Centre for Confidence and Well-being

Skip to content
Carol's Blog
Postcards from Scotland

Carol's Blog Click to subscribe to Carol's Blog

Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

You can view Carol's tweets on Twitter and sign up to follow by using this link:

Posted 11/11/2008 | 1 Comment

Last week I had was given a huge treat: I was asked to give an evening lecture at the National Library of Scotland on Samuel Smiles’s classic Self-Help.

My knowledge of Smiles was limited and I was invited to comment on his work simply because of my interest in these topics. I knew that the book was the first of its type and had sold millions internationally. I also thought it was an irrelevant tome displaying the worst aspects of unctuous Victorian values. And I thought that Smiles was either American or English.

I was right only on the first of my assumptions. The book, published in 1859, was an instant success. Over the years it has sold millions of copies and appeared in more than a dozen languages. Many of these are still in print.

Smiles was in fact Scottish – he was born and raised in Haddington.  And, far from the book being old-fashioned and smug much of its content aligns very well with my own beliefs and that of the Centre’s.  Smiles trained as a doctor but was always a political radical and interested in parliamentary reform. In 1838 he left Scotland to become editor of the weekly, radical paper, The Leeds Times and secretary of the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association – a Chartist organisation which aimed to extend the suffrage. Smiles spent the rest of his days in England – hence the reason we don’t see him as a Scottish figure.

Smiles disliked the aristocracy and wanted to see working and middle class reformers unite for change. He was also a strong supporter of Robert Owen and of the Co-operative movement. He also used The Leeds Times to put forward arguments in favour of women’s suffrage and free trade. He was also staunchly in favour of factory legislation to protect workers from exploitation.

Self-Help with illustrations of Character, Conduct and Perseverance was published by John Murray in 1859. It is generally considered to be  one of the most successful non-fiction books of the 19th century – substantially outselling Charles Darwin’s The Origins of the Species which was published the same day.

Self-Help emanated in part from Smiles’s disenchantment with politics. He has been increasingly put off the fact that some of the leaders of the Chartist movement advocated physical force. More importantly,  Smiles had lost faith in the idea that political change would bring about real social progress. For this to happen, he believed, we needed ‘individual reform’.

At the heart of Self-Help is Smiles's strong commitment to the idea that each individual person has within himself the ability to make something of himself and positively affect his own destiny. (The book is written largely about men and though I raised this in my talk, pressure of space means I’m just going with Smiles’s views in this blog.)

Poverty, according to Smiles, is not insurmountable. Indeed he lists hundreds of examples of men who, despite being born poor, or like him have come from humble backgrounds, were able to improve their lot through perseverance and labour. These examples form the backbone of the book.

Indeed being poor may even be a benefit to a man since it puts obstacles in the way of progress and familiarises people with adversity. Smiles is an ardent believer that failure is a better teacher than success, so too is having to struggle as this is character forming.  

Conversely Smiles argues that the rich might be in a less advantageous position. He writes:  

The necessity of labour may, indeed, be regarded as the main root and spring of all that we call progress in individuals, and civilization in nations; and it is doubtful whether any heavier curse could be imposed on man than the complete gratification of all his wishes without effort on his part, leaving nothing for his hopes, desires or struggles.

He develops the point about the need for struggle later in the book when he writes:

It is only a weak man whom the wind deprives of his cloak: a man of average strength is more in danger of losing it when assailed by the means of a too genial sun. Thus it often needs a higher discipline and a stronger character to bear up under good fortune than under adverse.

If we look at celebrities today, or the offspring of the rich, I think we can see the force of Smiles’s argument that a life that it is too favourable can easily undermine an individual.

Just as poverty is not, he believes, a barrier to progress, neither is a lack of talent.  One of the strongest themes in the book is the idea that success is less about natural talent or genius and more about hard-work, application and perseverance. This is something that Smiles can also bear witness to in his own life. He became an extremely erudite, successful man and yet he had been told by his teacher: ‘Smiles! You will never be fit for anything but sweeping the streets of your native borough.’

It is this idea that we are not  dealt a hand at birth, but grow and develop our abilities through hard work and effort which most attracts me to Smiles. This is exactly the agenda the Centre is now working on in Scotland with our emphasis on Professor Carol Dweck’s work on ‘mindset’.

Indeed it is because Smiles sees hard work as the key that he elevates the importance of energy:

Energy enables a man to force his way through irksome drudgery and dry details and carries him onward and upward in every station in life. It accomplishes more than genius, with not one-half the disappointment and peril. It is not eminent talent that is required to ensure success in any pursuit, so much as purpose – not merely the power to achieve, but the will to labour energetically and perseveringly. Hence energy of will may be defined to be the very central power of character in man. … True hope is based on it – and it is hope that gives the real perfume to life.

