First Help Thyself, Then God Will Help Thee

The “Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking People” was a book chronicling the history of England from the time of Julius Caesar in AD 55 to the time of it’s authorship it in 731. Saint Bede, the author, advises the reader that the biographies and lives chronicled in his book were for imitation and learning. “If history records good things,” he says. “Then the thoughtful reader is encouraged to imitate what is good. If it records bad things, then the thoughtful reader is encouraged to avoid that which is bad.” His principle was that we should learn from history and extract lessons from both the good and the bad. It is this lesson that was most important to him, the illustrations and biographies only served as examples of good living and that if one was diligent enough, one would learn what not to do in situations but most importantly, what to do.

History affords us innumerable lessons if one is attentive enough. Within the last 500 years the world has witnessed an explosion of technological advancement. The movers and shakers behind industry are particularly interesting and if one could read the various memoirs and biographies of these men, one would learn a great deal from them. We observe the lives of ordinary men who by will and grit raised themselves from the humblest ranks to the greatest heights. Their strong suit being that of self-help. The old proverb ‘You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink’ rings true with these men who teach us that though the opportunity lies in front of us, it is up to us to make something out of it.

Samuel Smiles, author of the first Self Help book and whom many consider the father of the genre was a Scottish Victorian parliamentary reformer and writer, who, while working as editor of the Leeds Times in 1845, was invited to give a series of lectures on the subject of “The Education of the Working Classes”, which eventually led to his self-published book under the title Self-Help. The book chronicled the lives of many men from before and during the 19th century who through self-help, succeeded in life despite bitter odds against them. He wrote that the purpose of his stories was to Illustrate and enforce the power of self-reliance, and that;

“So far from poverty being a misfortune, it may, by vigorous self-help, be converted even into a blessing; rousing a man to that struggle with the world in which, though some may purchase ease by degradation, the right-minded and true-hearted find strength, confidence, and triumph.” Quoting Bacon, he says, “Self-reliance and self-denial will teach a man to drink out of his own cistern and eat his own sweet bread. ”

Upon the successful publishing of his book, he, within a matter of months, became the talk of the town, and was showered with requests of public appearances, speeches and overall nation-wide fame. Being a simple fellow he was amused by all this but naturally had to decline, for his work, says he, did not lie in any public platform but in his office, by his desk, with his work. George Routledge, founder of the Routledge publishing house had rejected his book in 1855, twenty years later he and Smiles were seated next to each other at a dinner when Routledge asked him;

“And when, Dr. Smiles, are we to have the honor of publishing one of your books?”

Smiles smiled, and humbly replied that Mr. Routledge had already had the honor of publishing his work, but rejected it, under return that no one would be interested in the work and it would be a waste of time publishing it. He self-published it a year later and it went on to sell well over 20,000 copies in the first year. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published the same year and may today be seen as the great book of the year but it was Smiles who had the bestseller, second only to The Bible.

Orison Swett Marden, long considered a prodigy of Smiles, discovered the work in an attic during his early pre-teen years, the book marked such an impression on him that it was the turning point of his life and inspired him to improve himself and his circumstances. Orphaned at an early age and of poor upbringing, he valued the book “as if it were worth its weight in diamonds”, he says, and virtually committed its entire contents into memory. He developed a deep respect and admiration for the author and was instilled with such passion and desire to inspire others as Smiles had for him.

His youth was thereafter marked with such remarkable energy and achievement that by his early thirties he had earned his academic degrees in science, arts, medicine and law. During his college years he had supported himself by working in a hotel and later on went to become the owner of it as well as several others in the chain. By age forty-four he had switched careers into professional authorship and wrote his first work titled Pushing To The Front which became a lifetime best-seller and a generous collection in the line of Smiles, collecting some of history’s greatest achievements and triumphs. He himself was no stranger to difficulty, several years prior to switching careers he had suffered several business setbacks and a hotel which caught on fire, burning his original manuscript and the entire hotel with it. Margaret Connolly, a contemporary of his, describes the incident and his narrow escape from death in the following excerpt:

“Over five thousand pages of manuscripts — the fruit of all the spare time he had been able to snatch from nearly fifteen crowded years of business life — had gone up in smoke. Having nothing but his nightshirt on when he escaped from the fire, he went down the street to provide himself with necessary clothing. As soon as this had been attended to he bought a twenty-five cent notebook, and, while the ruins of the hotel were still smoking, began to rewrite from memory the manuscript of his book.”

Marden’s unwavering determination to start from scratch after this devastating loss was characteristic of a man of purpose; although overwhelmed and heartbroken, he picked himself up and started all over again. With little money, but lots of time, he took a train to Boston, boarded a cheap room, and threw himself entirely to his work. His finished work, Pushing to the Front, was submitted to three Boston publishing houses for approval and all three wanted to publish it upon first reading it. It became the single greatest runaway classic in the history of personal development.

American presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt as well as England’s Prime Minister William Gladstone, praised the work, entrepreneurs like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and J. P. Morgan cited it as inspiration. Marden went on to write fifty more books during his career, each producing dozens of famous quotes and is today considered the base and inspiration for dozens of modern authors of self-help and motivation.

“I wish not to preach the doctrine of ignoble ease,” says Theodore Roosevelt,

“But the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.” “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor souls who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

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Paul Gwamanda

“Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing.” Ben Franklin