From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:
How Big Men Hit the Nail on the Head
They see the main issues of life and concentrate on them; by never “scattering their fire” they achieve remarkable results
by Isaac F. Marcosson
In my work as a journalist, I have met dozens of famous men. And here is one interesting fact I have got out of that experience: Almost invariably in the course of conversation, these men would say something, so sharp and to the point, that it was like throwing the spotlight on a certain idea.
These “spotlight ideas” proved to have a definite connection with the men’s careers. They were maxims which these men had “doped out” of their experience. Always, these apparently chance remarks would hit some nail squarely on the head and drive it home.
I am going to give here some of these “spotlight ideas” of the big men I have met. I have chosen the individuals at random — statesmen, generals, big business men. For the ideas that will serve us in one field will serve us in any other field.
One thing that has impressed me was that these men had a definite objective in view, almost from the very beginning. They did not wait for the thing called “Opportunity” to come knocking at the door. Rather, they took life by the throat and choked out of it the golden chance. And a surprising number of them did not go along blindly. They knew what they wanted! And that was the thing they went after.
When Lloyd George, for example, sat at the knee of his cobbler foster-father, far up in the fastnesses of Wales, he dreamed of the day when he would be Prime Minister of England — and he realized this dream.
While he was weighing out sugar and coffee to rural patrons in a general store down in Pennsylvania, John D. Rockefeller aspired to be the richest man in the world — and he got there.
Cecil Rhodes, who was the greatest Englishman of his time and a master empire-builder, sailed for Africa when he was barely eighteen, in search of health. On the way out he determined to advance the prestige of his country. When he died at forty-nine, he had written his name on a continent and added eight hundred thousand square miles to the domain under the British flag.
As a youth, Lord Rosebery decided that he would become Premier of England — and also that he would win the Derby, and marry the richest woman in the kingdom! He achieved all three purposes. So it goes.
“Most men who get on,” a great Wall Street banker once said to me, “do so because they are always prepared for the worst, and are agreeably surprised when the best happens. They assume that the worst will develop, and are ready for it.”
Now there is a widely-held theory that every successful person is bound to be an optimist. As a matter of fact, it is the superficial optimist who is largely responsible for this theory — and he seldom gets beyond the salary stage. Your real doer of things is strongly inclined to constructive pessimism. He is a man who foresees the trouble that may come, and who gets busy to prevent it.
What has been called “dangerous optimism” has worked a lot of harm. During the war, when the Allies had enjoyed a temporary success (which turned out to be merely the prelude to a larger disaster)
I asked Sir Eric Geddes, then First Lord of the British Admiralty, to give me a message to the American people. This is what he wrote down for me:
Give up hoping that this can be a short war. Plan and provide for an ever-receding duration of at least two years more. If we all do this, peace may one day surprise us. If we do not, there will be no peace and no freedom, but only a postponement. There must be no postponement and no next time.
Geddes gave me this message, which incarnated one of the rules that made him an outstanding figure in England, late in October, 1917. Exactly a year later the Germans were clamoring for peace. But in the meantime, Britain, with the aid of America, had formulated a monster program to carry on the war, even though it had lasted four years. In this very preparedness lay the key to victory, as the enemy afterward admitted.
Geddes, let me add, is a great visualizer. He sees where the head of the nail is — not where it ought to be, or where he wishes it were — and he brings the hammer squarely down upon it. This explains his sensational rise from a railroad section-hand to head of one of the greatest railway systems in England. When I asked him to tell me what single maxim had been of most service to him in his career, he replied:
“The use of statistics. I statistize everything. Knowledge is power; and statistics are the throttle valve of every business. But don’t let statistics master you. Use them.”
I was talking to a well-known man, a very keen observer, about an author who had enjoyed a brief and inflated period of prosperity, but who saw his bubble punctured. He kept on writing, but editors refused to buy his product. Like most of his kind, he blamed everybody but the one who was really at fault, and that one was himself. The reason for his decline was not hard to find. After years of living on a moderate income, he made a contract that would bring him more money a year than he ever had earned before. At once, he plunged into luxury! He not only bought a country house and a motor car, but deluded himself with the idea that he could keep on at the new rate. With this prosperity came a let-down in his work. When his contract expired he found it difficult to get a market and he became a chronic grouch.
