On the Threshold of Purpose | Theodore Thornton Munger

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Now, on to today’s reading, which was edited and adapted from “On the Threshold” by Theodore Thornton Munger, published in 1908.

My talk today is not born out of a critical mood, so much as from a desire to bring you face to face with the inspiring influences which, in a peculiar degree, surround you. Despite the way it may feel and look at times, our country has never been so prosperous, the future never so full of happy assurances, as it is today.

To point out the way of reaping the double harvest of this prosperity, along with a noble character, is the motive that underlies my talk. I begin with the subject of Purpose, because it naturally underlies all the themes of a worthwhile, successful life, and also because it is a matter of special importance. I say special, because I think that just now many people are entering life without any very definite purpose. As someone has put it, “the world is full of purposeless people.”

Young people do not so much choose to go to college as suffer themselves to be sent. They do not push their way into callings, but allow themselves to be led into them. Indeed, the sacred word “calling” seems to have lost its meaning — for they hear no voice summoning them to an appointed field, but drift into this or that as it happens. They appear to be waiting, to be floating with the current, instead of rowing up the stream toward the hills where lie the treasures of life.

My objective is to interrupt this tendency to drift — to induce you to aim at a far end rather than a near one; to live under a purpose rather than under an impulse; to set aside the thought of enjoyment, and get to thinking of attainment; to conceive of life as a race instead of a drifting.

Individuals may be divided in many ways, but there is no clearer cut division than between those who have a purpose and those who are without one. It is the character of the purpose that at last determines the character of the person — for a purpose may be good or bad, high or low. It is the strength and definiteness of the purpose that determines the measure of success.

I do not mean to say that a purpose, cherished with sufficient energy, will always carry a person to its goal — for everyone has their limitations — but rather that it is sure to carry you on toward some kind of success; and often it proves greater than that which was aimed at.

Shakespeare went down to London to find his fortune; but the intensity with which he sought it unwittingly ended in the greatest literary achievement of the human intellect. The biblical Saul was determined to crush out Christianity; but the energy of his purpose was diverted to the opposite and immeasurably nobler end.

It would be absurd for me to assure you that if you aim and strive with sufficient energy to become a great statesperson, or the head of a corporation, or a famous poet or artist, or any other specific high end, you will certainly reach it. For though there are certain rich prizes that any person may win who will pay the price, there are others that are reserved for the few who are peculiarly fortunate or have peculiar claims.

The Providence which (blindly to us) endows and strangely leads, apportions the great honors of life; but Providence has nothing good nor high in store for the one who does not resolutely aim at something high and good. A purpose is the eternal condition of success. Nothing will take its place:

Talent will not — nothing is more common than unsuccessful men and women of talent.

Genius will not — unrewarded genius is a proverb.

The chance of events, the push of circumstances, will not.

The natural unfolding of faculties will not.

Education will not; the country is full of unsuccessful educated people; indeed, it is a problem of society what to do with the young men and women it is turning out of its colleges and professional schools.

There is no road to success but through a clear, strong purpose. Purpose underlies character, culture, position — attainment of whatever sort. Shakespeare says: “Some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them;” but the latter is external, and not to be accounted as success.

It is worthwhile for us to look into the reasons of the matter a little. A purpose, steadily held, trains the faculties into strength and aptness. Thus the first main thing we have to do in this world is to turn our possibilities into powers.

Here we are, packed full of faculties (physical, mental, moral, social) with almost no instincts, and therefore no natural use of them — a veritable box of tools, ready for use. Think what a capability is lodged in the hand of the pianist or of the physician — fairly seeing with their fingers. Or take the mechanical eye, instantly seizing proportions; or the ear of the musician; or the mind bending itself to mathematical problems or grouping wide arrays of facts for induction — the every-day work of the professional, the merchant, and the manufacturer.

How to use these tools — how to get the faculties to work — is the main question. The answer is: steady use under a main purpose. And the call today is not only for educated people, but for trained men and women.

Every person’s work should be both an inspiration and a trade; that is, you should love it, and you should have that facility in it which comes from use. Life is too short and the standards are too severe for various trainings. Seldom is found a person who has thoroughly fitted themselves for diverse pursuits. Our aptitudes are not many. Pick out the successful person in almost any occupation, and nearly without exception they will have been trained to do it.

Remember that life is cumulative in all ways. A steady purpose is like a river that gathers volume and momentum by flowing on. The successful person is not one who can do many things indifferently, but one thing in a superior manner. Versatility is overpraised. There is, of course, a certain value in having many strings to one’s bow, but there is more value in having a bow and a string, a hand and an eye, that will every time send the arrow into the bull’s-eye of the target.

The world is full of vagabonds who can turn their hands to anything. The person who does odd jobs is not the one who gets far up in any job. The factotum is a convenience, but he or she is seldom a success. The machinist who works in anything is not the one who is put to the nicest work. A certain concentration is essential to excellence, except in rare cases like Leonardo da Vinci, and Pascal, and Aristotle, and Franklin, whose natures were so broad as to cover all studies and pursuits.

There are, indeed, many cases of large success where men and women have passed from one pursuit to another, but in most you will find a certain unity running through their various occupations. One may begin a stone-cutter and end a geologist, or a sculptor or machinist, and turn into an inventor; or as a printer, and become a publisher. A strong definite purpose is many-handed, and lays hold of whatever is near that can serve it; it has a magnetic power that draws to itself whatever is kindred.

A purpose (by holding one down to some steady pursuit and legitimate occupation) wars against the tendency to engage in ventures and speculations. The devil of the business world is chance. Chance is chaotic. It is opposed in nature to order and law; it is the abdication of reason, the enthronement of guess.

The chance element in business is not only demoralizing to the entrepreneur, but in the long run it is disastrous to their fortunes. And if it yields a temporary success, it is a success unearned, and therefore unappreciated — for we must put something of thought and genuine effort into an enterprise before we can get any substantial good out of it.

Don’t abandon your reason by appealing to chance, nor insult order by taking up that which “by confusion stands.” A steady purpose embodied in a substantial pursuit shuts out the chance forms of business. Question those of substantial character and fortune, and you will find that they have avoided the illegitimate in business, and have held fast to some steady line of pursuit — busy in prosperous times, and patiently waiting in hard times.

It may seem from what I have said so far that I would advise young people to concentrate their entire energies upon a pursuit, and forget all else. But I am far from doing that. The most fundamental mistake people make is in not recognizing the breadth of their nature, a consequent of working only some single part of it.

You must give play to your whole nature and fill out all your relationships, or you will have a poor ending. You must heed the social, domestic, and spiritual elements of your being, as well as the single one that yields you a fortune. These should be embraced under a purpose as clear and strong as that which leads to wealth, and be cherished, not out of a bare sense of duty, but for completeness of character.

I have found that there are four general purposes that should enter into the plan of every person’s life as essential to this completeness:

Number 1. The fabric of your life should rest upon the central and abiding qualities of your nature — else it will not stand. Hence your choice of jobs should be based on what is within rather than be drawn from without. Choose your employment because you like it, and not because it has some external promise of financial rewards.

Number 2. Once you have settled into some fair line of pursuit, the next main purpose should be to get a home of one’s own. Character, happiness, destiny, turn on its realization. It is the main safeguard against immorality. It is essential to a development of the whole nature. It is the chief source of sound and abiding happiness. It is the surest defense against bad fortune.

Number 3. Become a good citizen. This is not so trite a point as it may seem. By good citizenship I do not mean necessarily a mingling in what is technically named politics, though one must not hold one’s self aloof from its details, but rather that the public welfare should weigh steadily on your heart and conscience. Exclusive devotion to the home makes one weak; to business, selfish. A hearty and practical interest in one’s community and country is what alone can make you strong and large.

Number 4. After one has well-settled themselves in these three main relations (employment, home, citizenship), all other general purposes may be summed up in one word: culture — or as this is a somewhat derided and overused word at present, I will put it otherwise: resolve to make the most of yourself; cultivate yourself; feed the roots of your being, strengthening your capacities, nourishing whatever is good, repressing whatever is bad.

Make the most and the best of yourself. There is no tragedy like wasted life, life failing of its potential, life turned to a false end. The true way to begin life is not to look upon it to see what it offers, but to take a good look at yourself. Find out what you are, how you are made up, your capacities and lacks, and then be determined to get the most out of yourself.

If these four general purposes are resolutely followed, they are sure to yield as much of success as is possible for anyone. A pursuit followed in its main course; a home to contain the life; good citizenship as the sum of public duties; culture, or making the most of one’s self, as the sum of personal and spiritual duties — these are the four winds of inspiration that should blow through the heart of every woman, of every man.

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