Self Help (1859) by Samuel Smiles

Self Help (1859) by Samuel Smiles

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This was in many ways the pioneer self-help book, which paved the way for the thousands which have followed in its wake. It was written by an altruist who didn’t major in psychology, but learned in the school of hard knocks. Born and bred in Scotland he was one of eleven children, who left school at fourteen and learnt the discipline of self-reliance from a very early age. When his shop-keeper father died he was taken under the wing of an East-Lothian doctor, who recognized his talents and steely determination. After serving for some while as an apprentice doctor, his mentor generously gave him the finance to study medicine at Edinburgh University. Once qualified, he set out on his lifetime campaign to help the underprivileged. In a lecture to a Mutual Improvement Society he explained the essence of what was to become his lifetime vocation: ‘Every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish.’

To get this message across Smiles started writing articles for the local newspapers, which led to an invitation to become editor of the Leeds Times at the age of only twenty-six. Eventually he set out to reach a larger audience, which inspired him to write Self Help. He submitted the manuscript to Routledge, which was then one of the leading London publishers, but they immediately turned it down. Not deterred by this rejection, he decided to finance the publication of the book himself.  In the first twelve months it sold twenty thousand copies, despite being launched in the same year as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and J.S. Mills’ On Liberty. The book went on to be translated into sixteen languages and was at one time outselling every book apart from the bible, appealing in particular to those who saw the benefits of the Puritan work ethic. Although times have changed, the book continues to be reprinted and remains a source of widespread inspiration. In fact it has been selected by the UK Institute of Directors as one of the three ‘most influential management books of all time’, the other two being Alfred Sloane’s My Years with General Motors, and Parkinson’s Law by Professor C Northcote Parkinson.

The publication of the book elevated him to A-list celebrity status overnight. Within days of the book’s appearance Smiles was elevated to A-list celebrity status, and was inundated with invitations to lecture and open exhibitions. Some years later, with his fame undiminished, he found himself at a dinner in a place of honour beside George Routledge, the founder and head of the eponymous family publishing company. Early in their conversation the publisher asked him: ‘And when, Dr Smiles, are we to have the honour of publishing one of your books.’  To which Smiles wryly replied that twenty years before he’d had the honour of rejecting Self Help. This was a book which was regularly given as a book prize in schools and which many families held to be of almost equal relevance as the bible. Early in his career a copy fell into the hands of John Sainsbury, the founder of the famous chain of British food stores. At the time he had just one food outlet in London’s Drury Lane, but his long term aim was to have six stores so that each of his six sons could have one to manage. This goal was quickly reached, and in later life he acknowledged the great debt he owed to Self Help, with its emphasis on hard work, thrift and self-discipline.

Many people find the book’s political views somewhat difficult to comprehend, with their ardent support for both socialism and free enterprise. The paradox is easily explained, because while Smiles was an ardent reformer, he was in no doubt whatsoever that the state was the embodiment of sloth, incompetence and waste. He would abhor the sprawling welfare bureaucracy we have today, believing that the best way to prosperity is through self-help and mutual co-operation. Many of his sayings are still in use today, although by no means all are original.  For instance he didn’t believe in multitasking, and advised that ‘The short way to do many things is to do only one thing at a time’. This, he acknowledged, was a direct lift from an earlier writer. ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’ was one of his original quotations, although it appeared in his later book Thrift, rather than in Self Help. And the saying ‘Heaven helps those who help themselves’, which is often attributed to Smiles, was actually in widespread use at least two centuries before. Nevertheless the book clearly stated the justification for self help books at a time when people were beginning to rely on government regulation to improve their lot. As Smiles wrote: ‘No laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious, the thrift-less provident, or the drunken sober. Such reforms can only be affected by means of individual action, economy and self-denial.’

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