Samuel Smiles: late bloomer with a side hustle. Part II
I am giving tours of the City of London on Tuesday 22nd Feb, Sunday 27th Feb, and Saturday 5th March. This will be a light City Ramble that traces the legacy of the Great Fire and Christopher Wren, in and around St Paul’s and Monument. It’s a personal introduction to some of the city’s historical sites. Tickets are £20, or £10 for concessions. If you are interested, but can’t make those dates, let me know.
If you missed Part I of Samuel Smiles’ life, start here.
Samuel Smiles: late bloomer with a side hustle. Part II
In March 1845, thirty-three-year-old Samuel Smiles was asked, by a group of young men, to give a lecture at the Mutual Improvement Society, which was later published as The Education of the Working Classes. His message was timeless and simple. “Adverse circumstances… cannot repress the human intellect and character, if it be determined to rise.” Here is Romanticism, the strong belief in the unlimited potential of the individual, dosed and dressed with the ethics and aspirations of progressive, Victorian, capitalism. Or so Smiles is often caricatured.
The truth is that he is not just telling you how to get ahead, how to get up the ladder so you can get off it. His theme is “human intellect and character” and he is concerned to show his readers that they too, whoever they are, whatever their starting point, can benefit from what the intellectual world has to offer. “Knowledge is, of itself, one of the highest enjoyments. The ignorant man passes through the world, dead to all pleasures save those of the senses.” He sounds like Zena Hitz.
This is self-help as adult education, a curiously Victorian phenomenon. These were the days of working men’s associations set up to enable the self-educated to further their studies in history, literature, science, philosophy. Before the internet gave everyone who wanted it the chance to learn for fun, Samuel Smiles was part of a network and a culture that saw knowledge as something to be enjoyed for its own sake.
Smiles was the perfect person to deliver this lecture, not just because he knew a lot, and a lot about self-education, but because he was self-educated, and had been all his life, including when, as a medical student, he ransacked the town libraries to give him mental stimulation outside of work, or when he practised as a surgeon and filled in the dead time by learning French and improving his drawing. He was an infovore — and this lecture put him in touch with an audience of people just like him.
It was at this point that he realised that a book on the same topic could be “of some use”, to use his charmingly understated phrase.
It was a gradual process. “I went on enlarging my lecture, and delivered it at Thirsk and elsewhere. I kept adding to the examples, and entered into correspondence of influence and action.” He was a blogger without the benefit of the internet. Like Darwin, he understood that writing to people was the main Victorian method of obtaining information with high marginal value. “Some of my best illustrations were obtained in this way; and I endeavoured to work them up into a sort of continuous narrative.”
You could spend many hours of your life reading articles about how to build your side hustle, how to reach a thousand subscribers, how to, how to. I’m not here to tell you not to read them. But many of the insights you will get are already contained here. Smiles also knew that finding your audience is about zeroing in on only the people who really care about what you have to say. “Idiots never change; but sensible people change for the better.”
It would be more than twenty years from the lecture to the book. Meanwhile, Smiles needed to work. The Thirsk Railway offered him the position of Assistant Secretary. He didn’t know what to do. To succeed in his current career of medicine would require long-term persistence. “It used to be said of Doctors,” he reflected at the end of his life, “that they rarely got bread enough to eat, until they had not teeth enough to eat it.” And medicine left him always at the behest of the public. You think GPs have it bad — try being a doctor when people used to turn up to your house and summon you out of it at all hours of the day and night.
And he knew writing wasn’t going to pay his bills. His books had failed so far. His History of Ireland had suffered. The principal bookseller in Dublin had folded; half Smiles’ profits went down with them. “Book-writing, after all, is a lottery.” So, with a wife and child to support, Smiles took the job. It was “regular and systematic, some would say humdrum.” After his turbulent time as a newspaper editor, this was exactly what he needed. His evenings were his own again, free for him to study.
And boy did he study. Life is work. And for the literary man, all the more so.
You will find the successful literary man a person of industry, application, steadiness and sobriety. He must be a hard worker. He must sedulously apply himself. He must economise time, and coin it into sterling thought, if not into sterling money. His habits tell upon his character, and mould it into consistency. If he is in business, he must needs be diligent; and his intelligence will give him resources, which to the ignorant man are denied.1
In 1849, Smiles met the popular poet Eliza Cook who shared his belief in self-education and he began writing for her weekly periodical. He wrote useful articles, The Preservation of Health, The Practice of Temperance — that sort of thing. One of them was a laudatory article about George Stephenson, often known as the father of the railways.2 This made Smiles realise that now was the time, while the relevant people were still alive, to research a full biography of Stephenson. It seemed like a remarkable gap, and one that was not likely to be filled by anyone else.
