Chapter 21

  1. Practical Talents

It is a common saying that the man of practical ability far surpasses the theorist. Just what is meant by practical ability is, perhaps, hard to explain. It is more easy to tell what it is not than what it is. It recognizes the fact that life is action; that mere thoughts and schemes will avail nothing unless subsequently wrought out in action. It is an indescribable quality which results from a union of worldly knowledge with shrewdness and tact. He that sets out on the journey of life with a profound knowledge of books, but with a shallow knowledge of men, with much of the sense of others, but with little of his own, will find himself completely at a loss on occasions of common and constant recurrence.

Speculative ability is one thing, and practical ability is another; and the man who in his study or with his pen in hand shows himself capable of forming large views of life and policy, may in the outer world be found altogether unfitted for carrying them into practical effect. Speculative ability depends on vigorous thinking, practical ability in vigorous acting, and the two qualities are usually found combined in very unequal proportions. The speculative man is prone to indecision; he sees all sides of a question, and his action becomes suspended in nicely weighing the arguments for and against, which are often found nearly to balance each other; whereas the practical man overleaps logical preliminaries and arrives at certain definite convictions, and proceeds forthwith to carry his policy into action. The mere theorist rarely displays practical ability; and, conversely, the practical man rarely displays a high degree of speculative wisdom. If you try to carve a stone with a razor, the razor will lose its edge, and the stone remain uncut. A high education, unless it is practical as well as classical, often unfits a man for contest with his fellow-man. Intellectual culture, if carried beyond a certain point, is too often purchased at the expense of moral vigor. It gives edge and splendor to a man, but draws out all his temper.

In all affairs of life, but more especially in those great enterprises which require the co-operation of others, a knowledge of men is indispensable. This knowledge implies not only quickness of penetration and sagacity, but many other superior elements of character; for it is important to perceive not merely in whom we can confide, but to maintain that influence over them which secures their good faith and defeats the unworthy purpose of a wavering and dishonest mind. The world always laughs at those failures which arise from weakness of judgment and defects of penetration. Practical wisdom is only to be learned in the school of experience. Precepts and instruction are useful so far as they go; but without the discipline of real life they remain of the nature of theories only. The hard facts of existence give that touch of truth to character which can never be imparted by reading or tuition, but only by contact with the broad instincts of common men and women.

Intellectual training is to be prized, but practical knowledge is necessary to make it available. Experience gained from books, however valuable, is of the nature of learning; experience gained from outward life is wisdom; and an ounce of the latter is worth a pound of the former. Rich mental endowments, thorough culture, great genius, brilliant parts have often existed in company with very glaring deficiencies in what may be called good judgment; while there is a certain stability of judgment and soundness of understanding often displayed by those who have not an extensive education. The old sailor knows nothing of nautical astronomy. Azimuths, right ascensions, and the solution of spherical triangles have no charm and little meaning to him. But he can scan the seas and skies and warn of coming danger with a natural wisdom which all the keen intellect and ready mathematics of the young lieutenant do not afford. The man, who has traveled much accumulates a store of useful information, and can give hints of practical wisdom which no deep study of geological lore or of antiquarian research could afford. The student of life rather than of books gains an understanding by experience for which no store of erudition can prove an adequate compensation. The true order of learning should be, first, what is necessary; second, what is useful; and third, what is ornamental. To reverse this arrangement is like beginning to build at the top of the edifice. Practical ability depends in a large measure on the employment of what is known as common sense, which is the average sensibility and intelligence of men undisturbed by individual peculiarities. Fine sense and exalted sense are not half as useful as common sense. There are forty men of wit for one man of sense, and he that will carry nothing but gold will be every day at a loss for readier change.

The height of ability consists in a thorough knowledge of the real value of things and of the genius of the age we live in, and could we know by what strange circumstances a man’s genius becomes prepared for practical success, we should discover that the most serviceable items in his education were never entered in the bills his father paid for. That knowledge of the world which inculcates strict vigilance in regard to our individual interests and representation, which recommends the mastery of things to be held in our own hands, or which enables us to live undamaged by the skillful maneuvers and crafty plots of plausible men on the one hand or uncontaminated by the depravities of unprincipled ones on the other, is of daily acquisition and equally accessible to all.

