PATIENCE AND PERSEVERANCE.
If great success were possible only to men of great talents, then there would be but little success in the world.
It has been said that talent is quite as much the ability to stick to
a thing, as the aptitude to do it better than another. "I will fight
it out on this line, if it takes all summer." This statement of
General Grant does not indicate the man of genius, but it does show
the man of indomitable perseverance, a perseverance to which he owed
all his success, for it is well known that he was a very modest, and
by no means a brilliant man. The key to his character was
pertinacity: the secret of his success was perseverance.
"I will to-day thrash the Mexicans, or die a-trying!" was what Sam Houston said to an aide, the morning of the battle of San Jacinto.
And he won.
The soldier who begins the battle in doubt is half beaten in advance.
The man who loses heart after one failure is a fool to make a beginning.
There is a great deal in good preparation, but there is a great deal
more in heroic perseverance. The man who declines to make a beginning
till everything he thinks he may need is ready for his hand, is very
apt to make a failure. The greatest things have been achieved by the
simplest means. It is the ceaseless chopping that wears away the
stone. The plodder may be laughed at, and the brilliant man who
accomplishes great things at a leap admired; but we all remember the
fable of the tortoise and the hare; the latter, confident of her
powers, stopped to rest; the former, aware of his limitations,
persevered and toiled laboriously on—and he won the race.
We do not wish to be understood as underestimating genius. We believe
in it; but one of its strongest characteristics is perseverance, and
the next is its capacity to accomplish great results with the
"Easy come, easy go." Those things that are acquired without much
effort, are usually appreciated according to the effort expended.
Determination has a strong will; stubbornness has a strong won't.
The one is characterized by perseverance, and it builds up; the
other, having no purpose but blind self, ends in destruction.
It is a fact at once remarkable and encouraging that no man of great
genius who has left his mark on his times, ever believed that his
success was due to gifts that lifted him above his fellows. The means
by which he rose were within the reach of all, and perseverance was a
The greatest results in life are usually attained by simple means,
and the exercise of ordinary qualities. The common life of everyday,
with its cares, necessities, and duties, affords ample opportunity
for acquiring experience of the best kind; and its most beaten paths
provide the true worker with abundant scope for effort and room for
self-improvement. The road of human welfare lies along the old
highway of steadfast well-doing; and they who are the most
persistent, and work in the truest spirit, will usually be the most
Fortune has often been blamed for her blindness; but fortune is not
so blind as men are. Those who look into practical life will find
that fortune is usually on the side of the industrious, as the winds
and waves are on the side of the best navigators. In the pursuit of
even the highest branches of human inquiry, the commoner qualities
are found the most useful—such as common sense, attention,
application, and perseverance. Genius may not be necessary, though
even genius of the highest sort does not disdain the use of these
ordinary qualities. The very greatest men have been among the least
believers in the power of genius, and as worldly wise and persevering
as successful men of the commoner sort. Some have even defined genius
to be only common sense intensified. A distinguished teacher and
president of a college spoke of it as the power of making efforts.
John Foster held it to be the power of lighting one's own fire.
Buffon said of genius, "It is patience."
Newton's was unquestionably a mind of the very highest order, and
yet, when asked by what means he had worked out his extraordinary
discoveries, he modestly answered, "By always thinking unto them." At
another time he thus expressed his method of study: "I keep the
subject continually before me, and wait till the first dawnings open
slowly by little and little into a full and clear light." It was in
Newton's case as in every other, only by diligent application and
perseverance that his great reputation was achieved. Even his
recreation consisted in change of study, laying down one subject to
take up another. To Dr. Bentley he said: "If I have done the public
any service, it is due to nothing but industry and patient thought."
So Kepler, another great philosopher, speaking of his studies and his
progress, said: "As in Virgil, 'Fama mobilitate viget, vires acquirit
eundo,' so it was with me, that the diligent thought on these things
was the occasion of still further thinking; until at last I brooded
with the whole energy of my mind upon the subject."
