It is not by leaps or bounds, but by steady, persistent growth that strong characters are made.
The trouble with most of us is that we are too ambitious to do great things at once. It is the persistent crying to make ourselves a little larger, a little broader, the continual effort to push the horizon of ignorance a little further away by good reading or study, that counts.
We cannot help believing in the youth who is always trying to improve themselves, who takes advantage of every opportunity to make themselves a little better informed, who always has some good reading on hand for his or her leisure moments, and who is always asking questions, observing, and trying to get an education.
Such eagerness to improve oneself is an indication of a mark of superiority, the genius that wins. Ambitionless, lazy, indifferent youth prefer a good time to acquiring knowledge. They are not willing to give up their pleasure, ease and comfort for the sake of improving themselves. Our opportunities for self-improvement, for mind training and heart training in everyday life are not well appreciated. No matter what our occupation may be, we can always be in the best kind of a school. It is a question of holding the mind alert. Those who form the habit of gaining the best from books, the best from conversation, the best from every experience in life, know the secret of perpetual growth.
There is nothing else that will give you greater satisfaction in after years than the forming of such systematic habits of self-culture early in life as to make your self-improvement processes automatic. In this way it becomes just as natural for you to seize every bit of leisure for the reading of something helpful or useful, or for storing up valuable knowledge from your observation, as it is for you to breathe.
I am acquainted with a young man who travels a great deal by rail and water, who always carries with him wherever he goes some good reading matter in as condensed a form as possible — miniature classics or the lesson papers of a correspondence school. He is always doing something to improve himself in the odds and ends of time which most people throw away.
The result is, he is well informed upon a great variety of subjects, he is very widely read in history, in English literature, in the sciences, and in other important branches of knowledge. What this man has accomplished in the odds and ends of time is a constant rebuke to those who waste all their time in doing nothing, or in doing that which is infinitely worse than nothing.
You perhaps do not half realize the inestimable value of time spent in good reading or some other form of self-improvement. You perhaps do not half realize, if you only had opportunities like some others, you could have done much better than you are now doing.
But did you ever think that scores of people have given themselves the equivalent of a college education in their spare moments, and long winter evenings?
A person might as well say that there is no use in trying to save anything from their small salary or
income, because the amount would never make them rich, so they might as well spend it as they go along, as to say they never can get a liberal education by studying during their spare time.
The more one saves, the nearer one comes to being rich. The more you know, the better educated you are. Every bit of knowledge you store up enriches your life by so much. All these little self-investments make you so much better off, — make you so much larger, fuller, so much better able to cope with life.
You can never make a better investment than by forming the good reading habit. It will multiply your efficiency, give you so much more power to break away from your iron environment, to throw off the yoke of dependence which galls you. It will make you more independent and self-reliant. The increased knowledge will increase your confidence in yourself. And, in addition to all this, if your knowledge is practical and you use it wisely, it will make you think more of yourself, make you more of a person.
There never was a time in the history of the world when education was worth so much as today, when added knowledge adds so much power.
Competition has become so terrific, and life so strenuous that you need to be armed with every particle of mental culture possible. The greatest work you can do in the world is that of raising your own value. There is no gift which you can ever make to the world like that of a superb manhood, or a beautiful womanhood. You can do nothing higher than this.
What a golden opportunity confronts you for coining your bits of leisure into knowledge that will mean growth of character, promotion, advancement, power, riches that no accident can take from you, no disaster annihilate. Will you throw away the opportunity, as so many others are thoughtlessly doing?
Within the last ten years our great railroads have spent many millions of dollars straightening curves on their lines, to save a few minutes' time. The late Mr. Harriman spent vast sums for this purpose. In early railroad days the great object was to avoid expense. The railroads often took a serpentine direction, winding around mountains, hills, and long distances to avoid heavy cuts, fillings, or bridges. Time was not so valuable then as now, but, as life became more strenuous, competition keener, and men's time of more worth, the roads were shortened and better bends, heavier cars, and heavier rails came.
