Letters to Young Men

Titcomb’s Letters to Young People, Single and Married

Josiah Gilbert Holland


— o —


Getting the right start.

In idle wishes fools supinely stay,
Be there a will, then wisdom finds a way


I SUPPOSE that the first great lesson a young man should learn is that he knows nothing; and that the earlier and more thoroughly this lesson is learned, the better it will be for his peace of mind and his success in life. A young man, bred at home, and growing up in the light of parental admiration and fraternal pride, cannot readily understand how it is that every one else can be his equal in talent and acquisition. If, bred in the country, he seeks the life of the town, he will very early obtain an idea of his insignificance. After putting on airs and getting severely laughed at, going into a bright and facile society and finding himself awkward and tongue-tied, undertaking to speak in some public place and breaking down, and paying his addresses to some gentle charmer and receiving for his amiable condescension a mitten of inconvenient dimensions, he will be apt to sit down in a state “bordering on distraction,” to reason about it.

This is a critical period in his history. The result of his reasoning will decide his fate. If, at this time, he thoroughly comprehend, and in his soul admit and accept the fact, that he knows nothing and is nothing; if he bow to the conviction that his mind and his person are but ciphers among the significant and cleanly cut figures about him, and that whatever he is to be, and is to win, must be achieved by hard work, there is abundant hope of him. If, on the contrary, a huge self-conceit still hold possession of him, and he straighten stiffly up to the assertion of his old and valueless self; or if he sink discouraged upon the threshold of a life of fierce competitions and more manly emulations, he might as well be a dead man. The world has no use for such a man, and he has only to retire or be trodden upon.

When a young man has thoroughly comprehended the fact that he knows nothing, and that, intrinsically, he is of but little value, the next thing for him to learn is that the world cares nothing for him; — that he is the subject of no man’s overwhelming admiration and esteem; that he must take care of himself. A letter of introduction may possibly procure him an invitation to tea. If he wear a good hat, and tie his cravat with propriety, the sexton will show him to a pleasant seat in church, and expect him to contribute liberally where the plate goes round. If he be a stranger, he will find every man busy with his own affairs, and none to look after him. He will not be noticed until he becomes noticeable, and he will not become noticeable until he does something to prove that he has an absolute value in society. No letter of recommendation will give him this, or ought to give him this. No family connexion will give him this, except among those few who think more of blood than brains.

Society demands that a young man shall be somebody, not only, but that he shall prove his right to the title; and it has a right to demand this. Society will not take this matter upon trust — at least, not for a long time, for it has been cheated too frequently. Society is not very particular what a man does, so that it prove him to be a man: then it will bow to him, and make room for him. I know a young man who made a place for himself by writing an article for the North American Review: nobody read the article, so far as I know, but the fact that he wrote such an article, that it was very long, and that it was published, did the business for him. Everybody, however, cannot write articles for the North American Review — at least, I hope everybody will not, for it is a publication which makes me a quarterly visit; but everybody, who is somebody, can do something. There is a wide range of effort between holding a skein of silk for a lady and saving her from drowning — between collecting voters on election day and teaching a Sunday School class. A man must enter society of his own free will, as an active element or available component, before he can receive the recognition that every true man longs for. I take it that this is right. A man who is willing to enter society as a beneficiary is mean, and does not deserve recognition.

There is no surer sign of an unmanly and cowardly spirit than a vague desire for help; a wish to depend, to lean upon somebody, and enjoy the fruits of the industry of others. There are multitudes of young men, I suppose, who indulge in dreams of help from some quarter, coming in at a convenient moment, to enable them to secure the success in life which they covet. The vision haunts them of some benevolent old gentleman with a pocket full of money, a trunk full of mortgages and stocks, and a mind remarkably appreciative of merit and genius, who will, perhaps, give or lend them anywhere from ten to twenty thousand dollars, with which they will commence and go on swimmingly. Perhaps he will take a different turn, and educate them. Or, perhaps, with an eye to the sacred profession, they desire to become the beneficiaries of some benevolent society, or some gentle circle of female devotees.

To me, one of the most disgusting sights in the world is that of a young man with healthy blood, broad shoulders, presentable calves, and a hundred and fifty pounds, more or less, of good bone and muscle, standing with his hands in his pockets, longing for help. I admit that there are positions in which the most independent spirit may accept of assistance — may, in fact, as a choice of evils, desire it; but for a man who is able to help himself, to desire the help of others in the accomplishment of his plans of life, is positive proof that he has received a most unfortunate training, or that there is a leaven of meanness in his composition that should make him shudder. Do not misunderstand me: I would not inculcate that pride of personal independence which repels in its sensitiveness the well-meant good offices and benefactions of friends, or that resorts to desperate shifts rather than incur an obligation. What I condemn in a young man is the love of dependence; the Willingness to be under obligation for that which his own efforts may win.

