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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

George Horace Lorimer (1869–1937)

Good Counsel

From “Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son”

JULY 7, 189–.
DEAR PIERREPONT: Yours of the fourth has the right ring, and it says more to the number of words used than any letter that I have ever received from you. I remember reading once that some fellows use language to conceal thought; but it’s been my experience that a good many more use it instead of thought.

A business man’s conversation should be regulated by fewer and simpler rules than any other function of the human animal. They are:

Have something to say.

Say it.

Stop talking.

Beginning before you know what you want to say and keeping on after you have said it lands a merchant in a lawsuit or the poorhouse, and the first is a short cut to the second. I maintain a legal department here, and it costs a lot of money, but it’s to keep me from going to law.

It’s all right when you are calling on a girl or talking with friends after dinner to run a conversation like a Sunday-school excursion, with stops to pick flowers; but in the office your sentences should be the shortest distance possible between periods. Cut out the introduction and the peroration, and stop before you get to secondly. You’ve got to preach short sermons to catch sinners; and deacons won’t believe they need long ones themselves. Give fools the first and women the last word. The meat’s always in the middle of the sandwich. Of course a little butter on either side of it doesn’t do any harm if it’s intended for a man who likes butter.

Remember, too, that it’s easier to look wise than to talk wisdom. Say less than the other fellow and listen more than you talk; for when a man’s listening he isn’t telling on himself and he’s flattering the fellow who is. Give most men a good listener and most women enough note-paper and they’ll tell all they know. Money talks—but not unless its owner has a loose tongue, and then its remarks are always offensive. Poverty talks, too, but nobody wants to hear what it has to say.

I simply mention these things in passing because I’m afraid you’re apt to be the fellow who’s doing the talking; just as I’m a little afraid that you’re sometimes like the hungry drummer at the dollar-a-day house—inclined to kill your appetite by eating the cake in the center of the table before the soup comes on.

Of course I’m glad to see you swing into line and show the proper spirit about coming on here and going to work; but you mustn’t get yourself all “het up” before you take the plunge, because you’re bound to find the water pretty cold at first. I’ve seen a good many young fellows pass through and out of this office. The first week a lot of them go to work they’re in a sweat for fear they’ll be fired; and the second week for fear they won’t be. By the third, a boy that’s no good has learned just how little work he can do and keep his job; while the fellow who’s got the right stuff in him is holding down his own place with one hand and beginning to reach for the job just ahead of him with the other. I don’t mean that he’s neglecting his work; but he’s beginning to take notice, and that’s a mighty hopeful sign in either a young clerk or a young widow.

You’ve got to handle the first year of your business life about the way you would a trotting horse. Warm up a little before going to the post—not enough to be in a sweat, but just enough to be limber and eager. Never start off at a gait that you can’t improve on, but move along strong and well in hand to the quarter. Let out a notch there, but take it calm enough up to the half not to break, and hard enough not to fall back into the ruck. At the three-quarters you ought to be going fast enough to poke your nose out of the other fellow’s dust, and running like the Limited in the stretch. Keep your eyes to the front all the time, and you won’t be so apt to shy at the little things by the side of the track. Head up, tail over the dashboard—that’s the way the winners look in the old pictures of Maud S. and Dexter and Jay-Eye-See. And that’s the way I want to see you swing by the old man at the end of the year, when we hoist the numbers of the fellows who are good enough to promote and pick out the salaries which need a little sweetening.

I’ve always taken a good deal of stock in what you call “Blood-will-tell” if you’re a Methodist, or “Heredity” if you’re a Unitarian; and I don’t want you to come along at this late day and disturb my religious beliefs. A man’s love for his children and his pride are pretty badly snarled up in this world, and he can’t always pick them apart. I think a heap of you and a heap of the house, and I want to see you get along well together. To do that you must start right. It’s just as necessary to make a good first impression in business as in courting. You’ll read a good deal about “love at first sight” in novels, and there may be something in it for all I know; but I’m dead certain there’s no such thing as love at first sight in business. A man’s got to keep company a long time, and come early and stay late and sit close, before he can get a girl or a job worth having. There’s nothing comes without calling in this world, and after you’ve called you’ve generally got to go and fetch it yourself.

Our bright young men have discovered how to make a pretty good article of potted chicken, and they don’t need any help from hens, either; and you can smell the clover in our butterine if you’ve developed the poetic side of your nose; but none of the boys have been able to discover anything that will pass as a substitute for work, even in a boarding-house, though I’ll give some of them credit for having tried pretty hard.

I remember when I was selling goods for old Josh Jennings, back in the sixties, and had rounded up about a thousand in a savings-bank—a mighty hard thousand, that came a dollar or so at a time, and every dollar with a little bright mark where I had bit it—I roomed with a dry-goods clerk named Charlie Chase. Charlie had a hankering to be a rich man; but somehow he could never see any connection between that hankering and his counter, except that he’d hint to me sometimes about an heiress who used to squander her father’s money shamefully for the sake of having Charlie wait on her. But when it came to getting rich outside the dry-goods business and getting rich in a hurry, Charlie was the man.

Along about Tuesday night—he was paid on Saturday—he’d stay at home and begin to scheme. He’d commence at eight o’clock and start a magazine, maybe, and before midnight he’d be turning away subscribers because his presses couldn’t print a big enough edition. Or perhaps he wouldn’t feel literary that night, and so he’d invent a system for speculating in wheat and go on pyramiding his purchases till he’d made the best that Cheops did look like a five-cent plate of ice-cream. All he ever needed was a few hundred for a starter, and to get that he’d decide to let me in on the ground floor. I want to say right here that whenever any one offers to let you in on the ground floor, it’s a pretty safe rule to take the elevator to the roof-garden. I never exactly refused to lend Charlie the capital he needed, but we generally compromised on half a dollar next morning, when he was in a hurry to make the store to keep from getting docked.

He dropped by the office last week, a little bent and seedy, but all in a glow and trembling with excitement in the old way. Told me he was President of the Klondike Exploring, Gold Prospecting and Immigration Company, with a capital of ten millions. I guessed that he was the board of directors and the capital stock and the exploring and the prospecting and the immigrating too—everything, in fact, except the business card he’d sent in; for Charlie always had a gift for nosing out printers who’d trust him. Said that for the sake of old times he’d let me have a few thousand shares at fifty cents, though they would go to par in a year. In the end we compromised on a loan of ten dollars, and Charlie went away happy.

The swamps are full of razor-backs like Charlie, fellows who’d rather make a million a night in their heads than five dollars a day in cash. I have always found it cheaper to lend a man of that build a little money than to hire him. As a matter of fact, I have never known a fellow who was smart enough to think for the house days and for himself nights. A man who tries that is usually a pretty poor thinker, and he isn’t much good to either; but if there’s any choice the house gets the worst of it.

I simply mention these little things in a general way. If you can take my word for some of them you are going to save yourself a whole lot of trouble. There are others which I don’t speak of because life is too short and because it seems to afford a fellow a heap of satisfaction to pull the trigger for himself to see if it is loaded; and a lesson learned at the muzzle has the virtue of never being forgotten.

You report to Milligan at the yards at eight sharp on the fifteenth. You’d better figure on being here on the fourteenth, because Milligan’s a pretty touchy Irishman, and I may be able to give you a point or two that will help you to keep on his mellow side. He’s apt to feel a little sore at taking on in his department a man whom he hasn’t passed on.

Your affectionate father,