The extraordinary results effected by dint of sheer industry and
perseverance, have led many distinguished men to doubt whether the
gift of genius be so exceptional an endowment as it is usually
supposed to be. Thus Voltaire held that it is only a very slight line
of separation that divides the man of genius from the man of ordinary
mould. Beccaria was even of opinion that all men might be poets and
orators, and Reynolds that they might be painters and sculptors. If
this were really so, that stolid Englishman might not have been so
very far wrong after all, who, on Canova's death, inquired of his
brother whether it was "his intention to carry on the business!"
Locke, Helvetuis, and Diderot believed that all men have an equal
aptitude for genius, and that what some are able to effect, under the
laws which regulate the operations of the intellect, must also be
within the reach of others who, under like circumstances, apply
themselves to like pursuits. But while admitting to the fullest
extent the wonderful achievements of labor, and recognizing the fact
that men of the most distinguished genius have invariably been found
the most indefatigable workers, it must nevertheless be sufficiently
obvious that, without the original endowment of heart and brain, no
amount of labor, however well applied, could have produced a
Shakespeare, a Newton, a Beethoven, or a Michael Angelo.
Dalton, the chemist, repudiated the notion of his being a "genius"
attributing everything which he had accomplished to simple industry
and perseverance. John Hunter said of himself, "My mind is like a
beehive; but full as it is of buzz and apparent confusion, it is yet
full of order and regularity, and food collected with incessant
industry from the choicest stores of nature." We have, indeed, but to
glance at the biographies of great men to find that the most
distinguished inventors, artists, thinkers, and workers of all kinds,
owe their success, in a great measure, to their indefatigable
industry and application. They were men who turned all things to
good—even time itself. Disraeli, the elder, held that the secret of
success consisted in being master of your subject, such mastery being
attainable only through continuous application and study. Hence it
happens that the men who have most moved the world have not been so
much men of genius, strictly so called, as men of intent mediocre
abilities and untiring perseverance; not so often the gifted, of
naturally bright and shining qualities, as those who have applied
themselves diligently to their work, in whatsoever line that might
lie. "Alas!" said a widow, speaking of her brilliant but careless
son, "he has not the gift of continuance." Wanting in perseverance,
such volatile natures are outstripped in the race of life by the
diligent and even the dull.
Hence, a great point to be aimed at is to get the working quality
well trained. When that is done, the race will be found comparatively
easy. We must repeat and again repeat: facility will come with labor.
Not even the simplest art can be accomplished without it; and what
difficulties it is found capable of achieving! It was by early
discipline and repetition that the late Sir Robert Peel cultivated
those remarkable, though still mediocre, powers, which rendered him
so illustrious an ornament of the British senate. When a boy at
Drayton Manor, his father was accustomed to set him up at table to
practice speaking extempore; and he early accustomed him to repeat as
much of the Sunday's sermon as he could remember. Little progress was
made at first, but by steady perseverance that habit of attention
became powerful, and the sermon was at length repeated almost
verbatim. When afterward replying in succession to the arguments of
his parliamentary opponents—an art in which he was perhaps
unrivaled—it was little surmised that the extraordinary power of
accurate remembrance which he displayed on such occasions had been
originally trained under the discipline of his father in the parish
church of Drayton.
It is indeed marvelous what continuous application will effect in the
commonest of things. It may seem a simple affair to play upon a
violin; yet what a long and laborious practice it requires! Giardini
said to a youth who asked him how long it would take to learn it,
"Twelve hours a day for twenty years together."
Progress, however, of the best kind is comparatively slow. Great
results cannot be achieved at once; and we must be satisfied to
advance in life as we walk, step by step. De Maistre says that "To
know how to wait is the great secret of success." We must sow
before we can reap, and often have to wait long, content meanwhile to
look patiently forward in hope: the fruit best worth waiting for
often ripening the slowest. But "time and patience," says the Eastern
proverb, "change the mulberry leaf to satin."