Modern businessmen consider it great economy to take short routes and fast trains because of the rapidly increasing value of time. Speed, safety, and economy are the great mottoes of today.
Everything possible is now done to save time, ensure speed, safety, and economy of energy. Any railroad today which could cut the traveling time between New York and Chicago half an hour would very quickly put the present railroad company out of business, unless it also could increase speed. This is an age of bee-line short cuts and quick methods in everything.
Businessmen will pay more for any device or facility which will save time than for almost anything else. No expense or ingenuity is spared, especially by the great railroads which run competing lines, to accomplish shortened routes, to quicken service.
In the pioneer stage days of our history, before competition had become so fierce, a liberal education and special training were not so necessary as they are today. Now the youth must be a specialist, must spend years in training for his specialty. He must lay a larger and firmer foundation for preparation than formerly if he expects to get anywhere near the top of his vocation, he must remove all possible obstructions, must have a better training, better equipment, and more scientific outfit in every way, or he cannot hope to succeed.
As the railroad today which will persist in winding about hills and meandering long distances to avoid a river crossing or tunneling hills or mountains has no chance in competition with up-to-date roads, so the young man who expects to get on cannot afford any handicap which will retard his progress or reduce his chances of success.
The trouble with most youths is that they do not pay enough attention to straightening their tracks and reducing grades. They try to speed on crooked, ill-made roads and dangerous grades, with light rails, poor equipment, and the result is thousands of wrecks.
Every man should lay out a clean, straight, level track to his goal. All obstructions should be removed, all dangers and risks reduced to a minimum, making his road straight, firm, solid and safe.
When great railroads make test trails in competing for the transcontinental mails, they not only see that the tracks, the cars, and the engines are in perfect condition; they even pick out the finest pieces of coal, those containing the greatest possible amount of energy, and which leave the smallest amount of clinkers or ashes. The utmost care is exercised in lubricating bearings. Tracks are kept clear, and everything possible is done to secure speed and safety.
Yet everywhere we see people making their great life race in poor, broken down cars, on crooked tracks, light loose rails, over heavy grades. They are always losing time by reason of hot boxes and accidents of all kinds, yet they wonder why they cannot complete with those who are better equipped. They took little or no precaution to insure success when they started out on their trip; little regard was paid to the condition of their roads or cars, to the fuel as to its energy and bulk, or to any of the essential things on which success depends. Yet they wonder why they do no twin in the race.
Education is power. No matter how small your salary may be, every bit of valuable information you pick up, every bit of good reading or thinking you do, in fact everything you do to make yourself a larger and completer person, will also help you to advance. I have known boys who were working very hard for very little money to do more for their advancement in their spare time, their half-holidays, by improving their minds, than by the actual work they did. Their salaries were insignificant in comparison with their growth of mind.
I know a young man who jumped in one bound from a salary of five thousand to ten thousand dollars, largely because of his insatiable effort at self-improvement. His great passion seemed to be to make the largest and completest man possible. This young man is a good example of the possibility of reputation to help one on in the world. Everybody who knew him, knew that he was determined to make something of himself. It did not make any difference if his fellow employees wanted to throw their time away, he didn't.
They soon found that it was of no use to try to cast him away from his reading or studying, for he had set his mind toward the future. He had no idea of being a little, small, picayune man. He had a passion for enlargement, for growth. Those who worked with him were very much surprised at his rapid advancement; but there was a good reason for every bit of it. While they were spending their evenings and money trying to have a good time, he was trying to educate himself by a rigid course of self-improvement.
Everywhere we see young men and young women tied to very ordinary positions all their lives simply because, though they had good brains, they were never cultivated, never developed. They have never tried to improve themselves by reading good literature.
Their salaries on a Saturday night, and a good time, are about all they see; and the result is the narrow the contracted, the pinched career. Men and women who have utilized only a very small percentage of their ability, not made it available by discipline and education, — always work at a great disadvantage. A man capable, by nature, of being an employer is often compelled to be a very ordinary employee because his mind is totally untrained.