The revelation of this experience led my old friend to make this observation: “No man should ever undertake a proposition that he cannot see through, nor assume a scale of living that he is not certain will be permanent.”
Many men deteriorate because they believe that early success is an excuse for a let-down in their effort. One of the most successful of American writers gave me the principle under which he works and it applies to every occupation. He said: “Every time I write an article I do it as if it were the first piece of work I had undertaken. I go at it on the theory that my whole future depends upon it. Therefore, I put the best I have into it.”
If every person will practice this, he will never know failure.
Geniuses make mistakes — just as the rest of us do — but they always plan to profit by them. The first time I interviewed James J. Hill, he said: “The man who has not made mistakes is either a fool or a coward. I have made many mistakes, and shall probably make more; but I shall always learn something from them.”
The more you analyze achievement, the more you realize that preparedness and performance are almost synonymous terms. The combination reaches everywhere.
Take, for example, the matter of public speaking. In a country like ours, where talking is one of the favorite indoor sports, every man should be able to say something on his feet. Yet many distinguished men make sorry spectacles of themselves when they are suddenly called upon to say something. The men who have shone as orators have either had some definite rule to follow, or have invariably prepared themselves.
In my early reportorial days I knew an eminent Southerner who had achieved a national reputation for the fluency and brilliancy of his after-dinner speeches. No matter when or where he was called upon, he met the occasion with charming ease. People remarked of him, “How clever and resourceful he is!” I asked him how he managed to do it, and his reply was:
“I never go to a dinner or a gathering of any kind without having something in my mind that will fit the occasion in case I am called upon to make a speech. The lightning may strike me only once out of fifty times; but when it does strike I am ready!”
The lightning may strike on other occasions, too. It certainly will if you go to a man to sell him something, to ask for a position, or to ask anything. Brilliant journalists have found themselves totally unable to respond when some steely-eyed and hard-visaged plutocrat or statesman suddenly turned on them and said icily, “Well, young man, what can I do for you?”
Before going to interview any man of consequence, I have made it a rule to prepare myself to try to meet any tack the conversation may take. If I have a difficult question to ask, I assume that it will encounter opposition. Therefore I put myself in the man’s place and try to see the problem from his point of view.
Most big men realize the part that food, rather, too much food — plays in the making and unmaking of careers. I heard a hard-headed old captain of capital say: “Food and vanity have wrecked more men than any other agency except women.”
Not only do many people eat excessively, but they exaggerate the importance of “mealtime.” More than one employer has taken the real measure of a candidate for promotion when he engaged him in conversation just about the hour the lunch gong rang. If he found the man’s mind elsewhere, he wisely concluded that he was incapable of concentration, just because he happened to be hungry.
Harriman always said: “I think and work first, and eat later.” This is why he ate so seldom. He argued that with a full stomach the powers of thought were dulled.
One the other hand, what might be called the “New York idea” is to feed a man whenever you want to get something out of him. This sounds like an Irish bull, but I am safe in saying that more big business is transacted at the luncheon table in the metropolis than at almost any other place. It is in line with the theory that when a man has eaten well he is inclined to be amiable and conciliatory. It may be all right for you to feed the other fellow. But if you are seeking concession, as it has been well put, “spare your stomach, and you will have all the advantage.”
President McKinley employed the food route as the easiest means of placating men. Whenever he wanted to turn down a request, he asked the “victim” to lunch or to dinner. It became a current saying in Washington during his regime that “If you have lunch with the President you will get nothing.”
I cite this incident to prove an axiom in relations with the great. The small man is deluded into self-importance by an invitation to sit at the plutocratic board. Yet in many cases he is merely being placed in a position where he can be used or can be turned down gracefully. This, I might add, was one of the prize practices of the late Marshall Field. When he wanted to dispense with the services of an associate he almost invariably invited him to dinner; and then, at the end of the meal, broke the news of his plans to his guest.