To wait patently, however, men must work cheerfully. Cheerfulness is
an excellent working quality, imparting great elasticity to the
character. As a bishop has said, "Temper is nine-tenths of
Christianity;" so are cheerfulness and diligence nine-tenths of
practical wisdom. They are the life and soul of success, as well as
of happiness; perhaps the very highest pleasure in life consisting in
clear, brisk, conscious working; energy, confidence, and every other
good quality mainly depending upon it. Sydney Smith, when laboring as
a parish priest at Foston-le-Clay, in Yorkshire—though he did not
feel himself to be in his proper element—went cheerfully to work in
the firm determination to do his best. "I am resolved," he said, "to
like it, and reconcile myself to it, which is more manly than to
feign myself above it, and to send up complaints by the post of being
thrown away, and being desolate, and such like trash." So Dr. Hook,
when leaving Leeds for a new sphere of labor, said, "Wherever I many
be, I shall, by God's blessing, do with my might what my hand findeth
to do; and if I do not fined work, I shall make it."
Laborers for the public good especially have to work long and
patiently, often uncheered by the prospect of immediate recompense or
result. The seeds they sow sometimes lie hidden under the winter's
snow, and before the spring comes the husbandman may have gone to his
rest. It is not every public worker who, like Rowland Hill, sees his
great idea bring forth fruit in his lifetime. Adam Smith sowed the
seeds of a great social amelioration in that dingy old University of
Glasgow, where he so long labored, and laid the foundations of his
"Wealth of Nations;" but seventy years passed before his work bore
substantial fruits, nor indeed are they all gathered in yet.
Nothing can compensate for the loss of hope in a man: it entirely
changes the character. "How can I work—how can I be happy," said a
great but miserable thinker, "when I have lost all hope?" One of the
most cheerful and courageous, because one of the most hopeful of
workers, was Carey, the missionary. When in India, it was no uncommon
thing for him to weary out three pundits, who officiated as his
clerks in one day, he himself taking rest only in change of
employment. Carey, the son of a shoemaker, was supported in his
labors by Ward, the son of a carpenter, and Marsham, the son of a
weaver. By their labors a magnificent college was erected at
Serampore; sixteen flourishing stations were established; the Bible
was translated into sixteen languages, and the seeds were sown of a
beneficent moral revolution in British India. Carey was never ashamed
of the humbleness of his origin. On one occasion, when at the
Governor-General's table, he overheard an officer opposite him asking
another, loud enough to be heard, whether Carey had not once been a
shoemaker: "No, sir," exclaimed Carey immediately; "only a cobbler."
An eminently characteristic anecdote has been told of his
perseverance as a boy. When climbing a tree one day, his foot slipped
and he fell to the ground, breaking his leg by the fall. He was
confined to his bed for weeks, but when he recovered and was able to
walk without support, the very first thing he did was to go and climb
that tree. Carey had need of this sort of dauntless courage for the
great missionary work of his life, and nobly and resolutely he did
It was a maxim of Dr. Young, the philosopher, that "Any man can do
what any other man has done;" and it is unquestionable that he
himself never recoiled from any trials to which he determined to
subject himself. It is related of him, that the first time he mounted
a horse he was in company with the grandson of Mr. Barclay, of Ury,
the well-known sportsman. When the horseman who preceded them leaped
a high fence, Young wished to imitate him, but fell off his horse in
the attempt. Without saying a word, he remounted, made a second
effort, and was again unsuccessful, but this time he was not thrown
farther than on to the horse's neck, to which he clung. At the third
trial he succeeded, and cleared the fence.
The story of Timour, the Tartar, learning a lesson of perseverance
under adversity from the spider is well know. Not less interesting is
the anecdote of Audubon, the American ornithologist, as related by
himself: "An accident," he says, "which happened to two hundred of my
original drawings, nearly put a stop to my researches in ornithology.
I shall relate it, merely to show how far enthusiasm—for by no other
name can I call my perseverance—may enable the preserver of nature
to surmount the most disheartening difficulties. I left the village
of Henderson, in Kentucky, situated on the banks of the Ohio, where I
resided for several years, to proceed to Philadelphia on business. I
looked to my drawings before my departure, placed them carefully in a
wooden box, and gave them in charge of a relative, with injunctions
to see that no injury should happen to them. My absence was of
several months; and when I returned, after having enjoyed the
pleasures of home for a few days, I inquired after my box, and what I
was pleased to call my treasure. The box was produced and opened;
but, reader, feel for me—a pair of Norway rats had taken possession
of the whole, and reared a young family among the gnawed bits of
paper, which, but a month previous, represented nearly a thousand
inhabitants of air! The burning heat which instantly rushed through
my brain was too great to be endured without affecting my whole
nervous system. I slept for several nights, and the days passed like
days of oblivion—until the animal powers being recalled into action
through the strength of my constitution, I took up my gun, my
notebook and my pencils, and went forth to the woods as gayly as if
nothing had happened. I felt pleased that I might now make better
drawings than before; and ere a period not exceeding three years had
elapsed, my portfolio was again filled."
