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Ch. 16 - Simple Stories of Success

Or, How to Succeed in Life

Let me begin with a sort of parable. Many years ago when
I was on the staff of a great public school, we engaged
a new swimming master.

He was the most successful man in that capacity that we
had had for years.

Then one day it was discovered that he couldn't swim.

He was standing at the edge of the swimming tank explaining
the breast stroke to the boys in the water.

He lost his balance and fell in. He was drowned.

Or no, he wasn't drowned, I remember,--he was rescued by
some of the pupils whom he had taught to swim.

After he was resuscitated by the boys--it was one of the
things he had taught them--the school dismissed him.

Then some of the boys who were sorry for him taught him
how to swim, and he got a new job as a swimming master
in another place.

But this time he was an utter failure. He swam well, but
they said he couldn't _teach_.

So his friends looked about to get him a new job. This
was just at the time when the bicycle craze came in. They
soon found the man a position as an instructor in bicycle
riding. As he had never been on a bicycle in his life,
he made an admirable teacher. He stood fast on the ground
and said, "Now then, all you need is confidence."

Then one day he got afraid that he might be found out.
So he went out to a quiet place and got on a bicycle, at
the top of a slope, to learn to ride it. The bicycle ran
away with him. But for the skill and daring of one of
his pupils, who saw him and rode after him, he would have
been killed.

This story, as the reader sees, is endless. Suffice it
to say that the man I speak of is now in an aviation
school teaching people to fly. They say he is one of the
best aviators that ever walked.

According to all the legends and story books, the principal
factor in success is perseverance. Personally, I think
there is nothing in it. If anything, the truth lies the
other way.

There is an old motto that runs, "If at first you don't
succeed, try, try again." This is nonsense. It ought to
read, "If at first you don't succeed, quit, quit, at

If you can't do a thing, more or less, the first time
you try, you will never do it. Try something else while
there is yet time.

Let me illustrate this with a story.

I remember, long years ago, at a little school that I
attended in the country, we had a schoolmaster, who used
perpetually to write on the blackboard, in a copperplate
hand, the motto that I have just quoted:

"If at first you don't succeed,
Try, try, again."

He wore plain clothes and had a hard, determined face.
He was studying for some sort of preliminary medical
examination, and was saving money for a medical course.
Every now and then he went away to the city and tried
the examination: and he always failed. Each time he came
back, he would write up on the blackboard:

"Try, try again."

And always he looked grimmer and more determined than
before. The strange thing was that, with all his industry
and determination, he would break out every now and then
into drunkenness, and lie round the tavern at the
crossroads, and the school would be shut for two days.
Then he came back, more fiercely resolute than ever. Even
children could see that the man's life was a fight. It
was like the battle between Good and Evil in Milton's

Well, after he had tried it four times, the schoolmaster
at last passed the examination; and he went away to the
city in a suit of store clothes, with eight hundred
dollars that he had saved up, to study medicine. Now it
happened that he had a brother who was not a bit like
himself, but was a sort of ne'er-do-well, always hard-up
and sponging on other people, and never working.

And when the schoolmaster came to the city and his brother
knew that he had eight hundred dollars, he came to him
and got him drinking and persuaded him to hand over the
eight hundred dollars and to let him put it into the
Louisiana State lottery. In those days the Louisiana
Lottery had not yet been forbidden the use of the mails,
and you could buy a ticket for anything from one dollar
up. The Grand Prize was two hundred thousand dollars,
and the Seconds were a hundred thousand each.

So the brother persuaded the schoolmaster to put the
money in. He said he had a system for buying only the
tickets with prime numbers, that won't divide by anything,
and that it must win. He said it was a mathematical
certainty, and he figured it out with the schoolmaster
in the back room of a saloon, with a box of dominoes on
the table to show the plan of it. He told the schoolmaster
that he himself would only take ten per cent of what they
made, as a commission for showing the system, and the
schoolmaster could have the rest.

So, in a mad moment, the schoolmaster handed over his
roll of money, and that was the last he ever saw of it.

The next morning when he was up he was fierce with rage
and remorse for what he had done. He could not go back
to the school, and he had no money to go forward. So he
stayed where he was in the little hotel where he had got
drunk, and went on drinking. He looked so fierce and
unkempt that in the hotel they were afraid of him, and
the bar-tenders watched him out of the corners of their
eyes wondering what he would do; because they knew that
there was only one end possible, and they waited for it
to come. And presently it came. One of the bar-tenders
went up to the schoolmaster's room to bring up a letter,
and he found him lying on the bed with his face grey as
ashes, and his eyes looking up at the ceiling. He was
stone dead. Life had beaten him.

And the strange thing was that the letter that the
bartender carried up that morning was from the management
of the Louisiana Lottery. It contained a draft on New
York, signed by the treasurer of the State of Louisiana,
for two hundred thousand dollars. The schoolmaster had
won the Grand Prize.

