8 min read

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son by George Horace Lorimer

As Ryan Holiday wrote, “Packed with good advice.” Work, money, having fun, management, marriage. It’s all here. Readable, practical, and funny.

Date read: 25 June 2017
How strongly I recommend: 4/5 (Compelling if relevant to you today.)

My notes


The first thing that any education ought to give a man is character, and the second thing is education.

If a fellow’s putting in five or six hours a day on his neighbor’s character, he’s mighty apt to scamp the building of his own.

When you’re through sizing up the other fellow, it’s a good thing to step back from yourself and see how you look. Then add fifty per cent to your estimate of your neighbor for virtues that you can’t see, and deduct fifty per cent from yourself for faults that you’ve missed in your inventory, and you’ll have a pretty accurate result.

There are two parts of a college education—the part that you get in the schoolroom from the professors, and the part that you get outside of it from the boys. That’s the really important part. For the first can only make you a scholar, while the second can make you a man.


With most people happiness is something that is always just a day off. But I have made it a rule never to put off being happy till to-morrow. Don’t accept notes for happiness, because you’ll find that when they’re due they’re never paid, but just renewed for another thirty days.


Have something to say. Say it. Stop talking.

It’s easier to look wise than to talk wisdom. Say less than the other fellow and listen more than you talk; for when a man’s listening he isn’t telling on himself and he’s flattering the fellow who is.

It isn’t what a man knows, but what he thinks he knows that he brags about.

When you make a mistake, don’t make the second one—keeping it to yourself.

Remember that when you’re in the right you can afford to keep your temper, and that when you’re in the wrong you can’t afford to lose it.


Worrying is the one game in which, if you guess right, you don’t get any satisfaction out of your smartness. A busy man has no time to bother with it.

The time to do your worrying is when a thing is all over, and that the way to do it is to leave it to the neighbors.

The only thing I’ve ever put into it which didn’t draw dividends in fun or dollars was worry. That is a branch of the trade which you want to leave to our competitors.

Get the scent in your nostrils and keep your nose to the ground, and don’t worry too much about the end of the chase. The fun of the thing’s in the run and not in the finish.


There is plenty of room at the top here, but there is no elevator in the building.

There are two unpardonable sins in this world—success and failure. Those who succeed can’t forgive a fellow for being a failure, and those who fail can’t forgive him for being a success. If you do succeed, though, you will be too busy to bother very much about what the failures think.

It isn’t enough to be all right in this world; you’ve got to look all right as well, because two-thirds of success is making people think you are all right.

Appearances are deceitful, I know, but so long as they are, there’s nothing like having them deceive for us instead of against us.

Learning versus doing

Some men learn all they know from books; others from life; both kinds are narrow. The first are all theory; the second are all practice. It’s the fellow who knows enough about practice to test his theories for blow-holes that gives the world a shove ahead, and finds a fair margin of profit in shoving it.

It isn’t so much knowing a whole lot, as knowing a little and how to use it that counts.

Both styles win fights, but the fellow with a little science is the better man, providing he’s kept his muscle hard.


Jack had enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is the best shortening for any job; it makes heavy work light.

You’ve got to get up every morning with determination if you’re going to go to bed with satisfaction.

It’s not what a man does during working-hours, but after them, that breaks down his health. A fellow and his business should be bosom friends in the office and sworn enemies out of it. A clear mind is one that is swept clean of business at six o’clock every night and isn’t opened up for it again until after the shutters are taken down next morning.

You’re going to have a Milligan over you all your life, and if it isn’t a Milligan it will be a Jones or a Smith, and the chances are that you’ll find them both harder to get along with than this old fellow. And if it isn’t Milligan or Jones or Smith, and you ain’t a butcher, but a parson or a doctor, or even the President of the United States, it’ll be a way-back deacon, or the undertaker, or the machine. There isn’t any such thing as being your own boss in this world unless you’re a tramp, and then there’s the constable.

Career strategy

The boy who does anything just because the other fellows do it is apt to scratch a poor man’s back all his life.

When a fellow has that half knowledge he finds it’s the other half which would really come in handy. So, when a man’s in the selling end of the business what he really needs to know is the manufacturing end; and when he’s in the factory he can’t know too much about the trade.

Nothing earns better interest than judicious questions, and the man who invests in more knowledge of the business than he has to have in order to hold his job has capital with which to buy a mortgage on a better one.

Anything that trains a boy to think and to think quick pays; anything that teaches a boy to get the answer before the other fellow gets through biting the pencil, pays.