In playing down genius Smiles also plays up the importance of much ‘commoner qualities’ such as common sense and patience. He thinks that being actively involved through hard, manual work or developing real physical skills is also important to the development of good character.

So here we have Smiles encouraging people to work hard, persevere, develop their strengths and capabilities. But what is the point of this? For what should we be striving for? If you look at many of today’s self-help books (or old classics written by Napoleon Hill or Dale Carnegie) you’ll see how much they are dominated by material success. A modern phenomenon is a downloadable DVD called the Secret. It sets out ‘the law of attraction’ otherwise know as  ‘cosmic ordering’. What this says is that the secret of the universe is that you have to communicate strongly what you want and your desires will be fulfilled. Many of the desires they are talking about are materialistic.

However, this is not what Smiles is advocating. He is adamant that the point of his advice is not to create people who are successful in monetary or conventional terms: this is not about ‘getting on’.  Smiles is not unrealistic about the importance of money. He writes:

How a man uses money – makes it, saves it, and spends it – is perhaps one of the best tests of practical wisdom. Although money ought by no means to be regarded as a chief end of man’s life , neither is it a trifling matter, to be held in philosophic contempt, representing as it does to so large an extent the means of physical comfort and social well-being.

He then goes on to show how many of the positive characteristics of people – altruism, generosity, justice, self-sacrifice are linked to money as are negative ones such as fraud and avarice.

He also acknowledges that ‘poverty is a great enemy to human happiness’ – destroying liberty, and making virtues either impractical or difficult. Nonetheless Smiles tells us we must get money in perspective arguing that we should ‘carry  money in the head, not the heart’.

He believes that the love of money is dangerous for man’s character as it can easily become an end in itself and lead us to see people simply as a means to an end. A view that must have seemed very relevant to the Victorian era when many self-made factory owners treated their workers abominably. He also argues that it is very easy for money to lead to an obsession with appearance and how we are seen by others – to the pursuit of ‘respectability’. Smiles, the political radical and opponent of aristocracy can be seen at work when he tell us that a poor, but cultivated man, should ‘look down, without the slightest feeling of envy, upon the person of mere worldly success, the man of money-bags and acres.’

What Smiles urges us to do instead is to become involved in what he calls ‘self culture’ – to develop our faculties mainly through learning and physical activity. What Smiles has in mind here is not unlike what some psychologists such as Carl Jung, Carl Rogers or Abraham Maslow would call individuation or self-actualisation.  He argues that the learning he has in mind is not about amusement – reading novels for pleasure, for example, which he dismisses as simply ‘killing time’.  He also is aware that one of the biggest barriers to such learning might be lack of confidence. ‘Half the failures in life, he says, arise from pulling in one’s horse while he is leaping’. Indeed he says that lack of confidence in oneself , and one’s abilities stand in the way of individual progress and can be considered a defect in character.

Even if people, eschew easy pleasure in their learning, Smiles is aware that this self-culture has to be about cultivating good character and spirituality.  Of course, people can develop themselves and have skills but we should only admire them if they are based on character traits and qualities such as truthfulness, integrity and goodness. Having these qualities is also the basis of self-respect.

Finally, a few words on the meaning of self-help. In the introduction to the second edition Smiles tells us that the title of the book is unfortunate as it appears to be a ‘eulogy of selfishness’ when this is not what he  intends.  Smiles, as we know, is interested in social progress. He believes that it is by helping ourselves to lead better lives that we also help others. He also argues that help from outside can often weaken individuals and render them helpless whereas when we help ourselves we become stronger.

What’s more Smiles argues that we serve as models for one another. So my behaviour has a massive impact on others. Children are influenced by the behaviour of parents – hence his line ‘The nation comes from the nursery’.  ‘Good rules may do much, he writes, but good models far more; for in the latter we have instruction in action – wisdom at work.’

All in all, a fairly modern message and set of arguments about how to live a good life.

The National Library has an exhibition about Smiles running until 7 December. The exhibition is called Heroes and is on at the National Portrait Gallery. It includes a lot of educational material which is very useful to teachers.

Comment By Comment
Alan Coady
Joined: 30/04/2008

Comment Posted: 12/11/2008 22:37
Very interesting post, Carol. As a Haddington lad myself, I was pleased to find much of what he said still making sense - with the exception of the idea of reading novels for pleasure simply 'killing time.' Thanks for flagging up the exhibition - I'll be sure to catch it before it finishes.
Report this to a Moderator

View list of all Carol's blogs | Leave a comment on this blog on the Centre's Facebook page

Centre Events Previous Centre Events External Events Carol's Talks