Two years ago I wrote a piece for the Atlantic, in which I told that I had retired from business and was going to ‘play.‘ My immediate friends were curiously puzzled at my ‘foolish,‘ ’unwise,‘ ‘impracticable’ course; but their perplexity was clear as crystal compared with the letters I received from Atlantic readers. It was a veritable chorus of ‘You’ll get tired of it,’and ‘You’ll be back within a year.’ Some conceded me even shorter terms of probation. An eminent, physician wrote me a long fatherly letter, in which he traced my mental and physical disintegration step by step; in fact, month by month. I kept that letter on my desk for a year, consulting it on the first of each month, so that I might, prepare for the particular phase of physical ailment or lack of mental capacity which was to descend upon me in that month.
Thus I began my ‘playtime’ under the most exhilarating circumstances.
The writers who were more nearly correct in their diagnosis of the case reminded me that I had written from theory, which was, of course, a fact. It happened to be a theory well-grounded in conviction. But a theory it was. ‘Wait until you carry your beautiful theory into practice: then there will be another story to tell. Only, naturally, you will take good care not to tell it.'
So, despite this prediction from a son of the West, I beg leave to report.
The period of theory having passed into two actual years of practice, folks ask: ‘Well?’ And they all expect the answer: ‘ You were right. It. did n’t work out. Man was made for business’; and so forth, and so forth.
The truth is, it has worked out: in actual practice the experiment has exceeded the theory.
But not as these folks figured it out, or as, even now, they suppose. The trouble with these writers two years ago was exactly the same trouble which ails them now: they had not, nor have they yet, my view of ‘play.’ They interpreted the word as meaning golf, the saddle, travel, leisure, idleness. I did not. I admit that in the back of my head I had a hope for some leisure. In fact, I translated that hope into building a new study in my home, in which [ pictured myself as spending long, happy days writing and reading. The lady who years ago took her husband for better or for worse — and got both, as the man said — looked at the completed study, approved it; but in the back of her head there was the thought associated with her husband’s leisure: ‘What in the world am I going to do with a man hanging round the house all day?’
Her comment, after two years, is: ‘Why in the world did you build this study? You are never in it.’ And to men: ‘If you want leisure, don’t retire from business.'
To that extent my theory has not worked out. The study stands unoccupied six days a week; the happy days of reading and writing in comfortable seclusion have not come; the problem, ‘what to do with a retired husband,’has solved itself by not presenting itself for solution.
I have played golf less than ever; I have not been in the saddle once; I have read fewer books; I did get in three months of travel, and I did write a book.
‘Then just where does the “play” come in?' is the natural question. And in the answer lies the answer to the doubt so often expressed by scores of business men, who instinctively feel a desire to retire from affairs, but ask, ‘What should I do to keep myself busy ? ’
The question is not so much what to do, as it is which to do. The variety of actually vital things for a man of health and executive ability to do is beyond all calculation, and no one can realize the extent, interest, and variety of these matters until he places himself before his fellow men in a position where his time will permit of taking on new interests. My two years of retirement have made it possible for me to say to any business man: ‘It makes no difference in which particular business you have been; if you retire, you will have more really worth-while red-blooded jobs offered you than you could carry out if there were forty-eight hours in every day.’ And so absolutely will these opportunities be suited to his taste and fitted to his ability, that his problem will be purely one of selection. Far too often is the mistake made that a business man, absorbed all his life in business, would be like a fish out. of water in any position save that which calls for purely commercial knowledge or ability. The fact of the matter is that every interest, outside of purely commercial affairs, is a practical question, and must have a business basis and conduct in order to function successfully. The main trouble with so many of our organized movements is that they lack exactly this essential practical management and business organization, which the man of affairs can supply. The same knowledge of men and management is equally essential in a great civic organization and in a steel corporation; and it is only in proportion as this ability exists in the man at the top that the organization is successful.
It is all work: exactly the same work, the same call upon the capacity for organization, the same knowledge of human nature in the selection of men, the same call for soundness of judgment, wise decisions; the same responsibility. Even greater is the responsibility; for, in a business of his own, the man is to a large extent spending his own money; in a position of civic responsibility also, he is often spending his own, but more largely he is spending the money of others. Instead of dealing with iron, textiles, leather, commodities, and the welfare of his employees, he is now functioning with human beings almost entirely, and this brings the thrill which is missing in inanimate commerce.
