The Young Man's Guide - by William A. Alcott

Fix upon a high standard of character. To be thought well of, is not sufficient. The point you are to aim at, is, the greatest possible degree of usefulness.

He who only aims at little, will accomplish but little. Expect great things, and attempt great things.

In order to form economical habits, several important points must be secured. You must have for every purpose and thing a time, and place; and every thing must be done at the time, and all things put in their place.

Every thing must be done at the time. Whether you attempt little or much, let every hour have its employment, in business, study, social conversation, or diversion; and unless it be on extraordinary occasions, you must not suffer your plan to be broken. It is in this way that many men who perform an incredible amount of business, have abundant leisure. And it is for want of doing business systematically that many who effect but little, never find much leisure. They spend their lives in literally 'doing nothing.'

It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Perhaps there is nothing which so improves human character, as suffering wrongfully; although the world may be slow to admit the principle.

He that thinks he shall not, most surely will not, please. A man of sense, and knowledge of the world, will assert his own rights, and pursue his own purposes as steadily and uninterruptedly as the most impudent man living; but then there is at the same time an air of modesty in all he does; while an overbearing or impudent manner of doing the same things, would undoubtedly have given offence. Hence a certain wise man has said; 'He who knows the world will not be too bashful; and he who knows himself will never be impudent.'

The following are a few plain directions for attaining the character of a well-bred man:

  1. Never weary your company by talking too long, or too frequently.

  2. Always look people in the face when you address them, and generally when they are speaking to you.

  3. Attend to a person who is addressing you. Inattention marks a trifling mind, and is a most unpardonable piece of rudeness. It is even an affront; for it is the same thing as saying that his remarks are not worth your attention.

  4. Do not interrupt the person who is speaking by saying yes, or no, or hem, at every sentence; it is the most useless thing that can be. An occasional assent, either by word or action, may be well enough; but even a nod of assent is sometimes repeated till it becomes disgusting.

  5. Remember that every person in a company likes to be the hero of that company. Never, therefore, engross the whole conversation to yourself.

  6. Learn to sit or stand still, while another is speaking to you. You will not of course be so rude as to dig in the earth with your feet, or take your penknife from your pocket and pair your nails; but there are a great many other little movements which are scarcely less clownish.

  7. Never anticipate for another, or help him out, as it is called. This is quite a rude affair, and should ever be avoided. Let him conclude his story for himself. It is time enough for you to make corrections or additions afterward, if you deem his account defective. It is also a piece of impoliteness to interrupt another in his remarks.

  8. Say as little of yourself and your friends as possible.

  9. Make it a rule never to accuse, without due consideration, any body or association of men.

  10. Never try to appear more wise or learned than the rest of the company. Not that you should affect ignorance; but endeavor to remain within your own proper sphere.

On account of meeting with much that disgusts us, many are tempted to avoid society generally. The frivolous conversation, and still more frivolous conduct, which they meet with, they regard as a waste of time, and perhaps even deem it a duty to resign themselves to solitude. This, however, is a great mistake. Those who have been most useful to mankind acted very differently. They mingled with the world, in hopes to do something towards reforming it.

Every young man, on setting out in the world, should make it a rule, never to trust any thing of consequence to another, which he can, without too much difficulty, perform himself.

  1. Because, let a person have my interest ever so much at heart, I am sure I regard it more myself.

  2. Nothing is more difficult than to know, in all cases, the characters of those we confide in. How can we expect to understand the characters of others, when we scarcely know our own? Which of us can know, positively, that he shall never be guilty of another vice or weakness, or yield to another temptation, and thus forfeit public confidence? Who, then, will needlessly trust another, when he can hardly be sure of himself?

  3. No substitute we can employ, can understand our business as well as ourselves.

  4. We can change our measures according to changing circumstances; which gives us those opportunities of doing things in the best way, of which another will not feel justified in availing himself.

How to know with whom to deal. There are two maxims in common life that seem to clash with each other, most pointedly. The first is, 'Use every precaution with a stranger, that you would wish you had done, should he turn out to be a villain;' and secondly, 'Treat every man as an honest man, until he proves to be otherwise.' Now there is good advice in both these maxims. By this I mean that they may both be observed, to a certain extent, without interfering with each other. You may be cautious about hastily becoming acquainted with a stranger, and yet so far as you have any concern with him, treat him like an honest man. No reasonable person will complain if you do not unbosom yourself to him at once. And if he is unreasonable, you will not wish for an intimate acquaintance with him.

Of desiring the good opinion of others. A young man is not far from ruin, when he can say, without blushing, I don't care what others think of me. To be insensible to public opinion, or to the estimation in which we are held by others, by no means indicates a good and generous spirit. A wise man, when he hears of reflections made upon him, will consider whether they are just. If they are, he will correct the faults in question, with as much cheerfulness as if they had been suggested by his dearest friend. I have sometimes thought that, in this view, enemies were the best of friends. Those who are merely friends in name, are often unwilling to tell us a great many things which it is of the highest importance that we should know. But our enemies, from spite, envy, or some other cause, mention them; and we ought on the whole to rejoice that they do, and to make the most of their remarks.

An old writer says that 'Every one should mind his own business; for he who is perpetually concerning himself about the good or ill fortune of others, will never be at rest.' And he says truly.

One useful method of improving the mind, and preparing ourselves for usefulness, would be, to carry a small blank book and pencil in our pockets, and when any interesting fact occurred, embrace the first spare moment to put it down, say on the right hand page; and either then, or at some future time, place on the left hand page, our own reflections about it. Some of the most useful men in the world owe much of their usefulness to a plan like this, promptly and perseveringly followed. Quotations from books or papers might also be preserved in the same manner.

I repeat it, nothing is better calculated to preserve a young man from the contamination of low pleasures and pursuits, than frequent intercourse with the more refined and virtuous of the other sex. Besides, without such society his manners can never acquire the true polish of a gentleman,--general character, dignity, and refinement;--nor his mind and heart the truest and noblest sentiments of a man. Make it an object then, I again say, to spend some portion of every week of your life in the company of intelligent and virtuous ladies. At all events, flee solitude, and especially the exclusive society of your own sex. If you should be so unfortunate as not to have among your acquaintance any ladies whose society would, in these points of view, be profitable to you, do not be in haste to mix with the ignorant and vulgar; but wait patiently till your own industry and good conduct shall give you admission to better circles; and in the meantime cultivate your mind by reading and thinking, so that when you actually gain admission to good society, you may know how to prize and enjoy it.