Monday, November 21, 2011

W.B.’s Book Report: Letters of a Self-Made Failure

Here is a timely relic from nearly 100 years ago. Maurice Switzer wrote a series of 10 letters, ostensibly from a man who took a circuitous route to contentment and addressed to his younger brother, who is newly embarked on this adventure we call adulthood.

From a note of congratulation and advice upon the occasion of “Bob” landing his first job in January 1912, “Jim” writes his brother every two or three months through January 1914. He admonishes Bob through the mistakes common to an overconfident young businessman, and eventually the lad starts to learn from his mistakes and apply the lessons.

“Experience is a mighty good thing, but it’s like an automobile. To get it you have to pay the top price, and when you want to sell it you can’t collect twenty-five cents on the dollar.”

“Instead of trying to earn more than I could spend, I should have simply spent less than I was earning.”

“Be as ambitious as you like, but remain within the limits of your talent and capabilities.”

“Obstacles are very often discouraging, but surmounting them is good exercise.”

“In heaven’s name don’t provide yourself with a set of ready reasons against possible failure.”

“No doubt there is a short cut to most places we are trying to reach, but the days we waste and the energy we expend in seeking it are a greater loss of time and effort in the end than if we had struck out boldly through the underbrush.”
And those are just some of the gems I found paging back through the first half of this little book.

Switzer occasionally sound a bit creaky – as when he assures his reader that he’s not advocating the radical idea that women be allowed to vote – and the language is, of course, that of the early 20th century. Still, he offers advice that remains sound 97 years after it was first published.

A theme he repeats several times is especially timely: Save a substantial portion of your earnings; spend less than you make. Coming just a few months after the establishment of the Federal Reserve, which launched the concept of ever-increasing debt as a national policy, Switzer wrote words that, if heeded then, might have made our contemporary economy significantly stronger.

Letters of a Self-Made Failure is available as a free ebook in a variety of places online – such as this one.

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