No business man, feeling the call in his heart to retire, need think for a single instant that his hands will be empty or his brain remain inactive; nor need he feel that the same capacities which made him successful in trade are not adapted to t he interests which will be presented to him. The one great point of caution and wisdom is that, in his sudden feeling of freedom, he will miscalculate and attempt too much. There is where, I am free to confess, I went wrong, and am still going strong — too strong for comfort or fullest efficiency. The temptation is to take on too much. For in this wonderful world outside of business, a man cannot drive any more horses with efficiency than he can in the world of commercial affairs.
Now, the element of ‘play’ in a world in which there is just as much work as in the business world lies in the psychological joy that everything is self-imposed: all is of one’s own choosing, with the instinct naturally pointing to the thing we most want to do, not to the thing that we must do, whether we like it or not. If there is a world that is like an oyster, it is this world outside of business; where one can choose the kind and size of the oyster, and open it as he wills. This is not work. Work is where one works for self; for one’s own material advancement; for and from necessity. The other work is ‘ play,’ in that one works for others. Someone will say: ‘I don’t see the distinction.’ No one can, until it is actually felt and experienced. But the difference is there; as distinct as night from day; as marked as sunshine is from rain. A man does not feel the same when working for others as when he works for himself, and this is not empty theory or, what we choose to turn up our noses at nowadays, idealism. It is an actual physical fact.
Interesting and varied as were my duties previous to retirement, — and few positions are more absorbing than that of the editor, — I can truthfully say that never have I felt physically stronger, or more mentally fresh, than at the end of these two years of self-retirement. The notion that an active business man will deteriorate it he retires is, of course, — with the inevitable laugh removed from it, — an idle statement and not worth a moment’s consideration. Cyrus W. Field did not deteriorate; nor did George W. Perkins, nor the host of other men who gave up the chase for money for the game of the other fellow. The American public shows no sign of believing that Herbert Hoover is deteriorating.
The trouble with the average business man is that he cannot let go. From habit he has for so many years gone to his desk, that he has become part of it. It has become his shrine, and so assiduous is his worship at it that he turns it into his own execution block. Scores of executives, altogether too long in the harness, are actually convinced — in their own minds — that, if they were to pull out, the wheels of the machine which they have constructed would either creak perceptibly, or cease turning altogether; whereas, the simple truth is that, in nine cases out of ten, they would revolve infinitely faster and more smoothly.
I have known several business concerns, where the best thing that ever happened to their interests was the absence — generally enforced — of the heads, for three or six months: never did the machinery work more smoothly: never did the ledgers show a larger volume of business and a better profit. One would imagine that these executives would learn from such experiences, but, oddly enough, the explanation, to themselves and to others, is always that such a result might be shown for a limited period, but that in the long run the business would naturally feel their absence. And all the while the underexecutives fondly wished — to themselves, of course — that ‘the old man might have remained away a while longer ’!
Puck was right: ‘What fools these mortals be!’ How important we are to ourselves! It is positively pathetic, to how few men comes the realization that they have reached the ‘saturation point.’ And yet these same men could be powerful factors in new positions: a regeneration would come to them with selfless interests which, in their old positions, would be ever denied them.
So many men have said to me during these two years: ’I know. I know you are right. My wife agrees with you. I ought to stop. I mean to stop, too. But I am not quite ready.’ Such men will never be ready. A business man said to me: ‘Heavens! you would n’t want me to leave my business in lean times like these? This is the time of all times when my experience is needed: my guidance valuable.’ That was a year ago. His line of business happened to be one of the few which have recently prospered, and so, three months ago, when he told me how busy were his works, I said: ‘Well, why don’t you retire now?’ He looked at me amazed, forgetting his previous remarks, and answered: ‘What! Leave my business now, when it is coming with a rush? Why this is the time of all times when they need my experience to show them how to handle the volume.’
The time is never right to such a man. He cannot see that his business could work for him for the rest of his life without his working for it, with executives, younger and closer in touch with modern currents, straining at the leash, eager for more responsibility, and equally able to command.
It is true that I have met men during these two years who have retired from business, and have gone back, and gladly, within a year or two, when the novelty of the changed condition wore off. But in every case there was a distinct reason that does not apply to the average intelligent man.
Of course, if a man ret ires from act i ve affairs and deliberately devotes his time to idleness, he will soon exhaust the calendar of interest. And it is right that he should. The world is too busy for retired men of that calibre. But I have yet to meet one man who has let go of business in the right spirit, — and I have both met and heard from a number during these two years, — who for one moment regrets his action or has the slightest desire to go back into the harness.
‘How does, and how can a man, retired from business, spend his time?’ is asked.
