Chapter 6 – The System in Operation
IF you are the possessor of a very vivid imagination, you will probably be already well on the way towards practice with no more than the clue in that sentence: Act as if it were impossible to fail. If you are not, or if you have been badly hurt by failure, there may be some difficulty in beginning to act effectively, but there need not be very much.
To get at it more slowly, the idea is just this: instead of starting wherever you are – or, to be accurate, instead of trying to start, or swearing that you will start, or deceiving yourself into thinking that you are going to start tomorrow or the day after – beset by all the usual doubts of your own performance and memories of past pain, take time first to “make up” your state of mind, the mental condition in which you are going to work.
If you have an important appointment you do not rush out to it unkempt, unwashed, in any old clothes. You take some trouble to make yourself look as well as you can. Man or woman, you brush and clean your clothes, you look for your good points and emphasize them, you hide or improve your blemishes. Then, when you go to your appointment, you try to act as much as possible as if that heightened condition were your normal state.
Now, you are mentally going to an appointment, an appointment with your successful self. How can you arrange your frame of mind to make that appointment fruitful? You first give yourself a model. Everyone has had a taste of success in some line, perhaps in a very minor matter. Think back to it, however childish it was, even if it was a success of your schooldays. It needn’t be, even remotely, success in the adult work you hope to do. What you want to recapture is the state of mind in which you once succeeded. Be careful, now; you do not want to overshoot the mark. Don’t jump ahead into the elation which followed the success itself. Just recapture the steady, confident feeling that was yours when you knew the fact that was demanded of you, when you realized that you could do the thing that was necessary, that what you were about to do was well within your powers.
Try to bring back as clearly as you can every surrounding circumstance of that moment. Now transfer in imagination that success-sequence to the work in hand. If you were absolutely certain that everything about the present work would go as smoothly as everything went when you succeeded in the past, if you knew that what you are beginning would certainly go well, from the moment you begin till the moment of the work’s ultimate reception, how would you feel? How would you act? What is the state of mind you would be in as you launch out into it? Fix your attention on that, for that is to be your working frame of mind. Until you can reach it, refuse to begin; but insist to yourself on reaching it as soon as possible.
When you have found the mood hold it steadily for a while, as if waiting for a word of command. All at once you will feel a release of energy. You have received from yourself your working orders, and you can begin. You will see that you no longer have to push yourself to do the work; all your energy is free to push the work alone.
It was that extra, unnecessary labor of pushing your own inertia aside which made it seem, before, that you were too hampered to get started, were groping through a fog to get at your object, or were stopping continually to brush away half realized doubts, anxieties, memories of failure that buzzed about you like a cloud of gnats. Clear all that away before you begin to work by the simple expedient of refusing to contemplate the mere possibility of failure.
Next, work till you feel the unmistakable onset of true fatigue. True fatigue. The early flagging of attention will be only the old state of mind trying to creep in once more when your attention is elsewhere. If that happens, stop a second and say to yourself, “No. That is the way I will not think!” clear out the impulse entirely, and go on working. When your muscles and your mind honestly protest that they have done all they should do for the time, stop and find some relaxation. If you are held by office-hours, go away quietly alone for awhile when the old state of mind seems in danger of returning, or when you find that you are going to have to spend some time in altering the attitude of a fellow worker before you can move smoothly in the new way. Stay alone until you have reestablished your confident attitude, then return to the group.
When the time for relaxation comes you will find that you get the full joy of playing at last.
There are some persons who have been so badly bruised that, although any unwarrantable indulgence towards oneself should be guarded against, it may be necessary to begin this system by practicing it only for a short time each day, and on some secondary desire. Most educators agree that the best way to teach a child to act confidently and competently, and to facilitate the process of learning, is to ask him first to perform some small task which is well within his untrained powers. As Dorothy Canfield Fisher says in her excellent little book for parents and teachers, Self-reliance, “Success or failure in adult life depends largely on the energy, courage and self-reliance with which one attacks the problem of making his dreams come true.
Self-confidence in any enterprise comes as a rule from remembrance of past success.” And, again, Professor Hocking in Human Nature and Its Remaking: “Education consists in supplying the halted mind with a method of work and some examples of success. There are few more beautiful miracles than that which can be wrought by leading a despairing child into a trifling success; and there are few difficulties whose principle cannot be embodied in such simple form that success is at once easy and revealing. And by increasing the difficulty by serial stages, the small will, under the cumulative excitement of repeated and mounting success, may find itself far beyond the obstacle that originally checked it.”
So in our own cases, when self-confidence has been lost, should we find some little desire which for some reason has never been gratified. There are scores of these opportunities in every life. All that is necessary, in these experiments toward success, is either that some desire should be taken from the realm of dreaming into that of realization, or that a procedure which was not the perfect one for the effect to be produced should be corrected.