I have often thought that the Education Society, and Kindred organizations, do much more harm than good by inviting into the Christian ministry a class of young men who are willing to be helped. A man who willingly receives assistance, especially if he has applied for it, invariably sells himself to his benefactor, unless that benefactor happen to be a man of sense who is giving absolutely necessary assistance to one whom he knows to be sensitive and honorable. Any young man who will part with freedom and the self-respect that grows out of self-reliance and self-support, is unmanly, neither deserving of assistance, nor capable of making good use of it. Assistance will invariably be received by a young man of spirit as a dire necessity — as the chief evil of his poverty.

When, therefore, a young man has ascertained and fully received the fact that he does not know anything, that the world does not care anything about him, that what he wins must be won by his own brain and brawn, and that while he holds in his own hands the means of gaining his own livelihood and the objects of his life, he cannot receive assistance without compromising his self-respect and selling his freedom, he is in a fair position for beginning life. When a young man becomes aware that only by his own efforts can he rise into companionship and competition with the sharp, strong, and well-drilled minds around him, he is ready for work, and not before. The next lesson is that of patience, thoroughness of preparation, and contentment with the regular channels of business effort and enterprise. This is, perhaps, one of the most difficult to learn, of all the lessons of life. It is natural for the mind to reach out eagerly for immediate results. As manhood dawns, and the young man catches in its first light the pinnacles of realized dreams, the golden domes of high possibilities, and the purpling hills of great delights, and then looks down upon the narrow, sinuous, long, and dusty path by which others have reached them, he is apt to be disgusted with the passage, and to seek for success through broader channels, by quicker means. Beginning at the very foot of the hill, and working slowly to the top, seems a very discouraging process ; and precisely at this point have thousands of young men made shipwreck of their lives.

Let this be understood, then, at starting; that the patient conquest of difficulties which rise in the regular and legitimate channels of business and enterprise, is not only essential in securing the successes which you seek, but it is essential to that preparation of your mind requisite for the enjoyment of your successes, and for retaining them when gained. It is the general rule of Providence, the world over, and in all time, that unearned success is a curse. It is the rule of Providence, that the process of earning success shall be the preparation for its conservation and enjoyment. So, day by day, and week by week; so, month after month, and year after year, work on, and in that process gain strength and symmetry, and nerve and knowledge, that when success, patiently and bravely worked for, shall come, it may find you prepared to receive it and keep it. The development which you will get in this brave and patient labor, will prove itself, in the end, the most valuable of your successes. It will help to make a man of you. It will give you power and self-reliance. It will give you not only self-respect, but the respect of your fellows and the public.

Never allow yourself to be seduced from this course. You will hear of young men who have made fortunes in some wild speculations. Pity them; for they will almost certainly lose their easily won success. Do not be in a hurry for anything. Are you in love with some dear girl, whom you would make your wife? Give Angelina Matilda to understand that she must wait ; and if Angelina Matilda is really the good girl you take her to be, she will be sensible enough to tell you to choose your time. You cannot build well without first laying a good foundation; and for you to enter upon a business which you have not patiently and thoroughly learned, and to marry before you have won a character, or even the reasonable prospect of a competence, is ultimately to bring your house down about the ears of Angelina Matilda, and such pretty children as she may give you. If at the age of thirty years, you find yourself established in a business which pays you with certainty a living income, you are to remember that God has blessed you beyond the majority of men.

In saying what I have said to you in this letter, I have had no wish to make of you pattern young men; but of this I will speak more fully hereafter. The fashion plates of the magazines bear no striking resemblance to the humanity which we meet in the streets. I only seek to give you the principles and the spirit which should animate you, without any attempt or desire to set before you the outlines of the life I would have you lead. In fact, if there are detestable things which I despise above all other things detestable, they are the patterns made for young men, and the young men made after them. I would have you carry all your individuality with you, all your blood well purified, all your passions well controlled and made tributary to the motive forces of your nature; all your manhood, enlarged, ennobled, and uncorrupted ; all your piety, rendering your whole being sensitively alive to your relations to God and man; all your honor, your affections, and your faculties — all these, and still hold yourselves strictly amenable to those laws which confine a true success to the strong and constant hand of patient achievement.

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