Mr. Woodson is President of the American General Insurance Company, well known for his writings on freedom.
In the eyes of the law, a boy becomes a man when he reaches the age of twenty-one.
But I rise this month to suggest to you that a boy truly becomes a man, not on his twenty-first birthday, but, rather, on the day he comes fully to realize that his destiny in this competitive world is his own personal and exclusive responsibility.
This realization comes to some young men long before the twenty-first birthday, and to some others long after that significant anniversary (and sometimes long, long afterward)… and to some it comes not at all.
Now here you might say to yourself that this observation is an elementary one which belabors the obvious and elaborates upon the self-evident. But possibly you will agree, on further reflection, that the point is obvious and self-evident only to the person whose maturity and experience and observation have served to make it so.
Perhaps it will be worth your while to look around you for a moment and contemplate the relationship of this precept to some of those men and women on whom your gaze falls. You will quickly see, I believe, more examples than one of the man who is mature by the calendar but is still an adolescent emotionally and philosophically.
You will observe that such a man still feels deep within himself that he should be able to rely upon others to carry him and coach him, to teach him and help him, and, finally, even to perform for him… and by the same reasoning he feels entitled to place upon others the responsibility for his shortcomings and his failings.
Observe this man closely, I urge you, for there is much to be learned from his immaturity of thought and viewpoint.
He will tell you in his every utterance that he has not yet accepted the responsibility for his own batting average. He will tell you that he has not yet recognized and conquered the natural human impulse of every man to place the blame for his failings and shortcomings outside himself. He will speak to you of advantages denied him, of promises by others long unfulfilled, of assistance due him but not delivered, of faults not in himself but in his stars.
He will account for his inadequate grasp of a subject he should have delved into long ago on the grounds that he was shortchanged in school, or by lack of schooling—forgetting that in the ten or twenty years since he last attended a class he has had ten or twenty years to study and learn had he been of a mind to do so.
He will assure you with all conviction and utmost sincerity that he is not naturally inefficient or willfully indolent, but that his dispersal of effort results from matters quite outside his control. He will tell you that he would have been on time for his appointment with you if he had not been delayed by some third person or some unforeseeable event.
(The most perceptive and discerning man I know remarked once in my hearing, "The man who is always late always has an excuse—always!—and, what is more, it is a good excuse, too; but he nevertheless continues to be always late.")
This man of immaturity, whatever his vocation, will tell you that he would do better occupationally if only he had a better understanding of his own company and its business, or of investments, or economics, or banking, or business law, or whatever, but that nobody has taught him—forgetting that it is his responsibility to learn, not someone else’s obligation to teach, and that virtually everything he needs awaits him in publications to which he has ready access either in his employer’s place of business or at the public library.
He will tell you that he, too, would close more and bigger sales, or turn out cleaner blueprints, or produce more units of work or fewer rejects, or both—if only his manager or supervisor would work with him and coach him and help him "as much as he helps all the other fellows in the department."
He will tell you, his countenance shining with honest certainty, that he works as diligently, as intelligently, as imaginatively, as all those around him, but that the others get more lucky breaks than does he.
(I know a man who says—and believes himself implicitly, mind you!—that he is "the best bridge player" in his particular circle, but that he "can’t hold cards" —by which he means to contend that he has consistently drawn weaker hands than the others in the game over a long period of years. And I give you my word that the man truly believes it!)
The man who is still immature emotionally and philosophically tells you this truth about himself by his attempts to place the responsibility for his deficiencies upon circumstance, or fate, or other persons. He implies to you that he hasn’t yet run up a good score because those others who are supposed to hit the ball for him haven’t done well enough to give him the high batting average to which he would like to become accustomed. He hasn’t yet faced squarely the elementary fact that only his own trips to the plate, and only the hits which he himself drives out and his bat, his eyes, his muscles, his cunning, will serve to build his batting average and his record of accomplishment across the years.
One sunny morning in the year49 A.D., a Roman statesman and philosopher named Lucius Annaeus Seneca sat himself down and wrote a letter to his friend Lucilius. The communication he sent on its way that day has survived these nineteen hundred years because it tells so simply and so unforgettably the truth that all men, until they change themselves by intellectual maturity and strength of character, tend naturally to place the blame for their shortcomings outside themselves.
Here is what he wrote:
"You know of our old housekeeper, our old servant, who has been in our home for years. Her sight has failed and now it is gone. I am telling you a strange but true story: She is not aware that she is blind, and constantly urges her keeper to take her out of doors because she says my house is dark.
"What we laugh at in her, I pray you to believe, happens to every one of us, for no one of us knows himself to be avaricious or covetous or vain.
"The blind at least call for a guide, while we go astray on our own accord. ‘I am not ambitious,’ we say, ‘but in Rome one cannot live otherwise.’ `I am not a spendthrift, but the city requires a great outlay.’ `It is not my fault if I am erratic, if I have not yet settled upon a definite course of life; it is a fault of youth.’
"Let us not seek our disease outside of ourselves; it is within us, it is implanted in our bowels. And the mere fact that we do not perceive ourselves to be sick serves to make our cure more difficult."
If we grow myopic, let us not persuade ourselves that the world grows dark around us. If our own failings hamper us painfully, let us not try to place the blame outside ourselves… "let us not seek our disease outside of ourselves," for the fault is our own.