You remember the immortal Bunker Bean, and how his life changed when he was persuaded by the fraudulent medium that he was the reincarnation of a Pharaoh? His rise in the world was rapid; one success followed another and brought a third in its train. When at last he knew he had been cheated, that he was no incarnation of Rameses, nor was the mummy case that had been sold him made of wood that ever saw ancient Egypt, he had so learned the technique of success that he could not slip back into obscurity. If you observe any family likeness to H. T. Webster’s Mr. Milquetoast in yourself, it might be worth your while to get Bunker Bean and reread it; the time will not be wasted, since it is only a little less funny than it is fundamentally true.
Here are some examples of developing secondary talents so that confidence in important matters follows:
There is a notably successful physician in New York who recently learned to model in clay, and went on to learn the coloring and glazing of pottery. He did it with the direct intention of giving himself the experience of success in an avocation, since his profession, which is psychiatry, calls on him to deal constantly with refractory material. The confidence which he gains in one line is carried over into his difficult daily work; and in addition he has an engrossing hobby which freshens his mind and has become one more source of approval, since his modeling has come to be always amusing and frequently really distinguished. He must have had a great deal of talent, you may think. Well, what he did have was the knowledge that he had always been attracted by the idea of modeling; he had never touched clay until he was in his thirties. He simply took a desire which almost everyone has felt at some time or other and turned it into a source of pleasure and added self-confidence.
Again, in the Art Institute of Chicago there is a room called by the name of a business man who learned to paint after he was fifty. His work, entered in a competition in which his name could not possibly be known, took a first prize. There is now a club of middle-aged business and professional men in Chicago who are studying art and producing good work.
A thirty-year-old clerk in a business office who had had no early advantages had wanted all her life to play the piano. One day on her walk home, moved by an impulse which she fortunately did not resist, she turned into a house which advertised music lessons by a little sign in the window. Her success, of course, is only comparative. She has not the time needed to make a really excellent musician, nor did she begin early enough to train the special muscles that a professional pianist uses.
But she succeeded in reference to her own goal. Her whole life has been altered by that moment of courage. Besides the pleasure she has had from understanding music as only the performer can ever understand it, she has, and knows she has, acted in an adult fashion which resulted in giving her more confidence in every relation of her life. From being the overworked and oppressed drudge of her home, she came to live in her own small apartment, she visits her family on terms of amicable indifference, and has made a group of friends whose tastes coincide with hers.
These three cases should give a hint, at least, of the proper procedure. Take a definite step to turn a dream into a reality. Say, for instance, that you want to travel and have never been able to do so. When this dream is to be removed from the region of dreams to the region of reality there are several things which must be done. If you are not doing them, you are giving yourself good evidence that you are letting your infantile unconscious dictate the terms of your living rather than your rational mind.
If you want to see Italy, for instance, you will certainly enjoy Italy better if you can speak a few words of the language, read a current newspaper in Italian, or know of Italy’s past. Do you? Yet there are many excellent small grammars, phrasebook and histories; and how better can you get started than quietly to buy one of these? What else will you need? Time and money. Well, reverse the usual phrase and say to yourself, what is certainly true, that money is time: that if you have a fund of money on which to travel you have also a fund of time. Start in to get it. Put asides small coin each day, but don’t stop there. Think what work you can do in your spare time that will bring you a little more money for your journey. If it is nothing more than to sit with children while their parents are at parties, and if you think of the payment as absolutely dedicated to your intention to travel, you will be acting towards a successful life.
A young and hard-worked assistant editor, wanting to travel, found his way to the offices of an Italian newspaper printed in New York, there received help in translating an advertisement he had written into Italian, in which he offered to exchange lessons in English or in journalism for lessons in Italian. Two years later he went to Italy as tutor companion to a young boy, and today he is secretary in a minor capacity in the diplomatic service: the goal he always had in view for himself, but had for years considered unattainable because he had to live up to the very edge of his financial margin.
Be careful that you do not turn these first steps into merely a more elaborate way of playing the old game of daydreaming with yourself. Do something every day towards your intention, however remote your goal may have to be. If you like to model, stop at a ten-cent store and buy plasticine tomorrow; if to travel, write for folders; at the very least, if you have no money to spend at all, you can go to, or get into correspondence with, the nearest public library, and learn to use the expert services of librarians.
At first say as little as possible to others of what you intend to do. Get an effect before beginning to talk. If you talk too soon you may almost come to feel that there is a conspiracy against your doing anything out of your usual routine; you will be at least partly right. Those who are still slaves to dreams, to the Will to Fail, are made uncomfortable by the sight of anyone who is breaking free. They feel that there is in the unwonted action some criticism directed at themselves, and become uneasy. At any moment, the Unconscious knows its supremacy may be disturbed, its opportunities for reverie taken away from it. So it begins to fight. One of the most universal forms this combat taken is that of quotation; maxims which sound wise, but which are usually only self consolatory, spring to the lips of those who reject reality.
