A man may leap into sudden fortune at a bound, and without effort orforesight, but it is doubtful if any great permanent success ever was the outcome of blind chance.

The old adage, "Trust to luck," like many other adages that time has kept unreasonably in circulation, is not a good one. The man who trusts to luck to provide his clothing is apt to wear rags, and he who depends on luck for food is sure to go hungry.

Isaac NewtonWe hear a great deal about the wonderful things that have been done by chance, but we seldom take the time to examine them. We read that sir Isaac Newton, sitting in his garden one day, "Chanced to see an apple fall to the ground," and this set him to thinking, and he discovered the laws of gravitation. New, ever since the first apple fell from the first tree in Eden, men have been watching that very commonplace occurrence. We might extend the field so as to embrace oranges, coconuts and all the fruits and nuts which, in every land and through all the long centuries of man's existence, have been falling to the ground—not by chance, however, yet they set no men to thinking, simply because not one of the millions of men who "chanced" to see the incident, "chanced" to have the reasoning powers of the great English scientist. If the apple, instead of falling to the ground, had shot up, without visible cause, to the sky, then the dullest observer would have wondered, even if he did not attempt to find an explanation. The falling of the apple in Newton's garden was not a chance, but an ordinary incident, which was made much of in the mind of an extraordinary man.

[James] Watt "chanced" to see the lid of the kettle in his mother's kitchen lifted by the steam within, and this incident we are asked to believe was the origin of the engine invented by that great man. If no one else had ever witnessed a like phenomenon, then we might give some consideration to the element of chance. It was in the brain of Watt, and not in the lifting of the kettle lid, that the steam engine was born. There are no accidents in the progress of science.

In the same way, we are asked to believe that Galileo discovered the telescope, [Eli] Whitney the cotton gin, and Howe the sewing machine.

But there have been some curious cases of chance fortune. A man out hunting in California made a mis-step and was plunged into a deep gulch in the Sierra Nevada. His gun was broken and he was sorely bruised, but he was more that repaid for the accident by the discovery of a rich gold mine at the bottom.

What would you think of the man, who, because of this, should shoulder a gun and go into the mountains, hoping to be precipitated into a gulch full of gold. If he started out for this purpose, of course, the element of chance would be eliminated, and yet that man would show just as much good sense as do the thousands who go through life—trusting to luck, and hoping for a miracle that never comes.

Success may be unforeseen, but it is a rare thing for it to come to the man who has not been preparing for it.

Lord Bacon well says: "Neither the naked hand nor the understanding, left to itself, can do much; the work is accomplished by instruments and helps, of which the need is not less for the understanding than the hand."

The Romans had a saying which is as true to-day as when first uttered: "Opportunity has hair in front, behind she is bald; if you seize her by the forelock, you may hold her, but if suffered to escape, not Jupiter himself can catch her again."

Accident does very little toward the production of any great result in life. Though sometimes what is called "a happy hit" may be made by a bold venture, the common highway of steady industry and application is the only safe road to travel. It is said of the landscape painter, [Richard] Wilson, that when he had nearly finished a picture in a tame, correct manner, he would step back from it, his pencil fixed at the end of a long stick, and after gazing earnestly on the work, he would suddenly walk up and by a few bold touches give a brilliant finish to the painting. But it will not do for everyone who would produce an effect, to throw his brush at the canvas in the hope of producing a picture. The capability of putting in these last vital touches is acquired only by the labor of a life; and the probability is, that the artist who has not carefully trained himself beforehand, in attempting to produce a brilliant effect at a dash, will only produce a blotch.

Sedulous attention and painstaking industry always mark the true worker. The greatest men are not those who "despise the day of small things," but those who improve them the most carefully. Michael Angelo was one day explaining to a visitor at his studio what he had been doing to a statue since a previous visit. "I have retouched this part—polished that—softened this feature—brought out that muscle— given some expression to this lip, and more energy to that limb." "But these are trifles," remarked the visitor. "It may be so," replied the sculptor, "but recollect that trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle." So it was said of Nicolas Poussin, the painter, that the rule of his conduct was, that "whatever was worth doing at all was worth doing well;" and when asked, late in life, by his friend Vigneul de Marville, by what means he had gained so high a reputation among the painters of Italy, Poussin emphatically answered, "Because I have neglected nothing."

