“We frequently hear the word ‘lucky’ used with reference to a man’s life. Two boys start out in the world at the same time, having the same amount of education. When twenty years have passed, we find one of them wealthy and independent; we find him a successful professional man with an assured reputation, or perhaps at the head of a large commercial establishment employing many men, or perhaps a farmer owning and cultivating hundreds of acres of land. We find the second boy, grown now to be a man, working for perhaps a dollar or a dollar and a half a day, and living from hand to mouth in a rented house. When we remember that the boys started out in life equal-handed, we may be tempted to remark that the first boy has been fortunate, that fortune has smiled on him; and that the second has been unfortunate. There is no such nonsense as that. When the first boy saw a thing that he knew he ought to do, he did it; and he kept rising from one position to another until he became independent. The second boy was an eye-servant who was afraid that he would do more than he was paid to do-he was afraid that he would give fifty cents’ worth of labour for twenty-five cents […]The first boy did a dollar’s worth of work for fifty cents. He was always ready to be at the store before time; and then, when the bell rang to stop work, he would go to his employer and ask him if there was not something more that ought to be done that night before he went home. It was this quality in the first boy that made him valuable and caused him to rise. Why should we call him ‘fortunate’ or ‘lucky’? I think it would be much more suitable to say of him: ‘He is responsible.” – “Individual Responsibility: A Sunday Evening Talk,”-Booker T. Washington
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
At the onset of receiving an entering incoming freshmen class into a university, one becomes awed and buoyed by the extraordinary sense of possibility that each student has in his or her future. Whether they were 4.0 student or 2.8 students in high school, the beginning of freshman year matriculation is a unique opportunity in their lives to start anew and afresh. And Mr. Washington, founding principal and president of Tuskegee Institute (University), provides an example of two young boys who possessed the same opportunities, but had very different outcomes 20 years later. It is all too easy to pass off Mr. Washington’s telling as some moralizing tale designed to motivate his students during one of his Sunday evening talks. Yet, we must be inclined to think that either Mr. Washington himself experienced this so-called tale directly-his autobiographical narrative Up from Slavery (1901) suggests as much-or he observed this in the lives of two of his students in his 34-year long tenure at the helm of Tuskegee University. Washington’s telling of such a tale might also raise the ire and suspicion of those who might argue the following:”It is roundly unfair for Mr. Washington to ascribe lacking personal responsibility to the woes of the second boy’s life because he doesn’t know what happened to him.” Notwithstanding any such dismissals, what Mr. Washington seeks to convey in this talk was the sense of a very real distinction between two young men who approached life matters-whether in the classroom or beyond-quite differently. The first young man was likely accused of being too punctual, too exact or just plain too serious. He often heard the now common proverbial expression: “It doesn’t take all of that.” And in spite of all attempts to justify the many failures of the second boy, all such attempts are undergirded with a profound sense of irony. (The very individuals who defend or make excuse for the second lad will also not hire him nor give him any responsibility regarding that, which is their own.) Wholly consistent with his reputation for being frank, honest and giving ‘straight talk,” Mr. Washington would not allow any such misgivings about his impressions of the success-or relative lack thereof-of the two boys described here. For Mr. Washington believed that “it does take all of that” to reach any desirable outcome, and one will be subject to the envy and criticism of others while doing it. Yet, enduring the sort of suffering experienced by the first boy is far better than experiencing the suffering of the second. We all experience one form of suffering or another, and if one learns how to suffer-to truly know how to suffer well in the thing that is good-one will learn how to succeed.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.
7th President, Tuskegee University