The above story, I am afraid, is a little gloomy. I put
it down merely for the moral it contained, and I became
so absorbed in telling it that I almost forgot what the
moral was that it was meant to convey. But I think the
idea is that if the schoolmaster had long before abandoned
the study of medicine, for which he was not fitted, and
gone in, let us say, for playing the banjo, he might have
become end-man in a minstrel show. Yes, that was it.

Let me pass on to other elements in success.

I suppose that anybody will admit that the peculiar
quality that is called initiative--the ability to act
promptly on one's own judgement--is a factor of the
highest importance.

I have seen this illustrated two or three times in a very
striking fashion.

I knew, in Toronto--it is long years ago--a singularly
bright young man whose name was Robinson. He had had some
training in the iron and steel business, and when I knew
him was on the look out for an opening.

I met him one day in a great hurry, with a valise in his

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"Over to England," he said. "There is a firm in Liverpool
that have advertised that they want an agent here, and
I'm going over to apply for the job."

"Can't you do it by letter?" I asked.

"That's just it," said Robinson, with a chuckle, "all
the other men will apply by letter. I'll go right over
myself and get there as soon or sooner than the letters.
I'll be the man on the spot, and I'll get the job."

He was quite right. He went over to Liverpool, and was
back in a fortnight with English clothes and a big salary.

But I cannot recommend his story to my friends. In fact,
it should not be told too freely. It is apt to be dangerous.

I remember once telling this story of Robinson to a young
man called Tomlinson who was out of a job. Tomlinson had
a head two sizes too big, and a face like a bun. He had
lost three jobs in a bank and two in a broker's office,
but he knew his work, and on paper he looked a good man.

I told him about Robinson, to encourage him, and the
story made a great impression.

"Say, that was a great scheme, eh?" he kept repeating.
He had no command of words, and always said the same
thing over and over.

A few days later I met Tomlinson in the street with a
valise in his hand.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"I'm off to Mexico," he answered. "They're advertising
for a Canadian teller for a bank in Tuscapulco. I've sent
my credentials down, and I'm going to follow them right
up in person. In a thing like this, the personal element
is everything."

So Tomlinson went down to Mexico and he travelled by sea
to Mexico City, and then with a mule train to Tuscapulco.
But the mails, with his credentials, went by land and
got there two days ahead of him.

When Tomlinson got to Tuscapulco he went into the bank
and he spoke to the junior manager and told him what he
came for. "I'm awfully sorry," the junior manager said,
"I'm afraid that this post has just been filled." Then
he went into an inner room to talk with the manager. "The
tellership that you wanted a Canadian for," he asked,
"didn't you say that you have a man already?"

"Yes," said the manager, "a brilliant young fellow from
Toronto; his name is Tomlinson, I have his credentials
here--a first-class man. I've wired him to come right
along, at our expense, and we'll keep the job open for
him ten days."

"There's a young man outside," said the junior, "who
wants to apply for the job."

"Outside?" exclaimed the manager. "How did he get here?"

"Came in on the mule train this morning: says he can do
the work and wants the job."

"What's he like?" asked the manager.

The junior shook his head.

"Pretty dusty looking customer," he said. "Shifty looking."

"Same old story," murmured the manager. "It's odd how
these fellows drift down here, isn't it? Up to something
crooked at home, I suppose. Understands the working of
a bank, eh? I guess he understands it a little too well
for my taste. No, no," he continued, tapping the papers
that lay on the table, "now that we've got a first-class
man like Tomlinson, let's hang on to him. We can easily
wait ten days, and the cost of the journey is nothing to
the bank as compared with getting a man of Tomlinson's
stamp. And, by the way, you might telephone to the Chief
of Police and get him to see to it that this loafer gets
out of town straight off."

So the Chief of Police shut up Tomlinson in the calaboose
and then sent him down to Mexico City under a guard. By
the time the police were done with him he was dead broke,
and it took him four months to get back to Toronto; when
he got there, the place in Mexico had been filled long ago.

But I can imagine that some of my readers might suggest
that I have hitherto been dealing only with success in
a very limited way, and that more interest would lie in
discussing how the really great fortunes are made.

Everybody feels an instinctive interest in knowing how
our great captains of industry, our financiers and railroad
magnates made their money.

Here the explanation is really a very simple one. There
is, in fact, only one way to amass a huge fortune in
business or railway management. One must begin at the
bottom. One must mount the ladder from the lowest rung.
But this lowest rung is everything. Any man who can stand
upon it with his foot well poised, his head erect, his
arms braced and his eye directed upward, will inevitably
mount to the top.

But after all--I say this as a kind of afterthought in
conclusion--why bother with success at all? I have observed
that the successful people get very little real enjoyment
out of life. In fact the contrary is true. If I had to
choose--with an eye to having a really pleasant life
--between success and ruin, I should prefer ruin every
time. I have several friends who are completely ruined
--some two or three times--in a large way of course; and
I find that if I want to get a really good dinner, where
the champagne is just as it ought to be, and where
hospitality is unhindered by mean thoughts of expense,
I can get it best at the house of a ruined man.

Stephen Leacock