Although there are discoveries which are said to have been made by accident, if carefully inquired into it will be found that there has really been very little that was accidental about them. For the most part, these so-called accidents, have only been opportunities, carefully improved by genius. The brilliantly colored soap-bubbles blown through a common tobacco-pipe—though "trifles light as air" in most eyes—suggested to Dr. Young his beautiful theory of "interferences," and led to his discovery relating to the diffraction of light. Although great men are popularly supposed only to deal with great things, men such as Newton and Young were ready to detect the significance of the most familiar and simple facts; their greatness consisting mainly in their wise interpretation of them.

The difference between men consists, in a great measure, in the intelligence of their observation. The Russian proverb says of the nonobservant man, "He goes through the forest and sees no firewood." "The wise man's eyes are in his head," says Solomon, "but the fool walketh in darkness." "Sir," said Johnson on one occasion, to a fine gentleman just returned from Italy, "some men would learn more in the Hampstead stage than others in the tour of Europe." It is the mind that sees as well as the eye. Where unthinking gazers observe nothing, men of intelligent vision penetrate into the very fibre of the phenomena presented to them, attentively noting differences, making comparisons and recognizing their underlying idea. Many before Galileo had seen a suspended weight swing before their eyes with a measured beat, but he was the first to detect the value of the fact. One of the vergers in the cathedral at Pisa, after replenishing with oil a lamp which hung from the roof, left it swinging to and fro; and Galileo, then a youth of only eighteen, noting it attentively, conceived the idea of applying it to the measurement of time. Fifty years of study and labor, however, elapsed before he completed the invention of his Pendulum—the importance of which, in the measurement of time and in astronomical calculations, can scarcely be overrated. In like manner, Galileo, having casually heard that one Lippershey, a Dutch spectacle-maker, had presented to Count Maurice of Nassau an instrument by means of which distant objects appeared nearer to the beholder, addressed himself to the cause of such a phenomenon, which led to the invention of the telescope and proved the beginning of the modern science of astronomy. Discoveries such as these could never have been made by a negligent observer, or by a mere passive listener.

While Captain (afterward Sir Samuel) Brown was occupied in studying the construction of bridges, with the view of contriving one of a cheap description to be thrown across the Tweed near which he lived, he was walking in his garden one dewy autumn morning, when he saw a tiny spider's net suspended across his path. The idea immediately occurred to him, that a bridge of iron ropes or chains might be constructed in like manner, and the result was the invention of his suspension bridge. So James Watt, when consulted about the mode of carrying water by pipes under the Clyde, along the unequal bed of the river, turned his attention one day to the shell of a lobster presented at table; and from that model he invented an iron tube, which, when laid down, was found effectually to answer the purpose. Sir Isambard Brunel took his first lessons in forming the Thames Tunnel from the tiny shipworm: he saw how the little creature perforated the wood with its well-armed head, first in one direction and then in another, till the archway was complete, and then daubed over the roof and sides with a kind of varnish; and by copying this work exactly on a large scale, Brunel was at length enabled to construct his shield and accomplish his great engineering work.

It is the intelligent eye of the careful observer which gives these apparently trivial phenomena their value. So trifling a matter as the sight of seaweed floating past his ship, enabled Columbus to quell the mutiny which arose amongst his sailors at not discovering land, and to assure them that the eagerly sought New World was not far off.

It is the close observation of little things which is the secret of success in business, in art, in science, and in every pursuit in life. Human knowledge is but an accumulation of small facts, made by successive generations of men, the little bits of knowledge and experience carefully treasured up by them growing at length into a mighty pyramid. Though many of these facts and observations seemed in the first instance to have but slight significance, they are all found to have their eventual uses, and to fit into their proper places. Even many speculations seemingly remote, turn out to be the basis of results the most obviously practical. In the case of the conic sections discovered by Apollonius Pergaeus, twenty centuries elapsed before they were made the basis of astronomy—a science which enables the modern navigator to steer his way through unknown seas and traces for him in the heavens an unerring path to his appointed haven. And had not mathematicians toiled for so long, and, to uninstructed observers, apparently so fruitlessly, over the abstract relations of lines and surfaces, it is probably that but few of our mechanical inventions would have seen the light.

