Chapter IX

The Value Of Experience

"What experience have you had?"

This may be the first question put by an employer to the applicant for a position, be he mechanic, clerk, or laborer. If you need a doctor, you would prefer to trust your case to a man of experience, rather than to one fresh from a medical college. Apart from the established reputation, that comes only with time, and natural abilities which count for much, the principal difference between men in every calling is the difference in their experiences.

If this experience is so essential, we must regard as wanting in judgment the young man, who, after a short service, imagines he is as well qualified to conduct the business as his superior in place.

No amount of natural ability, and no effort of energy can compensate for the training that comes from experience.

Indeed, it is only after we have studied and tested ourselves, and overestimated our talents to our injury, more than once, that experience gives us a proper estimate of our own strength and weakness.

Contact with others is requisite to enable a man to know himself. It is only by mixing freely in the world that one can form a proper estimate of his own capacity. Without such experience, one is apt to become conceited, puffed up, and arrogant; at all events, he will remain ignorant of himself, though he may heretofore have enjoyed no other company.

[Johnathan] Swift once said: "It is an uncontroverted truth, that no man ever made an ill-figure who understood his own talents, nor a good one who mistook them."

Many persons, however, are readier to take measure of the capacity of others than of themselves. "Bring him to me," said a certain Dr. Tronchin, of Geneva, speaking of Rousseau-- "bring him to me that I may see whether he has got anything in him!"--the probability being that Rousseau, who knew himself better, was much more likely to take measure of Tronchin than Tronchin was to take measure of him.

A due amount of self-knowledge is, therefore, necessary for those who would _be_ anything or _do_ anything in the world. It is also one of the first essentials to the formation of distinct personal convictions. Frederick Perthes [1772 - 1843] once said to a young friend, "You know only too well what you can do; but till you have learned what you can not do, you will neither accomplish anything of moment nor know inward peace."

Any one who would profit by experience will never be above asking help. He who thinks himself already too wise to learn of others, will never succeed in doing anything either good or great. We have to keep our minds and hearts open, and never be ashamed to learn, with the assistance of those who are wiser and more experienced than ourselves.

The man made wise by experience endeavors to judge correctly of the things which come under his observation and form the subject of his daily life. What we call common sense is, for the most part, but the result of common experience wisely improved. Nor is great ability necessary to acquire it, so much as patience, accuracy, and watchfulness.

The results of experience are, of course, only to be achieved by living; and living is a question of time. The man of experience learns to rely upon time as his helper. "Time and I against any two," was a maxim of Cardinal Mazarin [1602 - 1661]. Time has been described as a beautifier and as a consoler; but it is also a teacher. It is the food of experience, the soil of wisdom. It may be the friend or the enemy of youth; and time will sit beside the old as a consoler or as a tormentor, according as it has been used or misused, and the past life has been well or ill spent.

"Time," says George Herbert [1593 - 1633], "is the rider that breaks youth." To the young, how bright the new world looks!--how full of novelty, of enjoyment, of pleasure! But as years pass, we find the world to be a place of sorrow as well as of joy. As we proceed through life, many dark vistas open upon us--of toil, suffering, difficulty, perhaps misfortune and failure. Happy they who can pass through and amidst such trials with a firm mind and pure heart, encountering trials with cheerfulness, and standing erect beneath even the heaviest burden!

Thomas A. Edison, the great inventor, in speaking of his success to the writer, said:

"I had when I started out all the patience and perseverance that I have now, but I lacked the experience. Seeing that I had only ten weeks' regular schooling in all my life, I can say with truth that experience has been my school and my only one.

"Many believe that my life has been a success from the start, and I do not try to undeceive them, but as a matter of fact my failures have exceeded my successes as one hundred to one; but even the experience of these failures has been in itself an educator and has enabled me not to repeat them."

