Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to his Son by George Horace Lorimer: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to his Son by George Horace Lorimer.

In short

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to his Son is a fictional collection of letters from a self-made millionaire to his son containing fatherly advice. While originally written in 1902 – and so in many ways quite dated, especially when it comes to gender roles – the letters are full of witty commentary on business and life.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.


“You’ll find that education’s about the only thing lying around loose in this world, and that it’s about the only thing a fellow can have as much of as he’s willing to haul away. Everything else is screwed down tight and the screw-driver lost.”

“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. College doesn’t make fools; it develops them. It doesn’t make bright men; it develops them.”

“[I]t isn’t so much knowing a whole lot, as knowing a little and how to use it that counts.”

“I can’t hand out any ready-made success to you. It would do you no good, and it would do the house harm. There is plenty of room at the top here, but there is no elevator in the building.”

“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.”

“I hear a good deal about men who won’t take vacations, and who kill themselves by overwork, but it’s usually worry or whiskey. 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.”

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

“Beginning before you know what you want to say and keeping on after you have said it lands a merchant in a lawsuit or the poorhouse, and the first is a short cut to the second.”

“Remember, too, that 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. Give most men a good listener and most women enough note-paper and they’ll tell all they know. Money talks—but not unless its owner has a loose tongue, and then its remarks are always offensive. Poverty talks, too, but nobody wants to hear what it has to say.”

“Very few men are worth wasting time on beyond a certain point, and that point is soon reached with a fellow who doesn’t show any signs of wanting to help.”

“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.”

“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.”

“There’s nothing helps convince some men that a thing has merit like a little gold on the label.”

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

“It isn’t what a man knows, but what he thinks he knows that he brags about. Big talk means little knowledge.”

“If there’s anything worse than knowing too little, it’s knowing too much. Education will broaden a narrow mind, but there’s no known cure for a big head. The best you can hope is that it will swell up and bust; and then, of course, there’s nothing left. Poverty never spoils a good man, but prosperity often does. It’s easy to stand hard times, because that’s the only thing you can do, but in good times the fool-killer has to do night work.”

“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.”

“When you make a mistake, don’t make the second one—keeping it to yourself. Own up. The time to sort out rotten eggs is at the nest. The deeper you hide them in the case the longer they stay in circulation, and the worse impression they make when they finally come to the breakfast-table.”

“Of course, clothes don’t make the man, but they make all of him except his hands and face during business hours, and that’s a pretty considerable area of the human animal.”

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

“The farther you go, the straighter you’ve got to walk.”

“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.”

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

“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. The phonograph records of a fellow’s character are lined in his face, and a man’s days tell the secrets of his nights.”

“Be slow to hire and quick to fire. The time to discover incompatibility of temper and curl-papers is before the marriage ceremony. 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.”

“Never threaten, because a threat is a promise to pay that it isn’t always convenient to meet, but if you don’t make it good it hurts your credit. Save a threat till you’re ready to act, and then you won’t need it. In all your dealings, remember that to-day is your opportunity; to-morrow some other fellow’s.”

“Keep close to your men. When a fellow’s sitting on top of a mountain he’s in a mighty dignified and exalted position, but if he’s gazing at the clouds, he’s missing a heap of interesting and important doings down in the valley.”

“Besides keeping in touch with your office men, you want to feel your salesmen all the time. Send each of them a letter every day so that they won’t forget that we are making goods for which we need orders; and insist on their sending you a line every day, whether they have anything to say or not. When a fellow has to write in six times a week to the house, he uses up his explanations mighty fast, and he’s pretty apt to hustle for business to make his seventh letter interesting.”

“A man who does big things is too busy to talk about them. When the jaws really need exercise, chew gum.”

“The only undignified job I know of is loafing, and nothing can cheapen a man who sponges instead of hunting any sort of work, because he’s as cheap already as they can be made.”

“There are two things you never want to pay any attention to— abuse and flattery. The first can’t harm you and the second can’t help.”


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