Modern Lessons from Mark Twain

Mark Twain was a people watcher. Insanely talented and brilliant, he spent a lot of time writing, but arguably more time observing human behavior. He became as famous for his aphorisms as for his writing, and some of his most famous quotes still resonate today. Here are my thoughts on five of them:

“Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing; it was here first.”

I often wonder what Twain would think of the typical Millennial: living at home with Mom, sitting in a dark room eating chips off his chest and alternating between texting and Xbox while Mom does his laundry. He has earned a BA in Social Science and carries huge student debt. Mom does everything for him, so why get a job? Although the quote indicates that entitlement is not a new problem, it’s hard to understand where Millennials get theirs. Perhaps it’s because their parents were latchkey kids who became independent at an early age: “I’m never going to put my own kids through that.” Yet I wonder if, in retrospect, these parents might wish they had taught their children to be more self-sufficient. Most of today’s young adults have a hard time changing a tire, managing a bank account, or even sewing on a button. Twain had such a strong work ethic that I’m sure he’d shake his head in frustration at today’s young people.

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

I think most of the “getting started” part of the quote is hindered by procrastination. Most people work better under a deadline, so they may choose to put something off until the deadline is closer, when they become more motivated. I used to be a terrible procrastinator, but I realized the extra stress wasn’t worth the wait. I had to teach myself to avoid it by doing small parts of a task each day. Even if I can do something small to move toward a goal, that’s more than I would have done, had I procrastinated.  For instance, if I have 30 papers to grade, I’ll break them into groups of five and do one group per day. That way I’ll be sure to be done in less than a week, and I have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day instead of the weight of the ungraded papers upon me.

“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Doing the right thing gratifies the one person who needs it most—yourself. Sometimes doing the right thing means breaking a social norm or doing something outside your comfort zone, but the end result always feels better, and you’ve grown some as a result. This quote assumes, of course, that people have a strict moral compass, which not everyone does. But for those concerned with an ethical choice, doing what is right regardless of what others might say or think will pay off in the long run.

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

Ever notice how the tabloids put the scandals on the front page? No one wants to know about relationships that work, or babies born without incident, or accidents where no one was hurt. But worse than sensationalism is lies. I think self-respect and lies have an inverse relationship. The juicier the lie, the more negative impact it has on someone’s self-worth. One particularly devastating lie can have a huge impact on self-esteem, but many small ones may cause lifelong problems.  I’ve been the brunt of some pretty nasty lies, but I think the key is to realize that the people you care about already know the truth, and the ones who believe the lies don’t belong in your life anyway. Jettison them.

“If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember what you said.”

This is my favorite Twain quote. I’ve quoted it for years, and it inspired this article. With the fracas around the honesty of the presidential candidates, this quote hits home more now than ever before. Lies beget lies. More lies must be told to cover up the first one, and it gets worse over time. Some politicians even have spin doctors to help manage the lies so everyone involved can be consistent in what gets said or released in public. Wouldn’t it just be easier to a) do the right thing, and b) tell the truth about it? Sheesh.

Twain had high moral standards and held people up to them. As a casual observer, he used satire to remark upon society’s foibles. In his writing he turns these shortcomings on us and makes us stare unblinking into the mirror, unable to avoid seeing ourselves for what we are. When Helen Keller was young, she used to place her fingers under his big, brushy mustache in order to feel him telling her stories. That must have been so gratifying for both of them. I wish Twain were still around to share his insight on the modern world.

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