To Be Great Concentrate
Let every one ascertain his special business and calling, and
then stick to it.
"He who follows two hares is sure to catch neither."
None sends his arrow to the mark in view,
Whose hand is feeble, or his aim untrue.
He who wishes to fulfill his mission must be a man of one idea,
that is, of one great overmastering purpose, overshadowing all
his aims, and guiding and controlling his entire life.
The shortest way to do anything is to do only one thing at a
The power of concentration is one of the most valuable of
The power of a man increases steadily by continuance in one
Careful attention to one thing often proves superior to genius
"It puffed like a locomotive," said a boy of the donkey engine; "it
whistled like the steam-cars, but it didn't go anywhere."
The world is full of donkey-engines, of people who can whistle and puff
and pull, but they don't go anywhere, they have no definite aim, no
The great secret of Napoleon's power lay in his marvelous ability to
concentrate his forces upon a single point. After finding the weak place
in the enemy's ranks he would mass his men and hurl them upon the enemy
like an avalanche until he made a breach. What a lesson of the power of
concentration there is in that man's life! He was such a master of
himself that he could concentrate his powers upon the smallest detail as
well as upon an empire.
When Napoleon had anything to say he always went straight to his mark.
He had a purpose in everything he did; there was no dilly-dallying nor
shilly-shallying; he knew what he wanted to say, and said it. It was the
same with all his plans; what he wanted to do, he did. He always hit the
bull's eye. His great success in war was due largely to his definiteness
of aim. He knew what he wanted to do, and did it. He was like a great
burning glass, concentrating the rays of the sun upon a single spot; he
burned a hole wherever he went.
The sun's rays scattered do no execution, but concentrated in a burning
glass, they melt solid granite; yes, a diamond, even. There are plenty
of men who have ability enough, the rays of their faculties taken
separately are all right; but they are powerless to collect them, to
concentrate them upon a single object. They lack the burning glass of a
purpose, to focalize upon one spot the separate rays of their ability.
Versatile men, universal geniuses, are usually weak, because they have
no power to concentrate the rays of their ability, to focalize them upon
one point, until they burn a hole in whatever they undertake.
This power to bring all of one's scattered forces into one focal point
makes all the difference between success and failure. The sun might
blaze out upon the earth forever without burning a hole in it or setting
anything on fire; whereas a very few of these rays concentrated in a
burning glass would, as stated, transform a diamond into vapor.
Sir James Mackintosh was a man of marvelous ability. He excited in
everybody who knew him great expectations, but there was no purpose in
his life to act as a burning glass to collect the brilliant rays of his
intellect, by which he might have dazzled the world. Most men have
ability enough, if they could only focalize it into one grand, central,
all-absorbing purpose, to accomplish great things.
"To encourage me in my efforts to cultivate the power of attention,"
said a friend of John C. Calhoun, "he stated that to this end he had
early subjected his mind to such a rigid course of discipline, and had
persisted without faltering until he had acquired a perfect control over
it; that he could now confine it to any subject as long as he pleased,
without wandering even for a moment; that it was his uniform habit,
when he set out alone to walk or ride, to select a subject for
reflection, and that he never suffered his attention to wander from it
until he was satisfied with its examination."
"My friend laughs at me because I have but one idea," said a learned
American chemist; "but I have learned that if I wish ever to make a
breach in a wall, I must play my guns continually upon one point."
"It is his will that has made him what he is," said an intimate friend
of Philip D. Armour, the Chicago millionaire. "He fixes his eye on
something ahead, and no matter what rises upon the right or the left he
never sees it. He goes straight in pursuit of the object ahead, and
overtakes it at last. He never gives up what he undertakes."
While Horace Greeley would devote a column of the New York _Tribune_ to
an article, Thurlow Weed would treat the same subject in a few words in
the Albany _Evening Journal_, and put the argument into such shape as to
carry far more conviction.
"If you would be pungent," says Southey, "be brief; for it is with words
as with sunbeams--the more they are condensed the deeper they burn."