Smiles went to see Stephenson’s son Robert, who told him it would likely fail. The Life of Telford had been written badly and had failed. After some initial research, Smiles realised it would be a huge project, requiring him to live where Stephenson had lived, (much as Robert Caro went to live in Texas), and so, put off by Robert Stephenson, feeling unable to take on the task, he abandoned the project.
His other work continued. For the next six years he wrote a huge amount for Eliza Cook, on all subjects: stories, novellas, reviews, travel, domestic, life, women, boys, men, benefit societies, savings banks, popular education, temperance, biographies. Then in 1854, the Thirsk Railway merged with the York, Newcastle and Berwick and the York and North Midland companies. Although it was the “best thing to be done for all parties — for the public as well as the shareholders” it was not best for Sam. He ended up living away from his family most of the week in Newcastle.
Suddenly, he had lonely evenings to fill. He started researching Stephenson again.
After my work at the office, I could leave the station, and spend a few hours on making inquiries, be home on the late train, about ten o’clock. On Saturday afternoons, when the office work ended at two, there was still more time for investigations.
He went to the places where Stephenson lived and worked, where he grew up. He spoke to the people who had known Stephenson.
The other effect of the merger was that Smiles was no longer needed. In 1855 he went to work for the South Eastern Railway, a company in an alarming state. It was hard work. The old chairman had been sacked and no replacement found. “It was not so much business as speech-making that seemed to be the work of the board.” Then there was a robbery on one of the company trains. Bullion was stolen. Needless to say, progress on Stephenson came to a halt. “I began to doubt whether I could ever find enough time to write out the life of George Stephenson.”
Smiles was forty-three, unable to finish his book, and seemingly trapped in an impossible office job. He did have a manuscript of Self Help, which he sent to the publishers Routledge, but they declined. The Crimean War meant people were reading extraordinary amounts of news and books sales were in decline. Smiles didn’t put his name on the manuscript. “Indeed, my name was not worth anything at all, for my two previous works… had been failures and were forgotten.”
Things settled down and he began to write his Life of Stephenson. Failure and rejection be damned. A side hustle is for life — and the sheer hell of it. He was a walking writer. And he began to benefit from his accumulated experiences. One trait of late bloomers is their ability to turn their experiences, however incoherent, however seemingly irrelevant, to their advantage as they persist in their interests.
I wrote in the evenings, mostly after six; sometimes altering my occupation with a walk on Blackheath, preparing a sentence or laying out a subject, and returning home to commit the results to paper. I had no library then but used to work with my children playing about me; I had no difficulty in concentrating my attention on the subject in hand. While I had been a newspaper editor, I used to write with the clang of the steam engine and the printing press in my ears; and afterwards, at the railway office, I worked amidst constant interruptions and inquiries, which I was always ready to answer.
Note that Smiles seems to have wanted a library and had to make do without one. There is certainly a difference between working in a noisy room and working in a quiet one where interruptions arrive. So many people who do not have a library available harbour a belief that if they had such a place — a room of their own — they could write something. Kingsley Amis said he would have written Lucky Jim sooner if he had had a room. Many writers get no such opportunity. If it is your biggest obstacle, ignore it.
And so, Smiles got his biography written. It was published in 1857, a huge success, selling seven and a half thousand copies of the eight volume edition. One reason for the success is surely the subject. The other is Smiles’ style: “What is a biography without the details? The details are everything.” The shortened version sold sixty-thousand copies by 1905. He had finally made it. “Behold me at last, at the advanced age of forty-five, a successful author!”
He spent the next two years re-writing Self Help. It was published in 1859, selling twenty-thousand copies in the first year and a quarter of a million by 1905. He spent the rest of his life writing and publishing books and died a household name.
People who wondered how Smiles, who was so unknown to the literary world, could have appeared from nowhere with the Stephenson book, did not realise, he said, “the long training I had had for the work, and the difficulties I had overcome.” He had spent his life on “reading, thinking, observation, and perseverance, which are the sole conditions for success in anything.”
Sometimes that’s what it takes to turn your side hustle into late blooming success.
Sedulous comes from the Latin sē dolō, “without guile”, and sēdulō, “sincerely, honestly” — hence its meaning of “diligent, assiduous, persistent.” It is a very Samuel Smiles word. It means, essentially, working without bullshit.