The most learned of men do not always make the best of teachers; the lawyer who has achieved a classical education is not always the most successful. The men who have wielded power have not always been graduates. Brindley and Stephenson did not learn to read and write until they were twenty years old; yet the one gave England her railroads, and the other her canals. The great inventor is one who has walked forth upon the industrial world, not from universities, but from hovels; not as clad in silks and decked with honors, but as clad in fustian and grimed with soot and oil. It is not known where he who invented the plow was born, or where he died; yet he has effected more for the happiness of the world than the whole race of heroes and conquerors who drenched it in tears and blood, whose birth, parentage, and education have been handed down to us with a precision proportionate to the mischief they have done. Mankind owes more of its real happiness to this humble inventor than to some of the most acute minds in the realm of literature.

Education, indeed, accomplishes wonders in fitting a man for the work of success, but we sometimes forget that it is of more consequence to have the mind well disciplined rather than richly stored,—strong rather than full. Every day we see men of high culture distanced in the race of life by the upstart who can not spell. The practical dunce outstrips the theorizing genius. Life teems with such illustrations. Men have ruled well who could not define a commonwealth; and they who did not understand the shape of the earth have commanded a greater portion of it. The want of practical talent in men of fine intellectual powers has often excited the wonder of the crowd. They are astonished that one who has grasped, perhaps, the mightiest themes, and shed a light on the path to be pursued by others, should be unable to manage his own affairs with dexterity. But this is not strange. Deep thinking and practical talents require habits of mind almost entirely dissimilar, and though they may, and often do, exist conjointly, and while it is the duty of all to strive to cultivate both, yet such is the constitution of the human mind that it is apt to go to extremes. And he who accustoms himself to deep prying into nature’s secrets, to exploring the hidden mysteries of the past, is too apt to forget the practical details of every-day life, to pass them by with disgust, as altogether beneath his attention. This is an error, and none the less reprehensible on that account than is the conduct of those who become so engrossed with the practical affairs of their calling or profession as to forget that they have a higher nature, and sink the man in the pursuit of their ambitious dreams.

A man who sees limitedly and clearly is both more sure of himself and is more direct in dealing with circumstances and with men than is a man who has a large horizon of thought, whose many-sided capacity embraces an immense extent of objects, just as the somnambulist treads with safety where the wide-awake man could not hope to follow. Practical men cut the knots which they can not untie, and, overleaping all preliminaries, come at once to a conclusion. Men of theoretical knowledge, on the other hand, are tempted to waste time in comparing and meditating when they should be up and doing. Practical knowledge will not always of itself raise a man to eminence, but for want of it many a man has fallen short of distinction. Without it the best runner, straining for the prize, finds himself suddenly tripped up and lying on his back in the midst of the race. Without it the subtlest theologian will live and die in an obscure country village, and the acutest legal mind fail of adorning the bench. The man who lacks it may be a great thinker or a great worker. He may be an acute reasoner and an eloquent speaker, and yet, in spite of all this, fail of success. There is a hitch, a stand-still, a mysterious want somewhere. Little, impalpable trifles weave themselves into a web which holds him back. The fact is, he is not sufficiently in accord with his surroundings. He has never seen the importance of adjusting his scale of weights and measures to the popular standard. In a word, he is not a man of the world, in a popular sense.

While it may be very difficult to define this practical ability, which is so all-important, yet the path to be pursued by him who would advance therein is visible to all. It requires a shrewd and careful observance of men and things rather than of books. It requires that the judgment be strengthened by being called upon in apparently trivial affairs. The memory must be trained to recall principles rather than statements. All the faculties of the mind must be trained to act with decision and dispatch. Education must be regarded as a means and not as an end. By these means, while admitting that practical talents are, in their true sense, a gift of God, still we can cultivate and bring them to perfection, and by education and experience convert that which before lay dormant in the rough pebble into a dazzling diamond.

, In, pager

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