"THE ROAD TO BUSINESS SUCCESS: A TALK TO YOUNG MEN"
From an address to Students of the Curry Commercial College, Pittsburg,
June 23, 1885.
version is abridged. Click here for
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is well that young men should begin at the beginning and occupy the
most subordinate positions. Many of the leading business men of Pittsburg
had a serious responsibility thrust upon them at the very threshold
of their career. They were introduced to the broom, and spent the first
hours of their business lives sweeping out the office. I notice we have
janitors and janitresses now in offices, and our young men unfortunately
miss that salutary branch of a business education. But if by chance
the professional sweeper is absent any morning the boy who has the genius
of the future partner in him will not hesitate to try his hand at the
broom. . . . It does not hurt the newest comer to sweep out the office
if necessary. I was one of those sweepers myself . . .
Assuming that you
have all obtained employment and are fairly started, my advice to you
is "aim high." I would not give a fig for the young man who does not
already see himself the partner or the head of an important firm. Do
not rest content for a moment in your thoughts as head clerk, or foreman,
or general manager in any concern, no matter how extensive. Say each
to yourself. "My place is at the top." Be king in your dreams. Make
your vow that you will reach that position, with untarnished reputation,
and make no other vow to distract your attention, except the very commendable
one that when you are a member of the firm or before that, if you have
been promoted two or three times, you will form another partnership
with the loveliest of her sex . . .
Let me indicate two
or three conditions essential to success. Do not be afraid that I am
going to moralize, or inflict a homily upon you. I speak upon the subject
only from the view of a man of the world, desirous of aiding you to
become successful business men. You all know that there is no genuine,
praiseworthy success in life if you are not honest, truthful, fair-dealing.
I assume you are and will remain all these, and also that you are determined
to live pure, respectable lives, free from pernicious or equivocal associations
with one sex or the other. There is no creditable future for you else.
Otherwise your learning and your advantages not only go for naught,
but serve to accentuate your failure and your disgrace. I hope you will
not take it amiss if I warn you against three of the gravest dangers
which will beset you in your upward path.
The first and most
seductive, and the destroyer of most young men, is the drinking of liquor.
I am no temperance lecturer in disguise, but a man who knows and tells
you what observation has proved to him, and I say to you that you are
more likely to fail in your career from acquiring the habit of drinking
liquor than from any, or all, the other temptations likely to assail
you. . . . First, then, you must not drink liquor to excess. Better
if you do not touch it at all--much better; but if this be too hard
a rule for you then take your stand firmly here. Resolve never to touch
it except at meals. A glass at dinner will not hinder your advance in
life or lower your tone; but I implore you hold it inconsistent with
the dignity and self-respect of gentlemen, with what is due from yourselves
to yourselves, being the men you are, and especially the men you are
determined to become, to drink a glass of liquor at a bar. Be far too
much of the gentleman ever to enter a barroom. . . .
The next greatest
danger to a young business man in this community I believe to be that
of speculation. When I was a telegraph operator here we had no Exchanges
in the City, but the men or firms who speculated upon the Eastern Exchanges
were necessarily known to the operators. They could be counted on the
fingers of one hand. These men were not our citizens of first repute:
they were regarded with suspicion. I have lived to see all of these
speculators irreparably ruined men, bankrupt in money and bankrupt in
character. There is scarcely an instance of a man who has made a fortune
by speculation and kept it. Gamesters die poor, and there is certainly
not an instance of a speculator who has lived a life creditable to himself,
or advantageous to the community. The man who grasps the morning paper
to see first how his speculative ventures upon the Exchanges are likely
to result, unfits himself for the calm consideration and proper solution
of business problems, with which he has to deal later in the day, and
saps the sources of that persistent and concentrated energy upon which
depend the permanent success, and often the very safety, of his main
The speculator and
the business man tread diverging lines. The former depends upon the
sudden turn of fortune's wheel; he is a millionnaire to-day, a bankrupt
to-morrow. But the man of business knows that only by years of patient,
unremitting attention to affairs can he earn his reward, which is the
result, not of chance, but of well-devised means for the attainment
of ends. During all these years his is the cheering thought that, by
no possibility can he benefit himself without carrying prosperity to
others. The speculator on the other hand had better never have lived
so far as the good of others or the good of the community is concerned.