When [Benjamin] Franklin made his discovery of the identity of lightning and electricity, it was sneered at, and people asked, "Of what use is it?" To which his reply was, "What is the use of a child? It may become a man!" When Galvani discovered that a frog's leg twitched when placed in contact with different metals, it could scarcely have been imagined that so apparently insignificant a fact could have led to important results. Yet therein lay the germ of the electric telegraph, which binds the intelligence of continents together, and, probably before many years have elapsed will "put a girdle round the globe." So, too, little bits of stone and fossil, dug out of the earth, intelligently interpreted, have issued in the science of geology and the practical operations of mining, in which large capitals are invested and vast numbers of persons profitably employed.

The gigantic machinery employed in pumping our mines, working our mills and manufactories, and driving our steamships and locomotives, in like manner depends for its supply of power upon so slight an agency as little drops of water expanded with heat—that familiar agency called steam, which we see issuing from that common tea-kettle spout, but which, when pent up within an ingeniously contrived mechanism, displays a force equal to that of millions of horses, and contains a power to rebuke the waves and set even the hurricane at defiance. The same power at work within the bowels of the earth has been the cause of those volcanoes and earthquakes which have played so mighty a part in the history of the globe.

This art of seizing opportunities and turning even accidents to account, bending them to some purpose, is a great secret of success. Dr. Johnson has defined genius to be "a mind of large general powers accidentally determined in some particular direction." Men who are resolved to find a way for themselves, will always find opportunities enough; and if they do not lie ready to their hand, they will make them. It is not those who have enjoyed the advantages of colleges, museums, and public galleries, that have accomplished the most for science and art; nor have the greatest mechanics and inventors been trained in mechanics' institutes. Necessity, oftener than facility, has been the mother of invention; and the most prolific school of all has been the school of difficulty. Some of the very best workmen have had the most indifferent tools to work with. But it is not tools that make the workman, but the trained skill and perseverance of the man himself. Indeed it is proverbial that the bad workman never yet had a good tool. Some one asked Opie by that wonderful process he mixed his colors. "I mix them with my brains, sir," was his reply. It is the same with every workman who would excel. Ferguson made marvelous things—such as his wooden clock, that accurately measured the hours— by means of a common penknife, a tool in everybody's hand; but then everybody is not a Ferguson. A pan of water and two thermometers were the tools by which Dr. Black discovered latent heat; and a prism, a lens and a sheet of pasteboard enable Newton to unfold the composition of light and the origin of colors. An eminent foreign savant once called upon Dr. Wollaston, and requested to be shown over his laboratories, in which science had been enriched by so many important discoveries, when the doctor took him into a little study, and, pointing to an old tea-tray on the table, containing a few watch-glasses, test-papers, a small balance, and a blowpipe, said, "There is all the laboratory I have!"

Stothard learnt the art of combining colors by closely studying butterflies' wings: he would often say that no one knew what he owed to those tiny insects. A burnt stick and a barn door served Wilkie in lieu of pencil and canvas. Bewiek first practiced drawing on the cottage walls of his native village, which he covered with his sketches in chalk; and Benjamin Watt made his first brushes out of the cat's tail. Ferguson laid himself down in the fields at night in a blanket, and made a map of the heavenly bodies by means of a thread with small beads on it stretched between his eye and the stars. Franklin first robbed the thundercloud of its lightning by means of a kite made with two cross-sticks and a silk handkerchief. Watt made his first model of the condensing steam-engine out of an old anatomist's syringe, used to inject the arteries previous to dissection. Gifford worked his first problems in mathematics, when a cobbler's apprentice, upon small scraps of leather, which he beat smooth for the purpose; whilst Rittenhouse, the astronomer, first calculated eclipses on his plow handle.

The most ordinary occasions will furnish a man with opportunities or suggestions for improvement, if he be but prompt to take advantage of them. Professor Lee was attracted to the study of Hebrew by finding a Bible in that tongue in a synagogue, while working as a common carpenter at the repair of the benches. He became possessed with a desire to read the book in the original, and, buying a cheap second- hand copy of a Hebrew grammar, he set to work and learned the language for himself. As Edmund Stone said to the Duke of Argyle, in answer to his grace's inquiry how he, a poor gardener's boy, had contrived to be able to read Newton's Principia in the Latin, "One needs only to know the twenty-four letters of the alphabet in order to learn everything else that one wishes." Application and perseverance, and the diligent improvement of opportunities, will do the rest.