"The only valuable kind of study," said Sydney Smith, "is to read so
heartily that dinner-time comes two hours before you expected it; to
sit with your Livy before you and hear the geese cackling that saved the
Capitol, and to see with your own eyes the Carthaginian sutlers
gathering up the rings of the Roman knights after the battle of Cannae,
and heaping them into bushels, and to be so intimately present at the
actions you are reading of, that when anybody knocks at the door it will
take you two or three seconds to determine whether you are in your own
study or on the plains of Lombardy, looking at Hannibal's weather-beaten
face and admiring the splendor of his single eye."
"Never study on speculation," says Waters; "all such study is vain. Form
a plan; have an object; then work for it; learn all you can about it,
and you will be sure to succeed. What I mean by studying on speculation
is that aimless learning of things because they may be useful some day;
which is like the conduct of the woman who bought at auction a brass
door-plate with the name of Thompson on it, thinking it might be useful
"I resolved, when I began to read law," said Edward Sugden, afterward
Lord St. Leonard, "to make everything I acquired perfectly my own, and
never go on to a second reading till I had entirely accomplished the
first. Many of the competitors read as much in a day as I did in a week;
but at the end of twelve months my knowledge was as fresh as on the day
it was acquired, while theirs had glided away from their recollection."
"Very often," says Sidney Smith, "the modern precept of education is,
'Be ignorant of nothing.' But my advice is, have the courage to be
ignorant of a great number of things, that you may avoid the calamity of
being ignorant of all things."
"Lord, help me to take fewer things into my hands, and to do them well,"
is a prayer recommended by Paxton Hood to an overworked man.
"Many persons seeing me so much engaged in active life," said Edward
Bulwer Lytton, "and as much about the world as if I had never been a
student, have said to me, 'When do you get time to write all your books?
How on earth do you contrive to do so much work?' I shall surprise you
by the answer I made. The answer is this--I contrive to do so much work
by never doing too much at a time. A man to get through work well must
not overwork himself; or, if he do too much to-day, the reaction of
fatigue will come, and he will be obliged to do too little to-morrow.
Now, since I began really and earnestly to study, which was not till I
had left college, and was actually in the world, I may perhaps say that
I have gone through as large a course of general reading as most men of
my time. I have traveled much and I have seen much; I have mixed much
in politics, and in the various business of life; and in addition to all
this, I have published somewhere about sixty volumes, some upon subjects
requiring much special research. And what time do you think, as a
general rule, I have devoted to study, to reading, and writing? Not more
than three hours a day; and, when Parliament is sitting, not always
that. But then, during these three hours, I have given my whole
attention to what I was about."
"The things that are crowded out of a life are the test of that life.
Not what we would like, but what we long for and strive for with all our
might we attain."
"One great cause of failure of young men in business," says Carnegie,
"is lack of concentration. They are prone to seek outside investments.
The cause of many a surprising failure lies in so doing. Every dollar of
capital and credit, every business-thought, should be concentrated upon
the one business upon which a man has embarked. He should never scatter
his shot. It is a poor business which will not yield better returns for
increased capital than any outside investment. No man or set of men or
corporation can manage a business-man's capital as well as he can manage
it himself. The rule, 'Do not put all your eggs in one basket,' does not
apply to a man's life-work. Put all your eggs in one basket and then
watch that basket, is the true doctrine--the most valuable rule of all."
"A man must not only desire to be right," said Beecher, "he must _be_
right. You may say, 'I wish to send this ball so as to kill the lion
crouching yonder, ready to spring upon me. My wishes are all right, and
I hope Providence will direct the ball.' Providence won't. You must do
it; and if you do not, you are a dead man."
The ruling idea of Milton's life and the key to his mental history is
his resolve to produce a great poem. Not that the aspiration in itself
is singular, for it is probably shared in by every poet in his turn. As
every clever schoolboy is destined by himself or his friends to become
Lord-Chancellor, and every private in the French army carries in his
haversack the baton of a marshal, so it is a necessary ingredient of the
dream of Parnassus that it should embody itself in a form of surpassing
brilliance. What distinguishes Milton from the crowd of youthful
literary aspirants, _audax juventa_, is his constancy of resolve. He not
only nourished through manhood the dream of youth, keeping under the
importunate instincts which carry off most ambitions in middle life into
the pursuit of place, profit, honor--the thorns which spring up and
smother the wheat--but carried out his dream in its integrity in old
age. He formed himself for this achievement and no other. Study at home,
travel abroad, the arena of political controversy, the public service,
the practice of the domestic virtues, were so many parts of the
schooling which was to make a poet.
