Self-Help by Samuel Smiles

Self-Help by Samuel Smiles
Self-Help by Samuel Smiles

Self-Help by Samuel Smiles was written after the author abandoned his interest to become a member of parliament and decided that the best reform could be achieved through Self-Help. In the book, Smiles proposes knowledge as the highest form of enjoyment, and that education only serves as a gateway for its acquisition. This gateway is quite erratic, and a man must take the initiative to educate himself. The author maintains that an ignorant man will pass through the world, focused on its pleasures while a diligent one understands that he has a mission to accomplish. The book goes ahead to create a categorization of deserving and undeserving poor. The deserving poor are those willing to uplift their social class while the undeserving are the lazy ones.


Not everyone is born into wealth. Whereas a few inherit family money and further grow or squander it, many have to work their way up the social ladder. Education is generaly regarded as the pathway out of poverty, more so for minority students. Students that have a college education fare much better compared to those who dropped out of school or stopped their education at the high school level. Of course, you will often here many cite the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who make millions despite having failed to finish their university education. The truth of the matter is that these are just chance1% of the nation. Furthermore, it is not as if they just got wealth without using their education knowledge. They had to encounter a couple of computer science classes before getting the necessary knowledge to execute their business ideas.

Through the provision of high-quality education to students, we can secure their future. Simply put, education is the key to success. But then, not all people have equal access to education. Sothe author argues that man has an obligation to teach himself. He notes that there are many influential members of society who were born poor but worked hard enough to cross the poverty line.

Published in 1859 by Smiles’ savings, the book sold 20,000 copies within that year. By the time of the author’s death in 1904, it sold more than a quarter a million copies. This book elevated Smiles to celebrity status overnight, mainly because it focused on the average person trying to better their lives. It acknowledged the limitation of resources and the need for one to get over these hindrances for a better life. Even as opportunities were minimal, Smiles held that maintaining a courageous outlook in life worked well in pushing one against all the odds.

The book was highly acclaimed. According to social activist Robert Blatchford, Self-Help was one of the most delightful and refreshing books and that he was glad to have read it. However, he was quick to point out that socialists would have a hard time accepting Smiles’ individualism. Whereas that is true, they would be happy that Smiles denounced worshipping of power, wealth, and keeping up appearances.

Hard work, talent, and luck

According to Samuel Smiles, hard work is an essential element chance overcoming poverty. Talent and luck have nothing to do with it. Yes, you might be talented, but if you are not hardworking, you will not even be able to make anything of your talent. Luck will not be by your side either. The author notes that even though fortune has often been blamed for its blindness, it is not as blind as men are. A keen analysis of those who have made it in life from poverty reveals that fortune “is invariably on the side of the industrious.”

Scholars largely disagree on the idea of associating success with hard work, talent, and luck. Does one make it in life because of any of the three? Is there a specific element that is required to be successful?

Consider a speech by former U.S. President Barack Obama at a rally in Roanoke. The President notes that “If you are successful today, it’s because you got help from someone along the way. You met a great teacher somewhere… Someone drove you to school. And if it is a business, you were not directly involved in building it. There is someone somewhere who made it happen. It could be an employee or even your father.”

As much as the President was more political in his speech, the concept of “I did that” can be clearly seen. He rules out that one does not have the mandate to categorically state that they are the ones who did something. Rather, they ought to make references to others for having helped them out. Samuel Smiles doesn’t agree suitable than idea. According to the author, much of the success enjoyed in life is based on personal hard work. Others might be facilitators in the whole process, but the ball ultimately settles with you. You are the one who has to wake up very early in the morning and sleep late at night. It is you who spends the whole day in school and library, digging through books for knowledge. If it’s a business, you are the one who learns the best ways to run it and also make robust investment decisions.

Does that mean that talent and luck do not have a place in one’s success? Well, if you look at it from an analytical point of view, luck equally is important. The luck of being born is one that is hard to ignore. Statistically speaking, the ratio of the number of people who could have been born to those who were is large. Furthermore, the luck of being born in a country like the United States, which has a stable political system and more opportunities cannot exciting for granted. This is in comparison to being born in anarchic Somalia or war-tor Syria. Similarly, talent matters more than people think. A talented individual stands a chance to make it in life as long as they use their ability properly.

Even as we argue that the author should have acknowledged the role of luck and talent in one’s journey to success, it is clear that hard work carries the day. Talent has the tendency of making people lazy as they depend less on hard work to accomplish something. Hard work, on the other hand, gives one the spirit to fight on and compensate for the shortages in talent and luck. At the end of the day, an individual who is both hardworking, talented, and lucky stands the best chances in life. However, you cannot create luck and talent, but you can choose to work hard and cross the poverty line. Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help insists on these ideals.

The book has countless examples of people who worked hard and made. It mentions Dr. Mason Good, who managed to translate Lucretius while doing his medical rounds among his many patients. The doctor did not use the excuse of being too busy not to do what would catapult him to fame. Self-Help also highlights Dr. Erasmus Darwin, who composed his work while moving from house to house. He would note his thoughts on a piece of paper and carried these along with him. What about Daguesseau, the most-notable French Chancellor. Samuel Smiles uses these short stories and many others to reinforce his insistence on hard work.

Taking education short cuts

Not every person is a fan of education. For some, they would easily take short cuts provided with the opportunity. If a lecturer mistakenly awards a student marks for an exam he or she did not take, he or she would most likely not have any problem with that.

It is mesmerizing that some of the education short cuts we see today used to happen 150 years ago. Smiles, being a stern guy that he was, never hesitated to warn people about them. He writes that some people try to learn French or Latin within twelve lessons and without a master. Others look for short cuts in science, forgetting that to become a great scientist, you must be willing to go through the whole process. In particular, Smiles highlights how some people were fond of learning Chemistry simply by inhaling the laughing gas, burning phosphorus in oxygen, or turning green water to red. Even though a student may find joy in such experiments, Smiles categorically states that they are good for nothing. One might think that they are being educated, but in a real sense, they are just being amused.

Reading this book you might think, why do we still have such experiments in our schools today, years after Smiles noted their incompetency?


Besides just acting as a guide to improving one’s life, Self-Help has more interesting things. From page 174 to 186, Smiles presents a detailed discussion on anti-slavery activities. This goes a long way to show that the author wants you to better your life but not at the expense of forgetting to give back to society. This is what makes Self-Help a book worth your time. Go ahead and read it. You will be glad that you did.


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