A great number of letters have reached me from young men who seem to think that the road to success is barred to them owing to defects in their education. To them I would send this message: Never believe that success cannot come your way because you have not been educated in the orthodox and regular fashion.
The nineteenth century made a god of education, and its eminent men placed learning as the foremost influence in life.
I am bold enough to dissent, if by education is meant a course of study imposed from without. Indeed, such a course may be a hindrance rather than a help to a man entering on a business career. No young man on the verge of life ought to be in the least discouraged by the fact that he is not stamped with the hall mark of Oxford or Cambridge.
Possibly, indeed, he has escaped a grave danger; for if, in the impressionable period of youth, attention is given to one kind of knowledge, it may very likely be withdrawn from another. A life of sheltered study does not allow a boy to learn the hard facts of the world—and business is concerned with reality. The truth is that education is the fruit of temperament, not success the fruit of education. What a man draws into himself by his own natural volition is what counts, because it becomes a living part of himself. I will make one exception in my own case—the Shorter Catechism, which was acquired by compulsion and yet remains with me.
My own education was of a most rudimentary description. It will be difficult for the modern English mind to grasp the parish of Newcastle, New Brunswick, in the 'eighties—sparse patches of cultivation surrounded by the virgin forest and broken by the rush of an immense river. For half the year the land is in the iron grip of snow and frost, and the Miramichi is frozen right down to its estuary—so that "the rain is turned to a white dust, and the sea to a great green stone." It was the seasons which decided my compulsory education. In the winter I attended school because it was warm inside, and in the summer I spent my time in the woods because it was warm outside.
Perhaps the most remarkable instance of what self-education can do is to be found in the achievements of Mr. J. L. Garvin. He received no formal education at all in the public school or university sense, and he began to work for his living at an early age. Yet, not only is he, perhaps, the most eminent of living journalists, but his knowledge of books is, if not more profound than that of any other man in England, certainly wider in range, for it is not limited to any country or language. By his own unaided efforts he has gained not only knowledge, but style and judgment. To listen to his talk on literature is not merely to yield oneself to the spell of the magician, but to feel that the critic has got his estimate of values right.
Reading, indeed, is the real source both of education and of style. Read what you like, not what somebody else tells you that you ought to like. That reading alone is valuable which becomes part of the reader's own mind and nature, and this can never be the case if the matter is not the result of self-selection, but forced on the student from outside.
Read anything and read everything—just as a man with a sound digestion and a good appetite eats largely and indifferently of all that is set before him. The process of selection and rejection, or, in other words, of taste, will come best and naturally to any man who has the right kind of brains in his head. Some books he will throw away; others he will read over and over again. My education owes much to Scott and Stevenson, stealthily removed from my father's library and read in the hayloft when I should have been in school.
As a partiality for the right kind of literature grows on a man he is unconsciously forming his mind and his taste and his style, and by a natural impulse and no forced growth the whole world of letters is his.
There are, of course, in addition, certain special branches of education needing teaching which are of particular value to the business life.
Foremost among these are mathematics and foreign languages. It is not suggested that a knowledge of the higher mathematics is essential to a successful career; none the less it is true that the type of mind which takes readily to mathematics is the kind which succeeds in the realm of industry and finance.
One of the things I regret is that my business career was shaped on a continent which speaks one single language for commercial purposes from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico. Foreign languages are, therefore, a sealed book to me. But if a man can properly appraise the value of something he does not possess, I would place a knowledge of languages high in the list of acquirements making for success.
But when all is said and done, the real education is the market-place of the street.
There the study of character enables the boy of judgment to develop an unholy proficiency in estimating the value of the currency of the realm.
Experiences teaches that no man ought to be downcast in setting out on the adventure of life by a lack of formal knowledge. The Lord Chancellor asked me the other day where I was going to educate one of my sons. When I replied that I had not thought about the matter, and did not care, he was unable to repress his horror.
And yet the real reasons for such indifference are deep rooted in my mind. A boy is master, and the only master, of his fortune. If he wants to succeed in literature, he will read the classics until he obtains by what he draws into himself that kind of instinct which enables him to distinguish between good work and bad, just as the expert with his eyes shut knows the difference between a good and a bad cigar. Neither may be able to give any reason, for the verdict bases on subconscious knowledge, but each will be right when he says, "Here I have written well," or "Here I have smoked badly." The message, therefore, is one of encouragement to the young men of England who are determined to succeed in the affairs of the world, and yet have not been through the mill. The public schools turn out a type—the individual turns out himself. In the hour of action it is probable that the individual will defeat the type. Nothing is of advantage in style except reading for oneself. Nothing is of advantage in the art of learning to know a good cigar but the actual practice of smoking. Nothing is of advantage in business except going in young, liking the game, and buying one's experience.
In a word, man is the creator and not the sport of his fate. He can triumph over his upbringing and, what is more, over himself.
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