The attention of Dr. Priestley, the discoverer of so many gases, was accidentally drawn to the subject of chemistry through his living in the neighborhood of a brewery. When visiting the place one day, he noted the peculiar appearances attending the extinction of lighted chips in the gas floating over the fermented liquor. He was forty years old at the time, and knew nothing of chemistry. He consulted books to ascertain the cause, but they told him little, for as yet nothing was known on the subject. Then he began to experiment, with some rude apparatus of his own contrivance. The curious results of his first experiments led to others, which in his hands shortly became the science of pneumatic chemistry. About the same time, Scheele was obscurely working in the same direction in a remote Swedish village; and he discovered several new gases, with no more effective apparatus at his command than a few apothecaries' vials and pigs' bladders.

Sir Humphry Davy, when an apothecary's apprentice, performed his first experiments with instruments of the rudest description. He extemporized the greater part of them himself, out of the motley materials which chance threw in his way—to pots and pans of the kitchen, and the vials and vessels of his master's surgery. It happened that a French ship was wrecked off the Land's End, and the surgeon escaped, bearing with him his case of instruments, amongst which was an old-fashioned clyster apparatus; this article he presented to Davy, with whom he had become acquainted. The apothecary's apprentice received it with great exultation, and forthwith employed it as a part of a pneumatic apparatus which he contrived, afterward using it to perform the duties of an air-pump in one of his experiments on the nature and sources of heat.

In like manner, professor Faraday, Sir Humphry Davy's scientific successor, made his first experiments in electricity by means of an old bottle, while he was still a working bookbinder. And it is a curious fact, that Faraday was first attracted to the study of chemistry by hearing one of Sir Humphry Davy's lectures on the subject at the Royal Institution. A gentleman, who was a member, calling one day at the shop where Faraday was employed in binding books, found him pouring over the article "Electricity," in an encyclopedia placed in his hands to bind. The gentleman, having made inquiries, found that the young bookbinder was curious about such subjects, and gave him an order of admission to the Royal Institution, where he attended a course of four lectures delivered by Sir Humphry. He took notes of them, which he showed to the lecturer, who acknowledged their scientific accuracy, and was surprised when informed of the humble position of the reporter. Faraday then expressed his desire to devote himself to the prosecution of chemical studies, from which Sir Humphry at first endeavored to dissuade him: but the young man persisting, he was at length taken into the Royal Institution as an assistant; and eventually the mantle of the brilliant apothecary's boy fell upon the worthy shoulders of the equally brilliant bookbinder's apprentice.

The words which Davy entered in his notebook, when about twenty years of age, working in Dr. Beddoes' laboratory at Bristol, were eminently characteristic of him: "I have neither riches, nor power, nor birth to recommend me; yet if I live I trust I shall not be of less service to mankind and my friends, than if I had been born with all these advantages." Davy possessed the capability, as Faraday did, of devoting the whole power of his mind to the practical and experimental investigation of a subject in all its bearings; and such a mind will rarely fail, by dint of mere industry and patient thinking, in producing results of the highest order. Coleridge said of Davy: "There is an energy and elasticity in his mind, which enables him to seize on and analyze all questions, pushing them to their legitimate consequences. Every subject in Davy's mind has the principle of vitality. Living thoughts spring up like turf under his feet." Davy, on his part said of Coleridge, whose abilities he greatly admired: "With the most exalted genius, enlarged views, sensitive heart, and enlightened mind, he will be the victim of a want of order, precision, and regularity."

It is not accident, then, that helps a man in the world so much as purpose and persistent industry. To the feeble, the sluggish and purposeless, the happiest accidents will avail nothing—they pass them by, seeing no meaning in them. But it is astonishing how much can be accomplished if we are prompt to seize and improve the opportunities for action and effort which are constantly presenting themselves. Watt taught himself chemistry and mechanics while working at his trade of a mathematical instrument maker, at the same time that he was learning German from a Swiss dyer. Stephenson taught himself arithmetic and mensuration while working as an engine-man, during the night shifts; and when he could snatch a few moments in the intervals allowed for meals during the day, he worked his sums with a bit of chalk upon the sides of the colliery wagons. Dalton's industry was the habit of his life. He began from his boyhood, for he taught a little village school when he was only about twelve years old—keeping the school in winter, and working upon his father's farm in summer. He would sometimes urge himself and companions to study by the stimulus of a bet, though bred a Quaker; and on one occasion by his satisfactory solution of a problem, he won as much as enabled him to buy a winter's store of candles. He continued his meteorological observations until a day or two before he died—having made and recorded upward of 200,000 in the course of his life.