The brave man will not be baffled, but tries and tries again until hesucceeds. The tree does not fall at the first stroke, but only by repeated strokes and after great labor. We may see the visible success at which a man has arrived, but forget the toil and suffering and peril through which it has been achieved. For the same reason, it is often of advantage for a man to be under the necessity of having to struggle with poverty and conquer it. "He who has battled," says Carlyle, "were it only with poverty and hard toil, will be found stronger and more expert than he who could stay at home from the battle, concealed among the provision wagons, or even rest unwatchfully 'abiding by the stuff.'"

Scholars have found poverty tolerable compared with the privation of intellectual food. Riches weigh much more heavily upon the mind. "I cannot but choose say to Poverty," said Richter, "Be welcome! So that thou come not too late in life." Poverty, Horace tells us, drove him to poetry and poetry introduced him to Varus and Virgil and Maecenas. "Obstacles," says [Jules] Michelet, "are great incentives. I lived for whole years upon a Virgil and found myself well off."

Many have to make up their minds to encounter failure again and again before they succeed; but if they have pluck, the failure will only serve to rouse their courage and stimulate them to renewed efforts. Talma, the greatest of actors, was hissed off the stage when he first appeared on it. Lacordaire, one of the greatest preachers of modern times, only acquired celebrity after repeated failures. Montalembert said of his first public appearance in the church of St. Roch: He failed completely, and, on coming out, every one said, "Though he may be a man of talent he will never be a preacher." Again and again he tried, until he succeeded, and only two years after his "debut", Lacordaire was preaching in Notre Dame to audiences such as few French orators have addressed since the time of Bossuet and Massilon.

When Mr. [Ridhard] Cobden first appeared as a speaker at a public meeting in Manchester, he completely broke down and the chairman apologized for his failure. Sir James Graham and Mr. Disraeli failed and were derided at first, and only succeeded by dint of great labor and application. At one time Sir James Graham had almost given up public speaking in despair. He said to his friend Sir Francis Baring: "I have tried it every way--extempore, from notes, and committing it all to memory--and I can't do it. I don't know why it is, but I am afraid I shall never succeed." Yet by dint of perseverance, Graham, like Disraeli, lived to become one of the most effective and impressive of parliamentary speakers.

In every field of effort success has only come after many trials. Morse [Samuel F. B. Morse] with his telegraph and Howe [Elias Howe, Jr.] with his sewing machine lived in poverty and met with many disappointments before the world came to appreciate the value of their great inventions.

It can be said with truth that these great men could have avoided much of their trouble if they had had the necessary experience. But particularly in the two cases cited before, the inventions were new to the world and it needed that the world should have the experience of their utility as well as the inventors.

Science also has had its martyrs, who have fought their way to light through difficulty, persecution and suffering. We need not refer to the cases of Bruno, Galileo and others, persecuted because of the supposed heterodoxy of their views. But there have been other unfortunates among men of science, whose genius has been unable to save them from the fury of their enemies. Thus [Jean Sylvain] Bailly, the celebrated French astronomer (who had been mayor of Paris) and [Antoine] Lavoisier, the great chemist, were both guillotined in the first French Revolution. When the latter, after being sentenced to death by the Commune, asked for a few days' respite to enable him to ascertain the result of some experiments he had made during his confinement, the tribunal refused his appeal, and ordered him for immediate execution, one of the judges saying that "the Republic has no need of philosophers."

In England also, about the same time, Dr. [Joseph] Priestley, the father of modern chemistry, had his house burned over his head and his library destroyed, amidst the shouts of "No philosophers!" and he fled from his native country to lay his bones in a foreign land.

Courageous men have often turned enforced solitude to account in executing works of great pith and moment. It is in solitude that the passion for spiritual perfection best nurses itself. The soul communes with itself in loneliness until its energy often becomes intense. But whether a man profits by solitude or not will mainly depend upon his own temperament, training and character. While, in a large-natured man, solitude will make the pure heart purer, in the small-natured man it will only serve to make the hard heart still harder; for though solitude may be the nurse of great spirits, it is the torment of small ones.