Men who write or talk successfully make a habit of visualizing what they want to get over. If you can see a problem or a proposition as a picture, you not only understand it but remember it. One of the first disciples of this idea was John H. Patterson. Throughout his immense plant at Dayton, Ohio, you observe the words, “We teach with the eye.” He assumes that in order to comprehend, you must get a physical demonstration. Full mate to the slogan that I have just named is the injunction, “Think,” which this veteran industrial magnate has plastered liberally on the walls of the offices and factories. It has had the effect of making his employees ponder before they act, and it has prevented many costly blunders.
Another Patterson maxim that is well worth passing on is: “We progress through change.” It had been one of the keynotes of his success. Like many other men of conspicuous performance, he never hesitates to “scrap” the existing system and introduce a new one that is more efficient and productive.
Whether a man writes or sells things, he can do his job better if he deals in human terms. From “Bob” Ingersoll to Lloyd George, every effective public speaker has used stories of men to make his point. They follow the advice once laid down by Channing, who declared that “one anecdote of a man is worth a volume of biography.” This is especially true of salesmanship; an anecdote will lighten the way where a drab recital of merit might fail. It all gets down to the fundamental fact that people are interested in other people and the way they do things. One touch of the human makes the whole world sit up and take notice.
Another vital detail in selling is the value of repetition. From Napoleon to Northcliffe, nearly every man who has left his impress upon affairs has believed in pounding away incessantly in order to drive home a truth. Napoleon adhered to the principle in war. Northcliffe reiterates until he has succeeded in his purpose; but he uses battalions of printed words. He did it when he believed that England should have a minister of munitions, a small war cabinet, and conscription.
“Why does Northcliffe keep hammering away at the same thing?” people said.
They did not realize that the only way to get results is to stick to your guns until you succeed. Northcliffe has repeatedly told me that he considered the word, “repetition” the most valuable in the English language.
“How have you made your work produce such astounding results?” I once asked a big industrial leader.
“By constantly keeping at it!” he replied. The business of “keeping at it” has brought more men to success than almost any other fetish. It applies to war as well as peace. Take the case of Field Marshal Haig, who commanded the British armies in France during the war. I had the privilege of stopping with him at a time when he was proving one of the theories upon which he lived and fought. Haig was not a brilliant strategist; but to a degree greater than any of his colleagues he had the genius of hanging on to what he had undertaken. He eventually achieved more progress by what he called “attrition” than by a spectacular offensive. By “attrition” he kept nibbling away at the enemy until he wore him down. It was slow but sure. The Germans, on the other hand, made mass attacks, halted, and were driven back.
In discussing this with Haig one day he said: “You gain more by pursuing your goal persistently if slowly than by hurling yourself heedlessly.”
Another lesson of the war that may be profitably used in times of peace occurs to me: More than one soldier won the Victoria Cross and was hailed a hero, not because he was inherently courageous but because of what might be called the fear of fear. So with life in general. The fear of failure stimulates ambition and galvanizes the forlorn hope. As one of the foremost industrialists of this country put it to me:
“People may talk all they please about pride being one of the principal incentives to success; but, in the last analysis, you find that it is the fear of not making good that spurs most men on.”
Fear works in many ways its blunders to achieve. Many men never get anywhere, because they are afraid to ask questions. They think it irritates or annoys a big personage. But the reverse is true. The first time I interviewed Henry H. Rogers I had to ask him many questions — so many in fact that I expressed regret over it. Quick as a flash he came back: “If you did not ask questions it would mean that you were not interested.”
I never forgot that particular “spotlight idea.” It has been very useful to me in my own work. There is more misinformation in the world than almost anything else. Much of it grows out of this very failure to seek facts properly. Men glibly assume that they know details, when they are either too vain or too indolent to probe deeply.