With perseverance, the very odds, and ends of time may be worked up into results of the greatest value. An hour in every day withdrawn from frivolous pursuits would, if profitably employed, enable a person of ordinary capacity to go far toward mastering a science. It would make an ignorant man a well-informed one in less than ten years. Time should not be allowed to pass without yielding fruits, in the form of something learnt worthy of being known, some good principle cultivated, or some good habit strengthened. Dr. Mason Good translated Lucretuis while riding in his carriage in the streets of London, going the round of his patients. Dr. Darwin composed nearly all his works in the same way while driving about in his "sulky" from house to house in the country...writing down his thoughts on little scraps of paper, which he carried about with him for the purpose. Hale wrote his "Contemplations" while traveling on circuit. Dr. Burney learnt French and Italian while traveling on horseback from one musical pupil to another in the course of his profession. Kirke White learnt Greek while walking to and fro from a lawyer's office; and we personally know a man of eminent position who learnt Latin and French while going messages as an errand-boy.

Hugh Miller was a busy man of observant faculties, who studied literature as well as science, with zeal and success. The book in which he has told the story of his life("My Schools and Schoolmasters"), is extremely interesting, and calculated to be eminently useful. It is the history of the formation of a truly noble character in the humblest condition of life, and inculcates most powerfully the lessons of self-help, self-respect, and self- dependence. While Hugh was but a child, his father, who was a sailor, was drowned at sea, and he was brought up by his widowed mother. He had a school training after a sort, but his best teachers were the boys with whom he played, the men amongst whom he lived. He read much and miscellaneously, and picked up odd sorts of knowledge from many quarters—from workmen, carpenters, fishermen and sailors, and above all, from the old boulders strewed along the shores of the Cromarty Firth. With a big hammer which had belonged to his great-grandfather, an old buccaneer, the boy went about chipping the stones, and accumulating specimens of mica, porphyry, garnet, and such like. Sometimes he had a day in the woods, and there, too, the boy's attention was excited by the peculiar geological curiosities which came in his way. While searching among the rocks on the beach, he was sometimes asked, in irony, by the farm-servants who came to load their carts with sea-weed, whether he "was gettin' siller in the stanes," but was so unlucky as never to be able to answer in the affirmative. When of a suitable age he was apprenticed to the trade of his choice—that of a working stone-mason; and he began his laboring career in a quarry looking out upon the Cromarty Firth. This quarry proved one of his best schools. The remarkable geological formations which it displayed awakened his curiosity. The bar of deep-red stone beneath, and the bar of pale-red clay above, were noted by the young quarryman, who even in such unpromising subjects, found matter of observation and reflection. Where other men saw nothing, he detected analogies, differences, and peculiarities which set him a-thinking. He simply kept his eyes and his mind open; was sober, diligent and persevering; and this was the secret of his intellectual growth.

His curiosity was excited and kept alive by the curious organic remains, principally of old and extinct species of fishes, ferns, and ammonites, which were revealed along the coast by the washings of the waves, or were exposed by the stroke of his mason's hammer. He never lost sight of the subject, but went on accumulating observations and comparing formations, until at length, many years afterward, when no longer a working mason, he gave to the world his highly interesting work on the "Old Red Sandstone," which at once established his reputation as a scientific geologist. But this work was the fruit of long years of patient observation and research. As he modestly states in his autobiography, "The only merit to which I lay claim in the case is that of patient research—a merit in which whoever wills may rival or surpass me; and this humble faculty of patience, when rightly developed, may lead to more extraordinary development of ideas than even genius itself."

"Chance," said an old Vermont farmer, "is like going into a field with a pail, and waiting for a cow to come to you and back up to be milked."

"Shun delays, they breed remorse;
  Take thy time while time is lent thee;
Creeping snails have weakest force,
  Fly their fault, lest thou repent thee;
    Good is best when sooner wrought,
    Ling'ring labors come to nought.

"Hoist up sail while gale doth last,
  Tide and wind stay no man's pleasure!
Seek not time when time is past,
  Sober speed is wisdom's leisure;
    After-wits are dearly bought,
    Let thy fore-wit guide thy thought.

"Time wears all his locks before,
  Take thou hold upon his forehead;
When he flees he turns no more,
  And behind his scalp is naked.
    Works adjourn'd have many stays,
    Long demurs breed new delays."

A Review of "How to Get On in Life"

Table of Contents

Chapter XIII - Cultivate Observation and Judgment


Law of Attraction Articles

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