Concretely, I should say a great deal of it — too much, alas! —is spent in convincing people why he cannot write this, or speak here, or associate himself with this or that organization, or make an appointment in a day already on a half-hour schedule, or become interested in what every writer believes to be the greatest menace to American life, or what another deems sure ‘is the one solution to present world conditions.’ Nor is my own experience, I find by comparing notes with other retired men, any different from the overtures that come to any man the moment his community knows that his mind is free from business pressure. Of course, a number of these suggestions are unworthy of consideration: I never quite realized before the bewildering number of disordered minds. But after these are all weeded out, the ratio of thoroughly worthy and desirable opportunities is beyond belief. It is a veritable case of holding one’s horses lest one be committed, before he realizes it, to something which engrosses all his time, to the absolute exclusion of even the most minor personal interests. Nor is this to be wondered at when one scans the horizon, and realizes, not only how busy the world is, but how numerous are the problems that cry aloud for solution.
When I retired from my business, I had no set plans, and determined to have none, save that I had promised to write a book. But it was months after my freedom came to me that I could even reach this one definite plan in mind. My vacation was a brief one, of just two days, when I was plunged into one of the most engrossing tasks I ever attempted, and which consumed my energies for weeks. And so it has been for two years, and I fully expect it will be so, if not worse, for the years ahead. The variety is endless. In my own case, my lines tend more to literary, musical, civic, and educational interests. But the opportunities in every activity that the mind can conceive of are equally great, so that no man need feel for a moment that something will not be suggested to him, which will fail of fitting his particular ability or reflecting his special taste. But the thrill which he will feel most is that priceless sense of freedom with which he can consider, select, and assume. The pressure of obligation exists, but it is different. He is not a paid executive: he is an executive of his own free will. If he enters an untried field, where the structure he is asked to raise begins at the very foundation, the novelty of romantic adventure comes full upon him; and as he blazes untried paths for others to follow, he gets a constructive sense that the new paths he created in business failed to produce.
‘All of which,’ says the practical business man, ‘you can do, and still remain in business.’ None of which you can do, and stay in business. I tried it, and I know, and so knows every man who has ever had the two experiences. No man can serve two masters wholly or fully: one or the other must suffer. Besides, the service is not full unless fully given. The problems outside of business to-day call for exactly the same concentration and single-mindedness as do the problems in the business world. They are equally large of scope and wide in momentous potentiality. It is one thing or another: there is no medium road to the man who would feel the real joy of service. That comes only from complete renunciation of the one and a full devotion to the other. You may experience pleasure from the half-time effort, but not that deep inner satisfaction which comes only to the man who serves singly and solely.
So, I respectfully report to all doubting Thomases: —
‘Tired of it!'
Tired of what: one’s priceless freedom ?
‘ A theory that won’t work out! ’
If all theories would only work out. so well!
‘ Ready to go back? ’
To what: the bondage of the dollar and the single-mindedness of the trader?
No, my friends, there is a clearer air than all this, albeit no one has more respect for a man pulling his weight in the world of affairs than I have. But not on and on and on; when he has done his work; when he has accomplished and accumulated; and when, as he was given a chance in youth, it is for him to remember it is his duty to give others and younger men the same chance. No man is a good citizen until he has done his part in the world of business for which every man is created; but, by the same token, no man stamps himself as a good citizen who remains in business when he has accomplished, and refuses then to give others a chance and to give himself unreservedly to that public from which his opportunity for accomplishment has come. Only thus does a man stand as a foursquare citizen.
To that man, seeing clearly and forgetting self, Life holds out an experience that no words can describe, and no amount of writing can explain. To such a man, the gospel of the brotherhood of man becomes something more than a note in an after-dinner speech; idealism becomes a reality, as the soul creates the ideal and the mind takes the l out of it, and it becomes an idea, firm and established in the minds and lives of the people. He realizes, as he cannot in business, that the dreamer precedes the doer. Every day it is freshly brought home to his mind that practical idealism is the truest current that can sway and swing great movements. He comes closer to the American public, and his pride and confidence in that public increase and deepen. And while he constructs the thing in hand, he constructs, broadens and deepens himself; until, after a year’s effort, the walls of his own mind have stretched to an extent which he would not have believed possible, and which years spent in business would not have brought about. He realizes that wonderful sense which comes to some men, — and fortunate are they to whom the realization comes, — that we are divinely selected agencies, through which a given piece of work is sought to be accomplished, and that he has been chosen.
And greater or deeper satisfaction can come to no man.