Here is a story to the point: A reporter on a New York newspaper once went to interview a well-known Wall Street banker about foreign exchange, which is one of the most complicated subjects in finance. After fifteen minutes of conversation the reporter grabbed his hat and started to leave, saying, “Thanks very much. I understand it perfectly.”
Before he got to the door the banker called him back and said: “Young man, you are a wonder. I have been in the banking business for forty years, but I do not know ‘all about’ foreign exchange even yet!”
Another banker has built up a wide reputation for getting at the root of trouble. When someone asked him for the formula he answered: “It is very simple. When people come to me to explain why they have done or undone things, I wait until they have finished. Then I ask: ‘What is the real reason?’ Almost without exception, I get the explanation, and it is invariably different from what they said at first.”
With perfect understanding must be linked that other cardinal virtue — serenity of temper. Again I go back to Cecil Rhodes. One of the maxims which he followed implicitly was: “Never fight with a man if you can deal with him.”
He adhered to it even with the Matabele tribesmen. After they rebelled against the Rhodesian authorities and slaughtered hundreds of whites, Rhodes went unarmed to their camp in the hills. His only white companions were a cook and an interpreter. He persuaded the savages to enter into a parley, which went on for nearly a month. In the end he brought about peace. The price of anger is always failure.
Rhodes’s attitude toward money was typical. To him it existed merely as a means to an end. When General Gordon told him that he had refused a roomful of silver for his services in exterminating the Chinese bandits, the great empire-builder looked at him in amazement and said: “Why didn’t you take it? What earthly use is there in having ideas if you haven’t the money with which to carry them out?”
Successful men fight shy of unnecessary financial obligations; but as a rule they realize that a wisely assumed debt may speed success. One great American, who made his first million before he was forty, told me of the rule that he had followed from the day he earned his first money.
“I have always been in debt,” he said; “but it was the kind of debt that made me money! I began by buying stock in the company for which I worked. I went in debt for it, and paid the debt by instalments. I then acquired real estate on mortgage, and proceeded to clear off the obligation in the same way. Thus, while I was always owing money on the one hand, I was building up assets for myself on the other. It is one form of compulsory thrift.”
What this man did in a comparatively smaller way has been done by the great captains of capital on a larger scale. I was discussing the matter of debt with E. H. Harriman not long before his death, and he made a remark that startled me.
“I often have more respect,” he said, “for a man who owes a million dollars than for a man who has a million dollars. The fact that he owes a million shows first that he has big ideas and that lenders believe in him. Furthermore, by getting in debt for a million he shows that he believes he can do something big to pay it back.”
Many men of enormous wealth and power believe in supervising all the details of their business themselves. One striking illustration of this practice is furnished by Hugo Stinnes, the overlord of German industry and shipping. He is the most persistent merger of corporations anywhere. No individual incarnates such far-flung financial power. When I say that he sits on eighty-five boards of directors, is interested in more than four hundred corporations, and that nearly a million men are employed in the enterprises controlled by him, you get some idea of his might.
He has huge interests in Germany, Austria, Holland, Switzerland, Brazil, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Yet he manages to keep in close touch with every one of his undertakings. He spends five out of every seven nights on the train. One day finds him in Hamburg, the next in Munich, the third in Vienna. His life is the nearest approach to an example of perpetual motion that I have encountered.
I asked him in Berlin why he persisted in doing everything himself, and his answer was: “If you have large enterprises, you must watch them yourself. When things go wrong I blame no one but myself.”
What was said in the beginning (and you remember that Northcliffe says there is nothing like repetition) may be emphasized again at the end. Men seldom leap into success. Achievement is almost invariably the result of preparation and of adherence to a strict rule of practice. Frank A. Munsey, who rose from country telegraph clerk to be a publishing magnate, once said: “You can’t get out of a man what God Almighty did not put into him.”
This may be true, but even a person who is not God-endowed with exceptional ability can learn by observation, and can profit by the maxims that have helped to make other men rich and famous.
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Original page images (final two are composites of partial pages), click to enlarge: