The Industrious Spirit | Self-Development Podcast

Motivational Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast. Remember that you can also listen to a fireside chat version of our podcast on YouTube. To subscribe to our YouTube channel, visit

On today’s podcast, we will once again deliver an adaptation from Frederick Douglass’s classic lecture entitled Self-Made Men, which was first delivered in 1859.

Today, I would like to talk with you about success and the industrious spirit. Industry is the superficial and visible cause of success, but what is the cause of industry? When answering this question one element is easily pointed out, and that element is necessity.

William Thackeray very wisely remarked that all people are about as lazy as they can afford to be. They are not only as lazy as they can afford to be, but I have found many who are a great deal more so. We all hate the task master, but all people, however industrious, are either lured or lashed through the world — and we should be a lazy, good-for-nothing set, if we were not so lured and lashed.

Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but the mainspring of exertion. The presence of some urgent, pinching, dire necessity, will often not only sting a person into marvelous exertion, but into a sense of the possession of powers and resources which else had slumbered on through a long life, unknown to the individual and never suspected by others. A person never knows the strength of their grip till life and limb depend upon it. Something is likely to be done when something must be done.

If you wish to make your child helpless, you need not cripple them with a bullet or bludgeon, but simply place them beyond the reach of necessity and surround them with ease and luxury. This experiment has often been tried and has seldom failed. As a general rule, where circumstance does the most for us, there we will do least for ourselves; and where we do the least, we ourselves are the least. Our doing or not doing makes or unmakes us.

In your own search after true character go not to those delightful latitudes where (quote) “summer is blossoming all the year long,” but rather to the hardy, coldest, and flintiest parts of the country; where, for six months of the year, the earth is covered with snow and ice — there you will find the highest type of American character, both physical and intellectual.

The primary condition upon which we may have (and retain) power and skill, is exertion. Nature has no use for unused power. She abhors a vacuum. She permits no preemption without occupation. Every organ of the body and mind has its use and improves by use. “Better to wear out than to rust out,” is sound philosophy, as well as common sense.

Nature tolerates no halfness. The individual who wants hard hands must not, at sight of the first blister, fling away the spade, the rake, the broad ax or the hammer; for the blister is a primary condition to the needed hardness. To abandon work is not only to throw away the means of success, but it is also to part with the ability to work. To be able to walk well, one must walk on, and to work with ease and effect, one must work on.

Thus the law of labor is self-acting, beneficent, and perfect — increasing skill and ability according to exertion. Faithful, earnest, and protracted industry gives strength to the mind and facility to the hand. Within certain limits, the more that a person does, the more they can do.

Few people ever reach, in any one direction, the limits of their possibilities. As in commerce and business, the relationship of supply to demand rules. Our mechanical and intellectual forces increase or decrease according to the demands made upon them. Those who use the most will have most to use.

Exertion of muscle or mind, for pleasure and amusement alone, cannot bring anything like the good results of earnest labor — for such exertion lacks the element attached to duty. To play perfectly upon any complicated instrument, one must play long, laboriously, and with earnest purpose. Though it be an amusement at first, it must be labor at the end, if any proficiency is to be reached.

If one plays for one’s own pleasure alone, the performance will give little pleasure to anyone else and will finally become a rather hard and dry pleasure to one’s self. In this respect, we cannot receive much more than we give. We may cheat our neighbors, and we may cheat ourselves, but we cannot cheat nature. She will only pay the wages one honestly earns.

Within the concept of exertion, of course fortitude and perseverance are included. We have all met a class of people, very remarkable for their activity, and who yet make but little headway in life — people who, in their noisy and impulsive pursuit of knowledge, never get beyond the outer bark of an idea, due to a lack of patience and perseverance to dig to the core; people who begin everything and complete nothing; who see, but do not perceive; who read, but forget what they read; who travel but go nowhere in particular, and have nothing of value to impart when they return. Such people may have greatness thrust upon them, but they never achieve greatness.

As the gold in the mountain is concealed in huge and flinty rocks, so the most valuable ideas and inventions are often enveloped in doubt and uncertainty. The printing press, the telephone, the automobile, and the computer, are all simple enough now, but who can measure the patience, the persistence, the fortitude, the wearing labor and the brain sweat, which produced these wonderful and indispensable additions to our modern civilization.

My theory of success, then, simply is this: that successful people are men and women of work. But in awarding praise to industry as the main agency in the production and culture of success, I do not exclude other factors. I only make them subordinate. Other agencies co-operate, but industry is the principal one and the one without which all others would fail.

Indolence and failure can give a thousand excuses for themselves. How often do we hear people say, “If I had the mind of this person, or the talent of that person; the health of this one, or the strength of that one; the opportunities of this or of that one, I might have been this, that, or the other,” and much more of the same kind of self-defeating talk.

Sound bodily health and mental faculties are indeed very desirable, if not absolutely indispensable. But you need not be a physical giant or an intellectual prodigy, in order to make a successful way in the world. The health and strength of the soul is of far more importance than is that of the body, even when viewed as a means of mundane results. The soul is the main thing.

Each one of us can do a great many things; some easily and some with difficulty, but we cannot build a sound ship with rotten timber. The ship’s design may be faultless; and her canvas sail the whitest, but she will go down in the first storm. So it is with the soul. Whatever its assumptions, if it be lacking in the principles of honor, integrity and affection, it, too, will go down in the first storm. And when the soul is lost, all is lost.

All human experience proves over and over again, that any success which comes through meanness, trickery, fraud, and dishonor, is but emptiness and will only be a torment to its possessor.

There is another element of the secret of success that demands a word. That element is order, systematic endeavor. We succeed, not alone by the laborious exertion of our faculties (be they small or great), but by the regular, thoughtful, and systematic exercise of them.

Order, the first law of heaven, is itself a power. The battle is nearly lost when your lines of attack are in disorder. Regular, orderly and systematic effort which moves without friction and needless loss of time or power; which has a place for everything and everything in its place; which knows just where to begin, how to proceed, and where to end (though marked by no extraordinary outlay of energy or activity) will work wonders, not only in the matter of accomplishment, but also in the increase of the ability of the individual. It will make the weak one strong and the strong one stronger; the simple person wise and the wise person, wiser, and will insure success by the power and influence that belong to habit.

On the other hand, no matter what gifts and what aptitudes a person may possess; no matter if their mind be of the highest order and fitted for the noblest achievements; yet, without systematic effort, their genius will only serve as a fire of shavings, soon to blaze and soon to flame out.

Spontaneity, of course, has a special charm, and the fitful outcroppings of genius are (in speech or action) delightful; but the success attained by these is neither solid nor lasting. I once asked a famous speaker if his speeches were extemporaneous. They flowed so smoothly that I had my doubts about it. He answered, “No, I carefully think out and write my speeches, before I utter them.” When such a person rises to speak, they know what they are going to say. When they speak, they know what they are saying. When they leave the platform, they know what they have said.

There is still another element essential to success, and that is, a commanding objective and a sense of its importance. The vigor of the action depends upon the power of the motive. The wheels of the train lie idle upon the rail until they feel the driving force of the locomotive; and when that is applied, the whole ponderous train is set in motion.

If each person in the world did their share of honest work, the world would teem with abundance; and the temptation to evil in a thousand directions would disappear. But work is not often undertaken for its own sake. The worker is conscious of an object worthy of effort, and works for that objective; not for what they are to the object, but for what the object is to them.

All are not moved by the same objects. Happiness is the object of some. Wealth and fame are the objects of others. But wealth and fame are beyond the reach of the majority of people, and thus, to them, these are not motive-driving objects. Happily, however, personal, family, and neighborhood well-being stand near to us all and are full of lofty inspirations to earnest endeavor, if we would but respond to their influence.

We live now in an age of pleasure seeking, and my words about hard work and industry may fall on deaf ears. But I should like to remind you all of an old truism: that is that the industrious man, and the industrious woman, is the one who finds real pleasure. They find it in the qualities and quantities to which the baffled pleasure seeker is a perpetual stranger. They find it in the house well built, in the garden well planted, in the books well kept, in the page well written, in the thought well expressed, in all the improved conditions of life around them, and in whatsoever useful work may, for the moment, engage their time and energies.

Subscribe to the Inspirational Living Podcast at iTunes & Stitcher

Inspirational Podcasts Stitcher
Subscribe Inspirational Podcast

All transcripts from our motivational podcasts are edited adaptations of the original work and copyrighted by