Read XVI.  Simple Stories of Success, or How to Succeed in Life of Frenzied Fiction, free online book, by Stephen Leacock, on

Let me begin with a sort of parable.  Many years ago when I was on the staff of a great public school, we engaged a new swimming master.

He was the most successful man in that capacity that we had had for years.

Then one day it was discovered that he couldn’t swim.

He was standing at the edge of the swimming tank explaining the breast stroke to the boys in the water.

He lost his balance and fell in.  He was drowned.

Or no, he wasn’t drowned, I remember, ­he was rescued by some of the pupils whom he had taught to swim.

After he was resuscitated by the boys ­it was one of the things he had taught them ­the school dismissed him.

Then some of the boys who were sorry for him taught him how to swim, and he got a new job as a swimming master in another place.

But this time he was an utter failure.  He swam well, but they said he couldn’t teach.

So his friends looked about to get him a new job.  This was just at the time when the bicycle craze came in.  They soon found the man a position as an instructor in bicycle riding.  As he had never been on a bicycle in his life, he made an admirable teacher.  He stood fast on the ground and said, “Now then, all you need is confidence.”

Then one day he got afraid that he might be found out.  So he went out to a quiet place and got on a bicycle, at the top of a slope, to learn to ride it.  The bicycle ran away with him.  But for the skill and daring of one of his pupils, who saw him and rode after him, he would have been killed.

This story, as the reader sees, is endless.  Suffice it to say that the man I speak of is now in an aviation school teaching people to fly.  They say he is one of the best aviators that ever walked.

According to all the legends and story books, the principal factor in success is perseverance.  Personally, I think there is nothing in it.  If anything, the truth lies the other way.

There is an old motto that runs, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  This is nonsense.  It ought to read, “If at first you don’t succeed, quit, quit, at once.”

If you can’t do a thing, more or less, the first time you try, you will never do it.  Try something else while there is yet time.

Let me illustrate this with a story.

I remember, long years ago, at a little school that I attended in the country, we had a schoolmaster, who used perpetually to write on the blackboard, in a copperplate hand, the motto that I have just quoted: 

   “If at first you don’t succeed,
    Try, try, again.”

He wore plain clothes and had a hard, determined face.  He was studying for some sort of preliminary medical examination, and was saving money for a medical course.  Every now and then he went away to the city and tried the examination:  and he always failed.  Each time he came back, he would write up on the blackboard: 

   “Try, try again.”

And always he looked grimmer and more determined than before.  The strange thing was that, with all his industry and determination, he would break out every now and then into drunkenness, and lie round the tavern at the crossroads, and the school would be shut for two days.  Then he came back, more fiercely resolute than ever.  Even children could see that the man’s life was a fight.  It was like the battle between Good and Evil in Milton’s epics.

Well, after he had tried it four times, the schoolmaster at last passed the examination; and he went away to the city in a suit of store clothes, with eight hundred dollars that he had saved up, to study medicine.  Now it happened that he had a brother who was not a bit like himself, but was a sort of ne’er-do-well, always hard-up and sponging on other people, and never working.

And when the schoolmaster came to the city and his brother knew that he had eight hundred dollars, he came to him and got him drinking and persuaded him to hand over the eight hundred dollars and to let him put it into the Louisiana State lottery.  In those days the Louisiana Lottery had not yet been forbidden the use of the mails, and you could buy a ticket for anything from one dollar up.  The Grand Prize was two hundred thousand dollars, and the Seconds were a hundred thousand each.

So the brother persuaded the schoolmaster to put the money in.  He said he had a system for buying only the tickets with prime numbers, that won’t divide by anything, and that it must win.  He said it was a mathematical certainty, and he figured it out with the schoolmaster in the back room of a saloon, with a box of dominoes on the table to show the plan of it.  He told the schoolmaster that he himself would only take ten per cent of what they made, as a commission for showing the system, and the schoolmaster could have the rest.

So, in a mad moment, the schoolmaster handed over his roll of money, and that was the last he ever saw of it.

The next morning when he was up he was fierce with rage and remorse for what he had done.  He could not go back to the school, and he had no money to go forward.  So he stayed where he was in the little hotel where he had got drunk, and went on drinking.  He looked so fierce and unkempt that in the hotel they were afraid of him, and the bar-tenders watched him out of the corners of their eyes wondering what he would do; because they knew that there was only one end possible, and they waited for it to come.  And presently it came.  One of the bar-tenders went up to the schoolmaster’s room to bring up a letter, and he found him lying on the bed with his face grey as ashes, and his eyes looking up at the ceiling.  He was stone dead.  Life had beaten him.

And the strange thing was that the letter that the bartender carried up that morning was from the management of the Louisiana Lottery.  It contained a draft on New York, signed by the treasurer of the State of Louisiana, for two hundred thousand dollars.  The schoolmaster had won the Grand Prize.

