A Question And An Answer by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay


I have been reading your articles in The Evening Post. They are really most amusing! You do know such a lot about people and things, that I am tempted to write and ask you a question on a subject that is puzzling me. What is it that is necessary to succeed–socially? There! It is out! Please do not laugh at me. Such funny people get on and such clever, agreeable ones fail, that I am all at sea. Now do be nice and answer me, and you will have a very grateful


The above note, in a rather juvenile feminine hand, and breathing a faint perfume of violette de Parme, was part of the morning’s mail that I found lying on my desk a few days ago, in delightful contrast to the bills and advertisements which formed the bulk of my correspondence. It would suppose a stoicism greater than I possess, not to have felt a thrill of satisfaction in its perusal. There was, then, some one who read with pleasure what I wrote, and who had been moved to consult me on a question (evidently to her) of importance. I instantly decided to do my best for the edification of my fair correspondent (for no doubt entered my head that she was both young and fair), the more readily because that very question had frequently presented itself to my own mind on observing the very capricious choice of Dame “Fashion” in the distribution of her favors.

That there are people who succeed brilliantly and move from success to success, amid an applauding crowd of friends and admirers, while others, apparently their superiors in every way, are distanced in the race, is an undeniable fact. You have but to glance around the circle of your acquaintances and relations to be convinced of this anomaly. To a reflecting mind the question immediately presents itself, Why is this? General society is certainly cultivated enough to appreciate intelligence and superior endowments. How then does it happen that the social favorites are so often lacking in the qualities which at a first glance would seem indispensable to success?

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Before going any further let us stop a moment, and look at the subject from another side, for it is more serious than appears to be on the surface. To be loved by those around us, to stand well in the world, is certainly the most legitimate as well as the most common of ambitions, as well as the incentive to most of the industry and perseverance in life. Aside from science, which is sometimes followed for itself alone, and virtue, which we are told looks for no other reward, the hope which inspires a great deal of the persistent efforts we see, is generally that of raising one’s self and those one loves by one’s efforts into a sphere higher than where cruel fate had placed them; that they, too, may take their place in the sunshine and enjoy the good things of life. This ambition is often purely disinterested; a life of hardest toil is cheerfully borne, with the hope (for sole consolation) that dear ones will profit later by all the work, and live in a circle the patient toiler never dreams of entering. Surely he is a stern moralist who would deny this satisfaction to the breadwinner of a family.

There are doubtless many higher motives in life, more elevated goals toward which struggling humanity should strive. If you examine the average mind, however, you will be pretty sure to find that success is the touchstone by which we judge our fellows and what, in our hearts, we admire the most. That is not to be wondered at, either, for we have done all we can to implant it there. From a child’s first opening thought, it is impressed upon him that the great object of existence is to succeed. Did a parent ever tell a child to try and stand last in his class? And yet humility is a virtue we admire in the abstract. Are any of us willing to step aside and see our inferiors pass us in the race? That is too much to ask of poor humanity. Were other and higher standards to be accepted, the structure of civilization as it exists to-day would crumble away and the great machine run down.

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In returning to my correspondent and her perfectly legitimate desire to know the road to success, we must realize that to a large part of the world social success is the only kind they understand. The great inventors and benefactors of mankind live too far away on a plane by themselves to be the object of jealousy to any but a very small circle; on the other hand, in these days of equality, especially in this country where caste has never existed, the social world seems to hold out alluring and tangible gifts to him who can enter its enchanted portals. Even politics, to judge by the actions of some of our legislators, of late, would seem to be only a stepping-stone to its door!

“But my question,” I hear my fair interlocutor saying. “You are not answering it!”

All in good time, my dear. I am just about to do so. Did you ever hear of Darwin and his theory of “selection?” It would be a slight to your intelligence not to take it for granted that you had. Well, my observations in the world lead me to believe that we follow there unconsciously, the same rules that guide the wild beasts in the forest. Certain individuals are endowed by nature with temperaments which make them take naturally to a social life and shine there. In it they find their natural element. They develop freely just where others shrivel up and disappear. There is continually going on unseen a “natural selection,” the discarding of unfit material, the assimilation of new and congenial elements from outside, with the logical result of a survival of the fittest. Aside from this, you will find in “the world,” as anywhere else, that the person who succeeds is generally he who has been willing to give the most of his strength and mind to that one object, and has not allowed the flowers on the hillside to distract him from his path, remembering also that genius is often but the “capacity for taking infinite pains.”

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There are people so constituted that they cheerfully give the efforts of a lifetime to the attainment of a brilliant social position. No fatigue is too great, and no snubs too bitter to be willingly undergone in pursuit of the cherished object. You will never find such an individual, for instance, wandering in the flowery byways that lead to art or letters, for that would waste his time. If his family are too hard to raise, he will abandon the attempt and rise without them, for he cannot help himself. He is but an atom working as blindly upward as the plant that pushes its mysterious way towards the sun. Brains are not necessary. Good looks are but a trump the more in the “hand.” Manners may help, but are not essential. The object can be and is attained daily without all three. Wealth is but the oil that makes the machinery run more smoothly. The all-important factor is the desire to succeed, so strong that it makes any price seem cheap, and that can pay itself by a step gained, for mortification and weariness and heart-burnings.

There, my dear, is the secret of success! I stop because I feel myself becoming bitter, and that is a frame of mind to be carefully avoided, because it interferes with the digestion and upsets one’s gentle calm! I have tried to answer your question. The answer resolves itself into these two things; that it is necessary to be born with qualities which you may not possess, and calls for sacrifices you would doubtless be unwilling to make. It remains with you to decide if the little game is worth the candle. The delightful common sense I feel quite sure you possess reassures me as to your answer.

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Take gayly such good things as may float your way, and profit by them while they last. Wander off into all the cross-roads that tempt you. Stop often to lend a helping hand to a less fortunate traveller. Rest in the heat of the day, as your spirit prompts you. Sit down before the sunset and revel in its beauty and you will find your voyage through life much more satisfactory to look back to and full of far sweeter memories than if by sacrificing any of these pleasures you had attained the greatest of “positions.”

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