The accidental destruction of Sir Isaac Newton's papers, by his
little dog "Diamond" upsetting a lighted taper upon his desk, by
which the elaborate calculations of many years were in a moment
destroyed, is a well-known anecdote, and need not be repeated: it is
said that the loss caused the philosopher such profound grief that it
seriously injured his health, and impaired his understanding. An
accident of a somewhat similar kind happened to the manuscript of Mr.
Carlyle's first volume of his "French Revolution." He had lent the
manuscript to a literary neighbor to peruse. By some mischance, it
had been left lying on the parlor floor, and become forgotten. Weeks
ran on, and the historian sent for his work, the printers being loud
for "copy." Inquiries were made, and it was found that the maid-of-
all-work, finding what she conceived to be a bundle of waste paper
on the floor, had used it to light the kitchen and parlor fires with!
Such was the answer returned to Mr. Carlyle; and his feelings can be
imagined. There was, however, no help for him but to set resolutely
to work to rewrite the book; and he turned to it and did it. He had
no draft and was compelled to rake up from his memory, facts, ideas,
and expressions which had been long since dismissed. The composition
of the book in the first instance had been a work of pleasure; the
rewriting of it a second time was one of pain and anguish almost
beyond belief. That he persevered and finished the volume under such
circumstances, affords an instance of determination of purpose which
has seldom been surpassed.
There is no walk in life, in which success has been won, that has not
its brilliant examples of the achievements of perseverance. The
literary life, in which all who read are interested, has many
illustrations of this. No great career affords stronger proof of this
than that of the great Sir Walter Scott, who, delighting his own
generation, must be honored by all the generations that follow.
His admirable working qualities were trained in a lawyer's office,
where he pursued for many years a sort of drudgery scarcely above
that of a copying clerk. His daily dull routine made his evenings,
which were his own, all the ore sweet; and he generally devoted them
to reading and study. He himself attributed to his prosaic office
discipline that habit of steady, sober diligence, in which mere
literary men are so often found wanting. As a copying clerk he was
allowed 3_d._ for every page containing a certain number of words; and
he sometimes, by extra work, was able to copy as many as 120 pages in
twenty-four hours, thus earning some 30_s._; out of which he would
occasionally purchase an odd volume, otherwise beyond his means.
During his after-life Scott was wont to pride himself upon being a
man of business, and he averred, in contradiction to what he called
the cant of sonneteers, that there was no necessary connection
between genius and an aversion or contempt for the common duties of
life. On the contrary, he was of opinion that to spend some fair
portion of every day in any matter-of-fact occupation was good for
the higher faculties themselves in the upshot. While afterward acting
as clerk to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, he performed his
literary work chiefly before breakfast, attending the court during
the day, where he authenticated registered deeds and writings of
various kinds. "On the whole," says Lockhart, "it forms one of the
most remarkable features in his history, that throughout the most
active period of his literary career, he must have devoted a large
proportion of his hours, during half at least of every year, to the
conscientious discharge of professional duties." It was a principle
of action which he laid down for himself, that he must earn his
living by business, and not by literature. On one occasion he said,
"I determined that literature should be my staff, not my crutch, and
that the profits of my literary labor, however convenient otherwise,
should not, if I could help it, become necessary to my ordinary
His punctuality was one of the most carefully cultivated of his
habits, otherwise it had not been possible for him to get through so
enormous an amount of literary labor. He mad it a rule to answer
every letter received by him on the same day, except where inquiry
and deliberation were requisite. Nothing else could have enabled him
to keep abreast with the flood of communications that poured in upon
him and sometimes put his good-nature to the severest test. It was
his practice to rise by five o'clock and light his own fire. He
shaved and dressed with deliberation, and was seated at his desk by
six o'clock, with his papers arranged before him in the most accurate
order, his works of reference marshaled round him on the floor, while
at least one favorite dog lay watching his eye, outside the line of
books. Thus by the time the family assembled for breakfast, between
nine and ten, he had done enough—to use his own words—to break the
neck of a day's work. But with all his diligent and indefatigable
industry, and his immense knowledge, the result of may years' patient
labor, Scott always spoke with the greatest diffidence of his own
powers. On one occasion he said, "Throughout every part of my career
I have felt pinched and hampered by my own ignorance."