The above story, I am afraid, is a little gloomy.  I put it down merely for the moral it contained, and I became so absorbed in telling it that I almost forgot what the moral was that it was meant to convey.  But I think the idea is that if the schoolmaster had long before abandoned the study of medicine, for which he was not fitted, and gone in, let us say, for playing the banjo, he might have become end-man in a minstrel show.  Yes, that was it.

Let me pass on to other elements in success.

I suppose that anybody will admit that the peculiar quality that is called initiative ­the ability to act promptly on one’s own judgement ­is a factor of the highest importance.

I have seen this illustrated two or three times in a very striking fashion.

I knew, in Toronto ­it is long years ago ­a singularly bright young man whose name was Robinson.  He had had some training in the iron and steel business, and when I knew him was on the look out for an opening.

I met him one day in a great hurry, with a valise in his hand.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Over to England,” he said.  “There is a firm in Liverpool that have advertised that they want an agent here, and I’m going over to apply for the job.”

“Can’t you do it by letter?” I asked.

“That’s just it,” said Robinson, with a chuckle, “all the other men will apply by letter.  I’ll go right over myself and get there as soon or sooner than the letters.  I’ll be the man on the spot, and I’ll get the job.”

He was quite right.  He went over to Liverpool, and was back in a fortnight with English clothes and a big salary.

But I cannot recommend his story to my friends.  In fact, it should not be told too freely.  It is apt to be dangerous.

I remember once telling this story of Robinson to a young man called Tomlinson who was out of a job.  Tomlinson had a head two sizes too big, and a face like a bun.  He had lost three jobs in a bank and two in a broker’s office, but he knew his work, and on paper he looked a good man.

I told him about Robinson, to encourage him, and the story made a great impression.

“Say, that was a great scheme, eh?” he kept repeating.  He had no command of words, and always said the same thing over and over.

A few days later I met Tomlinson in the street with a valise in his hand.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I’m off to Mexico,” he answered.  “They’re advertising for a Canadian teller for a bank in Tuscapulco.  I’ve sent my credentials down, and I’m going to follow them right up in person.  In a thing like this, the personal element is everything.”

So Tomlinson went down to Mexico and he travelled by sea to Mexico City, and then with a mule train to Tuscapulco.  But the mails, with his credentials, went by land and got there two days ahead of him.

When Tomlinson got to Tuscapulco he went into the bank and he spoke to the junior manager and told him what he came for.  “I’m awfully sorry,” the junior manager said, “I’m afraid that this post has just been filled.”  Then he went into an inner room to talk with the manager.  “The tellership that you wanted a Canadian for,” he asked, “didn’t you say that you have a man already?”

“Yes,” said the manager, “a brilliant young fellow from Toronto; his name is Tomlinson, I have his credentials here ­a first-class man.  I’ve wired him to come right along, at our expense, and we’ll keep the job open for him ten days.”

“There’s a young man outside,” said the junior, “who wants to apply for the job.”

“Outside?” exclaimed the manager.  “How did he get here?”

“Came in on the mule train this morning:  says he can do the work and wants the job.”

“What’s he like?” asked the manager.

The junior shook his head.

“Pretty dusty looking customer,” he said.  “Shifty looking.”

“Same old story,” murmured the manager.  “It’s odd how these fellows drift down here, isn’t it?  Up to something crooked at home, I suppose.  Understands the working of a bank, eh?  I guess he understands it a little too well for my taste.  No, no,” he continued, tapping the papers that lay on the table, “now that we’ve got a first-class man like Tomlinson, let’s hang on to him.  We can easily wait ten days, and the cost of the journey is nothing to the bank as compared with getting a man of Tomlinson’s stamp.  And, by the way, you might telephone to the Chief of Police and get him to see to it that this loafer gets out of town straight off.”

So the Chief of Police shut up Tomlinson in the calaboose and then sent him down to Mexico City under a guard.  By the time the police were done with him he was dead broke, and it took him four months to get back to Toronto; when he got there, the place in Mexico had been filled long ago.

But I can imagine that some of my readers might suggest that I have hitherto been dealing only with success in a very limited way, and that more interest would lie in discussing how the really great fortunes are made.

Everybody feels an instinctive interest in knowing how our great captains of industry, our financiers and railroad magnates made their money.

Here the explanation is really a very simple one.  There is, in fact, only one way to amass a huge fortune in business or railway management.  One must begin at the bottom.  One must mount the ladder from the lowest rung.  But this lowest rung is everything.  Any man who can stand upon it with his foot well poised, his head erect, his arms braced and his eye directed upward, will inevitably mount to the top.

But after all ­I say this as a kind of afterthought in conclusion ­why bother with success at all?  I have observed that the successful people get very little real enjoyment out of life.  In fact the contrary is true.  If I had to choose ­with an eye to having a really pleasant life ­between success and ruin, I should prefer ruin every time.  I have several friends who are completely ruined ­some two or three times ­in a large way of course; and I find that if I want to get a really good dinner, where the champagne is just as it ought to be, and where hospitality is unhindered by mean thoughts of expense, I can get it best at the house of a ruined man.