Bismarck adopted it as the aim of his public life "to snatch Germany
from Austrian oppression," and to gather round Prussia, in a North
German Confederation, all the states whose tone of thought, religion,
manners and interest "were in harmony with those of Prussia." "To attain
this end," he once said in conversation, "I would brave all
dangers--exile, the scaffold itself. What matter if they hang me,
provided the rope with which I am hung binds this new Germany firmly to
the Prussian throne?"
It is related of Greeley that, when he was writing his "American
Conflict," he found it necessary to conceal himself somewhere, to
prevent constant interruptions. He accordingly took a room in the Bible
house, where he worked from ten in the morning till five in the
afternoon, and then appeared in the sanctum, seemingly as fresh as ever.
Cooper Institute is the evening school which Peter Cooper, as long ago
as 1810, resolved to found some day, when he was looking about as an
apprentice for a place where he could go to school evenings. Through all
his career in various branches of business he never lost sight of this
object; and, as his wealth increased, he was pleased that it brought
nearer the realization of his dream.
"See a great lawyer like Rufus Choate," says Dr. Storrs, "in a case
where his convictions are strong and his feelings are enlisted. He saw
long ago, as he glanced over the box, that five of those in it were
sympathetic with him; as he went on he became equally certain of seven;
the number now has risen to ten; but two are still left whom he feels
that he has not persuaded or mastered. Upon them he now concentrates his
power, summing up the facts, setting forth anew and more forcibly the
principles, urging upon them his view of the case with a more and more
intense action of his mind upon theirs, until one only is left. Like the
blow of a hammer, continually repeated until the iron bar crumbles
beneath it, his whole force comes with ceaseless percussion on that one
mind till it has yielded, and accepts the conviction on which the
pleader's purpose is fixed. Men say afterward, 'He surpassed himself.'
It was only because the singleness of his aim gave unity, intensity, and
overpowering energy to the mind."
"The foreman of the jury, however," said Whipple, "was a hard-hearted,
practical man, a model of business intellect and integrity, but with an
incapacity of understanding any intellect or conscience radically
differing from his own. Mr. Choate's argument, as far as the facts and
the law were concerned, was through in an hour. Still he went on
speaking. Hour after hour passed, and yet he continued to speak with
constantly increasing eloquence, repeating and recapitulating, without
any seeming reason, facts which he had already stated and arguments
which he had already urged. The truth was, as I gradually learned, that
he was engaged in a hand-to-hand--or rather in a brain-to-brain and a
heart-to-heart--contest with the foreman, whose resistance he was
determined to break down, but who confronted him for three hours with
defiance observable in every rigid line of his honest countenance. 'You
fool!' was the burden of the advocate's ingenious argument. 'You
rascal!' was the phrase legibly printed on the foreman's incredulous
face. But at last the features of the foreman began to relax, and at the
end the stern lines melted into acquiescence with the opinion of the
advocate, who had been storming at the defences of his mind, his heart,
and his conscience for five hours, and had now entered as victor. The
verdict was 'Not guilty.'"
"He who would do some great thing in this short life must apply himself
to the work with such a concentration of his forces as, to idle
spectators, who live only to amuse themselves, looks like insanity."
It is generally thought that when a man is said to be dissipated in his
habits he must be a drinking man, or a gambler, or licentious, or all
three; but dissipation is of two kinds, coarse and refined. A man can
dissipate or scatter all of his mental energies and physical power by
indulging in too many respectable diversions, as easily as in habits of
a viler nature. Property and its cares make some men dissipated; too
many friends make others. The exactions of "society," the balls,
parties, receptions, and various entertainments constantly being given
and attended by the _beau monde_, constitute a most wasting species of
dissipation. Others, again, fritter away all their time and strength in
political agitations, or in controversies and gossip; others in idling
with music or some other one of the fine arts; others in feasting or
fasting, as their dispositions and feelings incline. But the man of
concentration of purpose is never a dissipated man in any sense, good or
bad. He has no time to devote to useless trifling of any kind, but puts
in as many strokes of faithful work as possible toward the attainment of
some definite good.
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