The bitterest thing in life is failure, and the pity is that it is almost always the result of some avoidable error or misconception. With the rare exception of a man who is by nature a criminal or a waster, there need be no such thing as failure. Every man has a career before him, or, at worst, every man can find a niche in the social order into which he can fit himself with success.
The trouble in so many cases is that it takes time and opportunity for a man to discover in what direction his natural bent lies. He springs from a certain stock or class, and the circumstances which surround him in youth naturally dictate to him the choice of a career. In many cases it will be a method of living to which he is totally unsuited. But once he is embarked on it the clogs are about his feet, and it is hard to break away and begin all over again. And this ill-fitting of men to jobs may not even embrace so wide a divergence as that between one kind of activity and business and another. A young man may be in the right business for him, and yet in the wrong department of it. In any case, the result is the same.
The employer votes him no use, or at least just passable, or second rate. Much worse, the employee knows himself that he has failed to make good, and that at the best nothing but a career of mediocrity stretches out before him. He admits a failure, and by that very act of admission he has failed. The waters of despair close above his head, and the consequence may be ruin.
Such mistakes spring from a wrong conception of the nature of the human mind.
We are too apt to believe in a kind of abstraction called "general ability," which is expected to exhibit itself under any and every condition. According to this doctrine, if a man is clever at one thing or successful under one set of circumstances, he must be equally clever at everything and equally successful under all conditions. Such a view is manifestly untrue.
The mind of man is shut off into separate compartments, often capable of acting quite independently of each other. No one would dream of measuring the capacity of the individual for domestic affection by that of his power for oratory, or his spirituality by his business instinct. And what is true of the larger distinctions of the soul is also true of that particular part of the mind which is devoted to practical success. Specialised aptitude for one particular branch of activity is the exception rather than the rule. The contrary opinion may, indeed, easily lead to grave error in the judgment of men, and therefore in the management of affairs. There is no art in which either the barrister, the politician, or, for that matter, the journalist excels so much as in the rapid grasp of a logical position, the power of assimilating great masses of material against it or for it, and of putting out the results of this research again in a lucid and convincing form. Anyone listening to such an exposition would be tempted to believe that here was a man of such high general ability that he would be perfectly capable of handling in practice, and with superb ability, the affairs he has been explaining. And yet such a judgment would be wrong. The expositor would be a failure as an active agent. It would not be difficult to find the exact converse to the case. The greatest of all the editors of big London newspapers will fail entirely to appreciate a careful and logical statement of a situation when it is subjected to him. But place before him the raw material and the implements of his own profession, and his infallible instinct for news will enable him to produce a newspaper far transcending that which his more logical critic could have achieved.
Leaving aside a few strange exceptions, a musician is not a soldier, a barrister not a stockbroker, a poet not a man of business, or a politician a great organiser.
Anyone who had strayed in youth to the wrong profession and failed might yet prove himself an immense success in another, and these broad distinctions at the top ramify downwards until the general truth is equally applicable to all the subdivisions of business and even to all the administrative sections of particular firms.
To take a single practical instance, there is the department of salesmanship and the department of finance. Salesmanship requires, above all, the spirit of optimism. That same spirit carried into the sphere of finance might ruin a firm.
The success in one branch might therefore well be the failure in the other, and vice versa. No young man, therefore, has failed until he has succeeded.
If I had to choose one single and celebrated instance of this doctrine I should find it in the career of Lord Reading, Viceroy of India.
It may be objected that, as he is of the Jewish race and religion, his is not a fair test case by which to try the abilities and aptitudes of the young men of Great Britain. I do not accept the distinction. The powers and mental aptitudes of the Jews are exactly the same as ours, except that they come to full flower earlier.
The precocity of this maturity is interpreted as a special genius for affairs— which it is not.
Lord Reading started his career on the Stock Exchange, where he failed utterly.
No doubt experience would have brought him a reasonable measure of success; but it was equally clear that this was not the sphere for his preeminent abilities.
He therefore broke boldly away and entered at the Bar, where his intellect secured him a reputation and an income, especially in commercial cases, which left his competitors divided between admiration and annoyance. In a single year he made £40,000. The peg had found the round hole. His eminence procured him the Attorney-Generalship. Yet with all his ability and his personal popularity he was not a real success in the House of Commons. Parliamentary warfare was not his aptitude. So he became Lord Chief Justice. His great personal character and reputation gave Lord Reading in his new position a certain reputation as a great Lord Chief. From my own limited experience I do not agree. I had to watch closely a certain case he was trying, and I did not think Lord Reading was a great judge. He failed to carry the jury with him; the final Court of Appeal ordered a new trial, which resulted in the reversal of the judgment. Such a thing might happen to any judge, but a strong one would have put a prompt end to proceedings which were obviously vexatious and entailed great cost by the delay on defendants, who had obviously been dragged improperly into the action. But his real opportunity came with his mission to the United States during the war.
No ambassador had ever achieved such popularity and influence or brought back such rich sheaves with him. As a diplomatist, a man of law, and a man of business, he shone supreme. Once more, since his days at the commercial bar, he had found the real field for his talents.
From the Law Courts he has journeyed to a position of great responsibility in India. Some voices are already acclaiming the success of the new Viceroy. It will be wiser to wait until it is clear whether his versatile genius will find successful play in its new environment.
But the moral of Lord Reading's career is plain. Do not despair over initial failure. Seek a new opening more suited to your talents. Fight on in the certain hope that a career waits for every man.
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