But perseverance and effort do not always mean successful work.
Freeman Hunt distinguishes admirably between activity and energy in
the following statement, which it would be well to remember:
"There are some men whose failure to succeed in life is a problem to
others, as well as to themselves. They are industrious, prudent, and
economical; yet, after a long life of striving, old age finds them
still poor. They complain of ill-luck; they say fate is against them.
But the real truth is that their projects miscarry because they
mistake mere activity for energy. Confounding two things essentially
different, they suppose that if they are always busy, they must of a
necessity be advancing their fortune; forgetting that labor
misdirected is but a waste of activity."
"The person who would succeed in life is like a marksman firing at a
target—if his shot misses the mark, it is but a waste of powder; to
be of any service at all, it must tell in the bull's eye or near it.
So, in the great game of life, what a man does must be made to count,
or it had almost as well be left undone.
"The idle warrior, cut from a block of wood, who fights the air on
the top of a weather-cock, instead of being made to turn some machine
commensurate with his strength, is not more worthless than the merely
active man who, though busy from sunrise to sunset, dissipates his
labor on trifles, when he ought skillfully to concentrate it on some
"Every person knows some one in his circle of acquaintance who,
though always active, has this want of energy. The distemper, if we
may call it such, exhibits itself in various ways. In some cases, the
man has merely an executive faculty when he should have a directing
one; in other words, he makes a capital clerk for himself, when he
ought to do the thinking work for the establishment. In other cases,
what is done is either not done at the right time, or not in the
right way. Sometimes there is no distinction made between objects of
different magnitudes, and as much labor is bestowed on a trivial
affair as on a matter of great moment.
"Energy, correctly understood, is activity proportioned to the end.
The first Napoleon would often, when in a campaign, remain for days
without undressing himself, now galloping from point to point, now
dictating dispatches, now studying maps and directing operations. But
his periods of repose, when the crisis was over, were generally as
protracted as his previous exertions had been. He has been known to
sleep for eighteen hours without waking. Second-rate men, slaves of
tape and routine, while they would fall short of the superhuman
exertions of the great emperor, would have considered themselves lost
beyond hope if they imitated what they call his indolence. They are
capital illustrations of activity, keeping up their monotonous jog-
trot for ever; while Napoleon, with his gigantic industry,
alternating with such apparent idleness, is an example of energy.
"We do not mean to imply that chronic indolence, if relieved
occasionally by spasmodic fits of industry, is to be recommended. Men
who have this character run into the opposite extreme of that which
we have been stigmatizing, and fail as invariably of securing success
in life. To call their occasional periods of application energy,
would be a sad misnomer. Such persons, indeed, are but civilized
savages, so to speak; vagabonds at heart in their secret hatred of
work, and only resorting to labor occasionally, like the wild Indian
who, after lying for weeks about his hut, is roused by sheer hunger
to start on a hunting excursion. Real energy is persevering, steady,
disciplined. It never either loses sight of the object to be
accomplished, or intermits its exertions while there is a possibility
of success. Napoleon on the plains of Champagne, sometimes fighting
two battles in one day, first defeating the Russians and then turning
on the Austrians, is an illustration of this energy. The Duke of
Brunswick, idling away precious time when he invaded France at the
outbreak of the first Revolution, is an example of the contrary.
Activity beats about a cover like an untrained dog, never lighting on
the covey. Energy goes straight to the bird at once and captures it."
A Review of "How to Get On in Life"
Table of Contents
Chapter XVII - Success But Seldom Accidental
OTHER WEBSITES ON SUCCESS:
Law of Attraction Articles
- The Key to Success