Not only have many of the world's greatest benefactors, men whose lives history now records the most successful, had not only to contend with poverty, but it was their misfortune to be misunderstood and to be regarded as criminals. Many a great reformer in religion, science, and government has paid for his opinions by imprisonment. Speaking of these great men, a prominent English writer says: Prisons may have held them, but their thoughts were not to be confined by prison walls. They have burst through and defied the power of their persecutors. It was [Richard] Lovelace [1618 - 1658], a prisoner, who wrote:

"Stone walls do not a prison make,
   Nor iron bars a cage;
 Minds innocent and quiet take
   That for a hermitage."

It was a saying of Milton that, "who best can suffer, best can do." The work of many of the greatest men, inspired by duty, has been done amidst suffering and trial and difficulty. They have struggled against the tide and reached the shore exhausted, only to grasp the sand and expire. They have done their duty and been content to die. But death hath no power over such men; their hallowed memories still survive to soothe and purify and bless us. "Life," said Goethe, "to us all is suffering. Who save God alone shall call us to our reckoning? Let not reproaches fall on the departed. Not what they have failed in, nor what they have suffered, but what they have done, ought to occupy the survivors."

Thus, it is not ease and facility that try men and bring out the good that is in them, so much as trial and difficulty. Adversity is the touchstone of character. As some herbs need to be crushed to give forth their sweetest odor, so some natures need to be tried by suffering to evoke the excellence that is in them. Hence trials often unmask virtues and bring to light hidden graces.

Suffering may be the appointed means by which the higher nature of man is to be disciplined and developed. Assuming happiness to be the end of being, sorrow may be the indispensable condition through which it is to be reached. Hence St. Paul's noble paradox descriptive of the Christian life--"As chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things."

Even pain is not all painful. On one side it is related to suffering, and on the other to happiness. For pain is remedial as well as sorrowful. Suffering is a misfortune as viewed from the one side, and a discipline as viewed from the other. But for suffering, the best part of many men's natures would sleep a deep sleep. Indeed, it might almost be said that pain and sorrow were the indispensable conditions of some men's success, and the necessary means to evoke the highest development of their genius. Shelley has said of poets:
"Most wretched men are cradled into poetry by wrong,
They learn in suffering what they teach in song."
But the young man meeting with disappointments, as he is sure to do in the beginning of his career, particularly if he be dependent on himself, should take comfort from the thought that others who have risen to success have had to travel the same hard road; and such men have confessed that these trials, these bitter experiences, were the most valuable of their lives.

Life, all sunshine without shade, all happiness without sorrow, all pleasure without pain, were not life at all--at least not human life. Take the lot of the happiest--it is a tangled yarn. It is made up of sorrows and joys; and the joys are all the sweeter because of the sorrows; bereavements and blessings, one following another, making us sad and blessed by turns. Even death itself makes life more loving; it binds us more closely together while here. Dr. Thomas Browne has argued that death is one of the necessary conditions of human happiness, and he supports his argument with great force and eloquence. But when death comes into a household, we do not philosophize...we only feel. The eyes that are full of tears do not see; though in course of time they come to see more clearly and brightly than those that have never known sorrow.

There is much in life that, while in this state, we can never comprehend. There is, indeed, a great deal of mystery in life...much that we see "as in a glass darkly." But though we may not apprehend the full meaning of the discipline of trial through which the best have to pass, we must have faith in the completeness of the design of which our little individual lives form a part.

We have each to do our duty in that sphere of life in which we have been placed. Duty alone is true; there is no true action but in its accomplishment. Duty is the end and aim of the highest life; the truest pleasure of all is that derived from the consciousness of its fulfillment. Of all others, it is the one that is most thoroughly satisfying, and the least accompanied by regret and disappointment. In the words of George Herbert, the consciousness of duty performed "gives us music at midnight."

And when we have done our work on earth--of necessity, of labor, of love, or of duty--like the silk-worm that spins its little cocoon and dies, we too depart. But, short though our stay in life may be, it is the appointed sphere in which each has to work out the great aim and end of his being to the best of his power; and when that is done, the accidents of the flesh will affect but little the immortality we shall at last put on.

A Review of "How to Get On in Life"

Table of Contents

Chapter X - Selecting a Calling


Law of Attraction Articles

Success - The Value of Experience
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