Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Darius Ogden Mills, A Self-Made Man who Strives to Give Others a Chance

"If a bootblack does all the good he possibly can I for his fellowmen, his life has been just as successful as that of the millionaire who helps thousands."

That was what Darius Ogden Mills said when I asked him to give me his idea of a successful life. His next reply was quite as epigrammatic.

"What, Mr. Mills, do you consider the keynote of success?"

"Work," he replied, quickly and emphatically.

"Work develops all the good there is in a man; idleness all the evil. Work sharpens all his faculties and makes him thrifty; idleness makes him lazy and a spendthrift. Work surrounds a man with those whose habits are industrious and honest; in such society a weak man develops strength, and a strong man is made stronger. Idleness, on the other hand, is apt to throw a man into the company of men whose only object in life usually is the pursuit of unwholesome and demoralizing diversions."

Mr. Mills is quite averse to being interviewed, but when I told him that his words would be carried to many thousands of young men, and probably do considerable good in the way of encouragement and inspiration, he consented to a brief talk.


I asked Mr. Mills when he would be ready for me, and he replied: —

"I am just as ready now as I ever will be. There is no time like the present."

Like an oasis in the desert is the experience of a man, the accumulation of whose wealth has been on lines parallel with the conducive rather than counter to the welfare of mankind. This is what Mr. Mills says on the subject: —

"A man can, in the accumulation of a fortune, be just as great a benefactor of mankind as in the distribution of it. In organizing a great industry, one opens up fields of employment for a multitude of people who might otherwise be practically helpless, giving them not only a chance to earn a living for themselves and their families, but also to lay by a competency for old age. All honest, sober men, if they have half a chance, can do that; but only a small percentage can ever become rich. Now the rich man, having acquired his wealth, knows better how to manage it than those under him would, and having actual possession, he has the power to hold the community of his employees and their interests together, and prevent disintegration, which means disaster so much oftener to the employee than to the employer."

Volumes of fascinating matter could be written of the career of Mr. Mills, but the purpose of this article is a talk with, rather than a talk about him.

"To what formative influence do you attribute your material success, Mr. Mills?" I asked.

"I was taught very early that I would have to depend entirely upon myself; that my future lay in my own hands. I had that for a start, and it was a good one. I didn't waste any time bothering about succession to wealth, which so often acts as a drag upon young men. Many persons waste the best years of their lives waiting for dead men's shoes; and, when they get them, find them entirely too big to wear gracefully, simply because they have not developed themselves to wear them. I have never accepted an inheritance or anything but goodwill from my family or relatives."


"As a rule, the small inheritance, which, to a boy, would seem large, has a tendency to lessen his efforts, and is a great damage to him in the way of acquiring habits necessary to success. Above all, no one can acquire a fortune unless he makes a start; and the habit of thrift, which he learns in saving his first hundred dollars, is of inestimable value later on. It is not the money, but the habit which counts. There is no one so helpless as a man who is 'broke,' no matter how capable he may be, and there is no habit so detrimental to his reputation among business men as that of borrowing small sums of money. This cannot be too emphatically impressed upon young men. Another thing is that none but the wealthy, and very few of them, can afford the indulgence of expensive habits; how much less then can a man wath only a few dollars in his pockets? More young men are ruined by the expense of smoking than in any other way. The money thus laid out would make them independent, in many cases, or at least would give them a good start. A young man should be warned by the melancholy example of those who have been ruined by smoking, and avoid it."


"What marked traits have the influential men, with whom you have been associated, possessed, which most impressed you?"

"A habit of thinking and acting for themselves. No end of people are ruined by taking the advice of others. This may answer temporarily, but in the long run it is sure to be disastrous. Any man who hasn't ability to judge for himself would better get a comfortable clerkship somewhere, letting some one of more ambition and ability do the thinking necessary to run the business."

"Are the opportunities for making money as numerous today as they were when you started in business ?"