Hundreds of young men were tempted in this city not long since to gamble
in oil, and many were ruined; all were injured whether they lost or
won. . . . There is another point involved in speculation. Nothing is
more essential to young business men than untarnished credit, credit
begotten of confidence in their prudence, principles and stability of
character. Well, believe me, nothing kills credit sooner in any Bank
Board than the knowledge that either firms or men engage in speculation.
It matters not a whit whether gains or losses be the temporary result
of these operations. The moment a man is known to speculate, his credit
is impaired, and soon thereafter it is gone. How can a man be credited
whose resources may be swept away in one hour by a panic among gamesters?
. . .
The third and last
danger against which I shall warn you is one which has wrecked many
a fair craft which started well and gave promise of a prosperous voyage.
It is the perilous habit of indorsing--all the more dangerous, inasmuch
as it assails one generally in the garb of friendship. It appeals to
your generous instincts, and you say, "How can I refuse to lend my name
only, to assist a friend?" It is because there is so much that is true
and commendable in that view that the practice is so dangerous. Let
me endeavor to put you upon safe honourable grounds in regard to it.
I would say to you to make it a rule now, never indorse: but
this is too much like never taste wine, or never smoke, or any other
of the "nevers." They generally result in exceptions. You will as business
men now and then probably become security for friends. Now, here is
the line at which regard for the success of friends should cease and
regard for your own honour begins.
If you owe anything,
all your capital and all your effects are a solemn trust in your hands
to be held inviolate for the security of those who have trusted you.
Nothing can be done by you with honour which jeopardizes these first
claims upon you. When a man in debt indorses for another, it is not
his own credit or his own capital he risks, it is that of his own creditors.
He violates a trust. Mark you then, never indorse until you have cash
means not required for your own debts, and never indorse beyond those
Assuming you are
safe in regard to these your gravest dangers, the question now is how
to rise from the subordinate position we have imagined you in, through
the successive grades to the position for which you are . . . intended.
I can give you the secret. It lies mainly in this. Instead of the question,
"What must I do for my employer?" substitute "What can I do?" Faithful
and conscientious discharge of the duties assigned you is all very well,
but the verdict in such cases generally is that you perform your present
duties so well that you had better continue performing them. . . . We
make Clerks, Bookkeepers, Treasurers, Bank Tellers of this class, and
there they remain to the end of the chapter. The rising man must do
something exceptional, and beyond the range of his special department.
HE MUST ATTRACT ATTENTION. A shipping clerk, he may do so by discovering
in an invoice an error with which he has nothing to do, and which has
escaped the attention of the proper party. . . . There is no service
so low and simple, neither any so high, in which the young man of ability
and willing disposition cannot readily and almost daily prove himself
capable of greater trust and usefulness, and, what is equally important,
show his invincible determination to rise.
Some day, in your
own department, you will be directed to do or say something which you
know will prove disadvantageous to the interest of the firm. Here is
your chance. Stand up like a man and say so. Say it boldly, and give
your reasons, and thus prove to your employer that, while his thoughts
have been engaged upon other matters, you have been studying during
hours when perhaps he thought you asleep, how to advance his interests.
You may be right or you may be wrong, but in either case you have gained
the first condition of success. You have attracted attention. Your employer
has found that he has not a mere hireling in his service, but a man;
not one who is content to give so many hours of work for so many dollars
in return, but one who devotes his spare hours and constant thoughts
to the business. . . . Your foot, in such a case, is upon the ladder;
the amount of climbing done depends entirely upon yourself.
One false axiom you
will often hear, which I wish to guard you against: "Obey orders if
you break owners." Don't you do it. This is no rule for you to follow.
Always break orders to save owners. There never was a great character
who did not sometimes smash the routine regulations and make new ones
for himself. The rule is only suitable for such as have no aspirations,
and you have not forgotten that you are destined to be owners and to
make orders and break orders. Do not hesitate to do it whenever you
are sure the interests of your employer will be thereby promoted and
when you are so sure of the result that you are willing to take the
responsibility. . . . Boss your boss just as soon as you can; try it
on early. There is nothing he will like so well if he is the right kind
of boss; if he is not, he is not the man for you to remain with--leave
him whenever you can, even at a present sacrifice, and find one capable
of discerning genius. . . .