Yet if they would put in half the time thinking for the house that they give up to hatching out reasons why they ought to be allowed to overdraw their salary accounts, I couldn’t keep them out of our private offices with a pole-ax, and I wouldn’t want to; for they could double their salaries and my profits in a year.

I’ve always made it a rule to buy brains, and I’ve learned now that the better trained they are the faster they find reasons for getting their salaries raised.

I want to see you grow into a car-lot man—so strong and big that you will force us to see that you are out of place among the little fellows.

The duties of the position to do your work so well that the manager can’t run the department without you, and that you can run the department without the manager. To do this you will have to know lard; to know yourself; and to know those under you.

The only way to show a fellow that he’s chosen the wrong business is to let him try it. If it really is the wrong thing you won’t have to argue with him to quit, and if it isn’t you haven’t any right to.


The bigger the position the broader the man must be to fill it.

In handling men, your own feelings are the only ones that are of no importance.

A diet of courtesy and consideration gives girth to a boss.

There’s no alarm clock for the sleepy man like an early rising manager; and there’s nothing breeds work in an office like a busy boss.

You can’t work individuals by general rules. Every man is a special case and needs a special pill.

I want to repeat that in keeping track of others and their faults it’s very, very important that you shouldn’t lose sight of your own.

No man can ask more than he gives. A fellow who can’t take orders can’t give them. If his rules are too hard for him to mind, you can bet they are too hard for the clerks who don’t get half so much for minding them as he does.

Consider carefully before you say a hard word to a man, but never let a chance to say a good one go by. Praise judiciously bestowed is money invested.

Never learn anything about your men except from themselves. A good manager needs no detectives, and the fellow who can’t read human nature can’t manage it.

Hiring and firing

I want to say right here that the easiest way in the world to make enemies is to hire friends.

But when you find that you’ve hired the wrong man, you can’t get rid of him too quick. Pay him an extra month, but don’t let him stay another day. A discharged clerk in the office is like a splinter in the thumb—a centre of soreness. There are no exceptions to this rule, because there are no exceptions to human nature.


That gives you two weeks for a vacation—enough to make a sick boy well, or a lazy one lazier.

They’re the men who are always needing vacations, and never getting any good out of them. What every man does need once a year is a change of work.


Easy-come money never draws interest; easy-borrowed dollars pay usury.

Fellows who’d rather make a million a night in their heads than five dollars a day in cash.


I don’t know anything that a young business man ought to keep more entirely to himself than his dislikes, unless it is his likes. It’s generally expensive to have either, but it’s bankruptcy to tell about them. It’s all right to say nothing about the dead but good, but it’s better to apply the rule to the living, and especially to the house which is paying your salary.

Tact is the knack of keeping quiet at the right time; of being so agreeable yourself that no one can be disagreeable to you; of making inferiority feel like equality. A tactful man can pull the stinger from a bee without getting stung.

Business Strategy

The place to sell clothes is in the city, where every one seems to have plenty of them; and that the place to sell mess pork is in the country, where every one keeps hogs. That is why when a fellow comes to me for advice about moving to a new country, where there are more opportunities, I advise him—if he is built right—to go to an old city where there is more money.

I don’t care how good old methods are, new ones are better, even if they’re only just as good. That’s not so Irish as it sounds. Doing the same thing in the same way year after year is like eating a quail a day for thirty days. Along toward the middle of the month a fellow begins to long for a broiled crow or a slice of cold dog.


He isn’t the brightest man in the office, but he is loyal to me and to the house, and when you have been in business as long as I have you will be inclined to put a pretty high value on loyalty. It is the one commodity that hasn’t any market value, and it’s the one that you can’t pay too much for. You can trust any number of men with your money, but mighty few with your reputation.

Romantic relationships

Never marry a poor girl who’s been raised like a rich one. She’s simply traded the virtues of the poor for the vices of the rich without going long on their good points.

Money ought never to be the consideration in marriage, but it always ought to be a consideration. When a boy and a girl don’t think enough about money before the ceremony, they’re going to have to think altogether too much about it after; and when a man’s doing sums at home evenings, it comes kind of awkward for him to try to hold his wife on his lap.

A violent woman drives a fellow to drink, but a nagging one drives him crazy.


Putting off an easy thing makes it hard, and putting off a hard one makes it impossible.


When a speculator wins he don’t stop till he loses, and when he loses he can’t stop till he wins.


You can always bet that when a fellow’s pride makes him touchy, it’s because there are some mighty raw spots on it.