and trembles, and perchance is uprooted: so is it with man. Those who are trained to self-reliance are ready to go out and contend in the sternest battles of life; while those who have always leaned for support upon those around them are never prepared to breast the storms of life that arise.

How many young men falter and faint for what they imagine is necessary capital for a start. A few thousands or even hundreds, in his purse, he fancies to be about the only thing needful to secure his fortune. How absurd is this; let the young man know now, that he is unworthy of success so long as he harbors such ideas. No man can gain true success, no matter how situated, unless he depends upon no one but himself; remember that. Does not history bear us out in this? We remember the adage, “Few boys who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth ever achieve greatness.” By this we would not argue that wealth is necessarily derogatory to the success of youth; to the contrary, we believe it can be a great help in certain cases and conditions; but we have long since discarded the idea that early wealth is a pre-eminent factor in success; if we should give our unbiased opinion, we should say that, to a vast majority of cases, it is a pre-eminent factor of failure. Give a youth wealth, and you only too often destroy all self-reliance which he may possess.

Let that young man rejoice, rather, whom God hath given health and a faculty to exercise his faculties. The best kind of success is not that which comes by accident, for as it came by chance it will go by chance. The wisest charity, in a vast majority of cases, is helping people to help themselves. Necessity is very often the motive power which sets in motion the sluggish energies. We thus readily see that poverty can be an absolute blessing to youth. A man’s true position in the world is that which he himself attains.

How detestable to us is the Briton’s reverence of pedigree. Americans reverence achievement, and yet we are tending towards the opposite. Witness society, as it bows with smile and honor to the eight-dollar clerk, while frowning on the eighteen dollar laborer. This is wrong; work is work, and all work is honorable. It is not only wrong, but disgraceful. It is better to make our ancestry proud of us than to be proud of our ancestors. He is a man for what he does, not for what his father or his friends have done. If they have given him a position, the greater is his shame for sinking beneath that position. The person who is above labor or despises the laborer, is himself one of the most despicable creatures on God’s earth. He not only displays a dull intelligence of those nobler inspirations with which God has endowed us, but he even shows a lack of plain common sense.

The noblest thing in this world is work. Wise labor brings order out of chaos; it builds cities; it distinguishes barbarism from civilization; it brings success. No man has a right to a fortune; he has no right to expect success, unless he is willing to work for it. A brother of the great orator, Edmund Burke, after listening to one of those eloquent appeals in Parliament, being noticed as employed in deep thought, was asked of whom he was musing. He replied: “I have been wondering how Ned contrived to monopolize all the talent in the family; but I remember that all through childhood, while we were at play, he was at study.”

Ah! that’s it. The education, moral or intellectual, must be chiefly his own work. Education is education, no matter how obtained. We do not wish to be understood as depreciating the usefulness of colleges; not at all. But a mere college diploma will avail a young man but little. As before stated, education, no matter how obtained, is equally valuable. Study like that of Webster and Greeley, by New Hampshire pine knots, and that of Thurlow Weed before the sap-house fire, is just as valuable, when once obtained, as if it had the sanction of some college president.

The world will only ask, “What can he do?” and will not care a fig for any college certificate. The point is; if a young man be not endowed by self-reliance and a firm determination, colleges will avail him nothing; but if he have these, colleges will push him wonderfully. Nevertheless, colleges are not essential to success—an educated idiot will never make a statesman. It is said that when John C. Calhoun was attending Yale College he was ridiculed for his intense application to his studies. He replied, “Why, sir, I am forced to make the most of my time, that I may acquit myself creditably when in Congress.” A laugh followed which roused his Southern blood, and he exclaimed: “Do you doubt it? I assure you that if I was not convinced of my ability to reach the National Capitol as a representative within three years from my graduation, I would leave college this very day.” While there are some things in this speech that were possibly unbecoming; yet the principle of self-reliance, this faith in himself, this high aim in life, was undoubtedly the marked characteristic which brought to Calhoun his splendid success.

No young man will ever succeed who will not cultivate a thinking mind. If he is not original in aims and purposes he will not succeed. Witness the attempt of others to continue the business of Stewart. They had not only his experience, but the benefit of his great wealth; he succeeded without either—they failed with both; he was obliged to establish a business—they had the benefit of his great patronage.

It has been said that a lawyer cannot be a merchant. Why? While a lawyer he thinks for himself: When a merchant he allows others to think for him. A certain great manufacturer made “kid” gloves his specialty, and so well did he succeed that to-day his trade mark imports to manufactured ratskins a value incommunicable by any other talisman. It is a poor kind of enterprise which thus depends upon the judgment of others. What can be more absurd than for a man to hope to rank as a thundering Jupiter when he borrows all his thunder. Remember that the world only crowns him as truly great who has won for himself that greatness.