There is one sure
mark of the coming partner, the future millionnaire; his revenues always
exceed his expenditures. He begins to save early, almost as soon as
he begins to earn. No matter how little it may be possible to save,
save that little. Invest it securely, not necessarily in bonds, but
in anything which you have good reason to believe will be profitable,
but no gambling with it, remember. A rare chance will soon present itself
for investment. The little you have saved will prove the basis for an
amount of credit utterly surprising to you. Capitalists trust the saving
young man. . . . Gentlemen, it is the first hundred dollars saved which
tells. Begin at once to lay up something. The bee predominates in the
Of course there are
better, higher aims than saving. As an end, the acquisition of wealth
is ignoble in the extreme; I assume that you save and long for wealth
only as a means of enabling you the better to do some good in your day
and generation. Make a note of this essential rule: Expenditure always
You may grow impatient,
or become discouraged when year by year you float on in subordinate
positions. There is no doubt that it is becoming harder and harder as
business gravitates more and more to immense concerns, for a young man
without capital to get a start for himself, and in this city especially,
where large capital is essential, it is unusually difficult. Still,
let me tell you for your encouragement, that there is no country in
the world, where able and energetic young men can so readily rise as
this, nor any city where there is more room at the top. It has been
impossible to meet the demand for capable, first-class bookkeepers (mark
the adjectives) the supply has never been equal to the demand.
Young men give all kinds of reasons why in their cases failure was clearly
attributable to exceptional circumstances which render success impossible.
Some never had a chance, according to their own story. This is simply
nonsense. No young man ever lived who had not a chance, and a splendid
chance, too, if he ever was employed at all. He is assayed in the mind
of his immediate superior, from the day he begins work, and, after a
time, if he has merit, he is assayed in the council chamber of the firm.
His ability, honesty, habits, associations, temper, disposition, all
these are weighed and analysed. The young man who never had a chance
is the same young man who has been canvassed over and over again by
his superiors, and found destitute of necessary qualifications, or is
deemed unworthy of closer relations with the firm, owing to some objectionable
act, habit, or association, of which he thought his employers ignorant.
Another class of
young men attribute their failure to employers having relations or favourites
whom they advanced unfairly. They also insist that their employers disliked
brighter intelligences than their own, and were disposed to discourage
aspiring genius, and delighted in keeping young men down. There is nothing
in this. On the contrary, there is no one suffering so much for lack
of the right man in the right place, nor so anxious to find him as the
owner. There is not a firm in Pittsburg to-day which is not in the constant
search for business ability, and every one of them will tell you that
there is no article in the market at all times so scarce. There is always
a boom in brains, cultivate that crop, for if you grow any amount of
that commodity, here is your best market and you cannot overstock it,
and the more brains you have to sell, the higher price you can exact.
. . . Do not hesitate to engage in any legitimate business, for there
is no business in America, I do not care what, which will not yield
a fair profit if it receive the unremitting, exclusive attention, and
all the capital of capable and industrious men. . . .
To summarize what
I have said: Aim for the highest; never enter a bar-room; do not touch
liquor, or if at all only at meals; never speculate; never indorse beyond
your surplus cash fund; make the firm's interest yours; break orders
always to save owners; concentrate; put all your eggs in one basket,
and watch that basket; expenditure always within revenue; lastly, be
not impatient, for, as Emerson says, "no one can cheat you out of ultimate
success but yourselves." I congratulate poor young men upon being born
to that ancient and honourable degree which renders it necessary that
they should devote themselves to hard work. A basketful of bonds is
the heaviest basket a young man ever had to carry. He generally gets
to staggering under it. We have in this city creditable instances of
such young men, who have pressed to the front rank of our best and most
useful citizens. These deserve great credit. But the vast majority of
the sons of rich men are unable to resist the temptations to which wealth
subjects them, and sink to unworthy lives. I would almost as soon leave
a young man a curse, as burden him with the almighty dollar. It is not
from this class you have rivalry to fear. The partner's sons will not
trouble you much, but look out that some boys poorer, much poorer than
yourselves, whose parents cannot afford to give them the advantages
of a course in this institute, advantages which should give you a decided
lead in the race--look out that such boys do not challenge you at the
post and pass you at the grand stand. Look out for the boy who has to
plunge into work direct from the common school and who begins by sweeping
out the office. He is the probable dark horse that you had better watch.
Source: Andrew Carnegie,
The Empire of Business (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.,
1902), pp. 3-18. Paragraph numbers have been added, and the original
pagination appears in brackets. Some typographical errors have been