“The skies change,” they will say to you, sententiously; “the heart remains the same,” but they will not be quoting in the sense of the original. Or “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” you will hear, from those who cannot be bothered to look beyond their own front yards. And so the subtle process of undermining your enthusiasm, and bolstering themselves in their own opinion, will go on. If proverbs fail, they will fall back on teasing.
Now you, if you are at last tearing yourself free, are entering into a conspiracy with Reality, an agreement to see how much may be got out of life if you act with a little more directness and courage than you have used before. Don’t put yourself into a position to be discouraged at the start, or bullied out of, or teased about, your new program. Within a short time the results of your action will speak for themselves, providing you with all the justification you need.
Always your first question to yourself should be, “What would I be doing now if it were really impossible for me to fail at – whatever it is: traveling, modeling, writing, farming?” It may be any of these things, or any one of a hundred more: to dance, or dress-make, study calculus or Greek, become better looking, or hear more music.
Whatever it is, by thinking, you can discover easily what the first step would be if you were engaged with reality, and not with a dream of a different life. Now you are engaged with reality; take that first step. Then ask yourself the next, and so on until you see the ambition itself taking form in your life, beginning to grow with what looks like independent growth, beginning to carry you along instead of having to be searched after. For that is what happens: at a certain stage you will find that you are being borne along swiftly and easily on the momentum started by your own initial actions. “Life is infinitely flexible,” an old analyst used to say to his patients; and while that may be a little excessive, it is true that life is far more malleable, more flexible, than it seems to be so long as we are unwilling to act.
Or there is another way of starting to act successfully. We seldom realize how great an amount of the friction we all undergo in our lives comes from our expecting to be rebuffed or ignored. Think back to some encounter you had today in your office, in a store, with a servant or tradesman in your home. Try to remember just the form your request took. Making all due allowances for courtesy, or for the respectfulness due to superiors and elders, was there not in addition a tentativeness about your request? Didn’t you ask for cooperation in such a way as to leave room for refusal, or grudging action, or for being ignored? Now, think of the ideal way in which that question could have been asked, or that order given. It can be cast just as courteously as before, but in such a way that the person of whom you asked help cannot refuse you without being deliberately surly and hostile.
That is the tone of success. When you find it you benefit not only yourself, but the person with whom you must cooperate for effectiveness. Do not waste another’s time and energy or your own patience by suggesting even indirectly that there is more than one course of action, if there is only one which will get the result you require. The work to be done takes half the time if the attention is undivided and so is free to go on to the next demand quickly.
Have you ever been in an office where, let us say, a worker who considers herself rather too well-bred for the position she fills is one of your coworkers? “Oh, Mr. Robinson,” she will say, elaborately, “if you have just a moment to spare, will you go over those reports on your desk some time soon? I hate to trouble such a busy man, but Mr. Smith wants them.” Now, deplorable or not, it is just plain ornery human nature to wish you hadn’t just a moment to spare, to cast around you almost automatically for something else you might be doing which would make you far too busy to get to that request right away. Yet probably going over those reports is the next thing on your program, anyway; if you succumb to the temptation to hold up the work and teach the ex-countess a lesson, you hold up the whole work of the office and get into trouble with your superior officers. Now, wasn’t your time and energy wasted by the unfortunate way that simple request was made? Yet the chances are that you yourself say, “Miss Thomas, will you get me the Drummond correspondence, if you aren’t too busy?” when it is Miss Thomas’ function to get the correspondence at your request whether she is otherwise busy or not; when she will have to say “Certainly,” and pretend that she is free to refuse if she likes. It would be just as simple to say, “Miss Thomas, I need the Drummond correspondence” – which would release her to go straight to the task, feeling that she was not receiving a consideration more than half-patronizing, and not even needing to make a perfunctory reply. If the tone of the simpler sentence is courteous and considerate you have not only left her feelings unwounded, you have treated her as your willing coworker and given her cause not to think of herself as a touchy subordinate who must be mollified.
These seem such minor matters, but it is the sum of small things successfully done that lifts a life out of bondage to the humdrum. Women are particularly subject to using the wrong tone to subordinates or office associates, and many of the charges that women are discriminated against in business come from the fact that quite unconsciously they import a mistaken polish into their everyday affairs. Women who complain nightly of incompetence or insolence from maids or children, office girls who have serial stories to tell of impertinence or “office politics,” are, in almost every case, the ones really at fault. By approaching their human contacts with the wrong attitude, by using the wrong tone and the wrong words, they open the way for differences of opinion which never need arise.
By going over your day in imagination before you begin it, thinking of all the contacts you are likely to have and how they can best be handled, listening to your own voice and correcting it till you get the tone which is at once courteous and unanswerable, you can begin acting successfully at any moment. By doing so you will find that you get through your business day with less fatigue; with what you have left you can begin to realize some minor wish of which you have long dreamed in secret.
From there it is only a step to finding the courage to begin to do the major things which you have wanted and hoped to do.
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