The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

On Being Ineffectual


    EVERY day I live I am amazed that so many people should be content to be ineffectual in life. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that half the people in the world are ineffectual because they don’t know how to try; and the other half are ineffectual because they don’t even want to try.

    I have an idea that evil came on earth when the first man or woman said: “That isn’t the best than I can do, but it is well enough.” In that sentence the primitive curse was pronounced, and until we banish it from the world again we shall be doomed to inefficiency, sickness, and unhappiness. Thoroughness is an elemental virtue. In nature nothing is slighted, but the least and the greatest [Page 194] of tasks are performed with equal care, and diligence, and patience, and love, and intelligence.

    We are ineffectual because we are slovenly and lazy and content to have things half done. We are willing to sit down and give up before the thing is finished. Whereas we should never stop short of an utmost effort toward perfection so long as there is a breath in our body.

    Women, of course, are worse in this respect than men. Their existence does not depend on their efficiency, and therefore they can be almost as useless and inefficient as they please; whereas, men have behind them a very practical incentive to efficiency, which goes by the name of starvation.

    And there are ineffectual men enough, certainly. It is not a matter of large attempts, but of trifles — the accumulation of trifles that makes ultimate success. For character, like wealth, may be amassed in small quantities, as well as acquired in one day. If you [Page 195] watch a woman dusting a room, you will notice at once whether she will be able to do anything more important in the world, or whether she is destined to keep to such simple work all her days, going gradually from inefficiency to inefficiency, until she gives up at last in despair and falls into the ranks of the great procession of the failures in life. Watch a man harness a horse or mend a fence; you can tell whether or not he will ever own a horse and a farm.

    True, it may not matter whether the last nail is doubled over instead of being driven in to the head, but the state of mind which could be content with one nail too few is fatal. Indifference may not wreck the man’s life at any one turn, but it will destroy him with a kind of dry-rot in the long run. There is a passion for perfection which you will rarely see fully developed; but you may note this fact, that in successful lives it is never wholly lacking.

    I think one great reason for our common [Page 196] inefficiency lies in the fact that we neglect to correlate our forces. When we undertake a task, we do not bring all our powers to bear. I do not mean, of course, that we should expend our utmost force on trifles; that is not necessary; we must always maintain a reserve. I mean that we should call into play in every act something of each of our three natures. If there is a stone to be moved from the middle of the road, there is a right way to move it, and there are a hundred wrong ways. That implies the use of mind. I must bring my wits to the task. Also I may do it gladly, when it will be easy, or grudgingly, when it will be hard and exhausting. In short, for the half-moment, I must devote myself to the stone as thoroughly as if I were rolling it away from the door of heaven. Have you ever noticed a nursemaid getting her baby carriage over the curb? Usually she manages to give it the greatest jolt possible. And I think as soon as women can get off of a street-car properly they should be [Page 197] allowed to vote. It is never enough to put strength into the work, one must put heart and brains as well.

    This matter of correlating the three vital forces is at once perhaps the most important and the least understood element in personal success. It is, in my judgment, incomparably more important than any subject of study in our colleges or schools, more useful than any practical training we are now giving our young men and women; and it is so little understood that I doubt whether more than a very few have considered its real value. I am afraid that, when we do think of it, we are willing to take it for granted, without ever actually relying upon it. That is a pity. We may pervert and neglect our forces as we will; we may spend half a lifetime in using them amiss, and yet so small a trial of right adjustment and correlation would convince us of the enormous gain of power to be had in that direction. [Page 198]