"Yes, the progress of science and invention has in creased the opportunities a thousandfold, and a man can find them wherever he seeks them, in the United States in particular. It has caused the field of employment of labor of all kinds to expand enormously, thus creating opportunities which never existed before. It is no longer necessary for a man to go to foreign countries or distant parts of his own country to make money. Opportunities come to him in every quarter. There is hardly a point in the country so obscure that it has not felt the revolutionizing influence of commercial enterprise. Probably railroads and electricity are the chief instruments in this respect. Other industries follow closely in their wake."


"In what part of the country do you think the best chances for young men may be found ?"

"The best place for a young man to make money is the town in which he was born and educated. There he learns all about everybody, and everybody learns about him. This is to his advantage if he bears a good character, and to the advantage of his townspeople if he bears a bad one. While a young man is growing up, he unconsciously absorbs a vast deal of knowledge of people and affairs, which would be equal to money if he only has the judgment to avail himself of it. A knowledge of men is the prime secret of business success. Upon reflection, how absurd it is for a man to leave a town where he knows everything and everybody, and go to some distant point where he doesn't know anything about anybody, or anything, and expect to begin on an equal footing with the people there who are thorojighly acquainted."

"What lesson do you consider best for young men to learn?"

"The lesson of humility; —not in the sense of being servile or undignified, but in that of paying due respect to men who are their superiors in the way of experience, knowledge and position. Such a lesson is akin to that of discipline. Members of the royal families of Europe are put in subordinate positions in the navies or armies of their respective countries, in order that they may receive the training necessary to qualify them to take command. They must first know how to obey, if they would control others."


"In this country, it is customary for the sons of the presidents of great railroads, or other companies, to begin at the bottom of the ladder and work their way up step by step, just the same as any other boy in the employ of the corporation. This course has become imperatively necessary in the United States, where each great business has become a profession in itself. Most of the big machine shops number among their employees, scions of old families who carry dinner pails, and work with files or lathes, the same as anyone else. Such shoulder-to-shoulder experience is invaluable to a man who is destined to command, because he not only masters the trade technically, but learns all about the men he works with and qualifies himself to grapple with labor questions which may arise.

"There is no end of conspicuous examples of the wisdom of this system in America. There are also many instances of disaster to great industrial concerns due to the inexperience or the lack of tact of men placed suddenly in control."

"What is the responsibility of wealth, Mr. Mills?"

"A man must learn not to think too much of money. It should be considered as a means and not an end, and the love for it should never be permitted to so warp a man's mind as to destroy his interest in progressive ideas. Making money is an education, and the wide experience thus acquired teaches a man discrimination in both men and projects, where money is under consideration. Very few men who make their own money use it carelessly. Most good projects that fail owe their failure to bad business management, rather than to lack of intrinsic merit. An inventor may have a very good thing, and plenty of capital may be enlisted, but if a man not acquainted with the peculiar line, or one who is not a good salesman or financier be employed as manager, the result is disastrous. A man should spend his money in a way that tends to advance the best interests of society in the country he lives in, or in his own neighborhood at least. There is only one thing that is a greater harm to the community than a rich spendthrift, and that is a miser."


"How did you happen to establish the system of hotels which bear your name, Mr. Mills?"

"I had been looking around for several years to find something to do that would be for the good of the community. My mind was largely on other matters, but it occurred to me that the hotel project was the best, and I immediately went to work at it. My purpose was to do the work on so large a scale that it would be appreciated and spread all over the country, for as the sources of education extend, we find more and more need of assisting men who have a disposition for decency and good citizenship. The mechanic is well paid, and the man who has learned to labor is much more independent than he who is prepared for a profession, science or other objects in life that call for higher education. Clerks commencing at small salaries need good surroundings and economy to give themselves a start. Such are the men for whom the hotels were established."

«— Chapter 7, Sir Thomas J. Lipton || Index Page || Chapter 9, Russell Sage —»