One of the greatest questions that confronts this age is that of adult education. The commercial prizes and the opportunities are so great in this country that the youth early catch the moneymaking contagion, and they are impatient to get jobs and to get a start in life.
Many of them cannot see the use of so many years of drudgery in school and college. And their judgment is not sufficiently developed. They have neither had the experience, nor have they the judgment to realize the infinite value of a well-stored mind.
They are not old enough to realize the tremendous handicap of ignorance in their later careers when they come to wrestle with men and women who have had a superb mental training.
The result is that unless the youths are fortunate enough to have parents who appreciate the situation, and who can hold them to their task until they are fitted to enter the battle of the strong, or, unless they have advisors who can control them, they quit school and start out in life half prepared, only to see their terrible mistake when they get right into the fight with commercial giants who are superbly trained.
Later they see their mistake, and continue to regret it, without making any special effort to compensate for their loss.
Unfortunately most adults have the impression that if they have once passed the youthful, impressionable period, they can never make up for it, can never get an education, can never compensate for their loss.
Now, there certainly has be devised a perfectly practical educational system by which adults can, even while carrying on their vocations, get a very fair equivalent for a good education, even a college course.
The misconception rests largely upon the fact that it is not so easy to commit to memory later in life, hence not so easy to learn the rudimentary rules of grammar, of mathematics, and other elementary branches.
On the other hand, most of the other faculties are just as susceptible, and some of them very much stronger, in a much better condition to take advantage of an education.
The young person does not realize what an education will really mean to them. Their judgment is not mature, they have not had the experience, while the adult realizes his or her loss and is more eager to make up for it. An adult can work harder, is generally willing to make sacrifices if they are only sure that they can still compensate for their loss.
An adult will know better what will be of great value and what of little value to them. They will be very much more practical in gaining their knowledge. They will be more eager to learn, especially after they get far enough to see the great advantage of what they are getting.
There never was a time in the world's history when leaders in adult education were so much needed as today. There are millions of people waiting for it, eager for it, hungry for it; but they do not know how to begin.
The inventor of a fair substitute for a literary education for the adult,—an education that will be practical and comparatively easy to obtain, especially one that can be obtained in spare time, in odd minutes, in long winter evenings, without being too hard or too exacting or too disagreeable, will render a greater service to the world than has almost any inventor.
Most adults, even when they realize their great loss of an early education, and are eager to compensate for it, do not know how to go to work to do it.
They do not realize how much of this can be done by systematic reading, even a little at a time.
Most of these people are incapable of self-direction or systematic study. They need leaders who will direct them and encourage them, and hold them to their task until they have acquired the absorption habit, the reading habit, the study habit, the thinking habit.
I am constantly coming in contact with people who tell me that it is the regret of their lives that they left school so early, or that they did not go to college, but who say that the time has gone by now, that it is too late to make up for their loss and they must do the best they can.
Getting an education is like getting a fortune. Most people do not think that little savings amount to much. They spend all their loose change because saving it would not amount to much towards making up a fortune. And so they keep spending and do not get the fortune.
Multitudes of adults who feel the need of making up for their early educational losses, do not think that a few minutes of reading during their spare time, or a little study during the evenings or half-holidays, would go very far towards acquiring an education. And yet thousands of people have gotten a splendid substitute for a college course just in this way.
I know some very able men who have obtained most of their education by reading alone. They went to school but very little, but, by the persistent reading habit, they have become well-educated in history, in politics and literature, in philosophy, and well-posted in all sorts of things. And they have achieved all of this during their evenings and odd moments, which most people either throw away or spend in hunting for pleasure.
The pursuit of education by a soul hungry for knowledge, yearning for mental enlargement, is the highest kind of pleasure, because it gives infinite satisfaction and infinite advantage.
One of the grandest sights in the world is that of an adult seizing every opportunity to make up for the loss of early educational advantages, pouring their very soul into their spare moments and evenings, trying to make themselves a larger, fuller, completer person.