Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 12 What Will Pay

I wish to talk with you for a few minutes upon a subject that is much discussed, especially by young people-What things pay in life? There is no question, perhaps, which is asked oftener by a person entering upon a career than this-What will pay? Will this course of action, or that business? What will pay?

What will profit me most?
What will make my life most useful?
What will bring about the greatest degree of happiness?
What will pay best?

Let us see if we can answer that question, a question which every student in this school should ask himself or herself. What will profit me most? What will make my life most useful? What will bring about the greatest degree of happiness? What will pay best?

Not long ago a certain minister secured the testimony of forty men, who had been successful in business, persons who beyond question had been pronounced to be business men of authority. The question which this minister put to these business men was, whether under any circumstances it paid to be dishonest in business; whether they had found, in all their business career, that under any circumstances it paid to cheat, swindle or take advantage of their fellow-men, or in any way to deceive those with whom they came in contact.

"...nothing short of downright honesty and fair dealing ever paid in any business."

Every one of the forty answered, without hesitation that nothing short of downright honesty and fair dealing ever paid in any business. They said that no one could succeed permanently in business that was not honest in dealing with his fellow men, to say nothing of the future life or of doing right for right's sake.

It does not pay an individual to do anything except what his conscience will approve of every day, and every hour and minute in the day.

I want you to put that question to yourselves to-night: ask yourselves what course of action will pay.

You may be tempted to go astray in the matter of money. Think when you are tempted to do that: "Will it pay?" Persons, who are likely to go astray in the matter of money, furthermore are likely to do so in the matter of dress, tampering with each other's property; and the matter of acting dishonestly with each other's books. Such persons will be dishonest in the matter of labor, too.

It pays an individual to be honest with another person's money. It never pays to be dishonest in taking another person's clothes or books. None of these things ever pays, and when you have occasion to yield or not to yield to such a temptation, you should ask yourself the question: "Will it pay me to do this?" Put that question constantly to yourself.

It will never pay you to deal dishonestly with an individual, or to permit dishonest dealing. If you fail to give a full honest day's work, if you know that you have done only three-quarters of a day's work, or four fifths, it may seem to you at the time that it has paid, but in the long run you lose by it.

Whenever you promise, moreover, to do a piece of work for a man, there is a contract binding you to do an honest day's labor and the man to pay you for an honest day's labor. If you fail to give such service, if you break that contract, you will find that such a course of action never pays. It will never pay you to deal dishonestly with an individual, or to permit dishonest dealing. If you fail to give a full honest day's work, if you know that you have done only three-quarters of a day's work, or four fifths, it may seem to you at the time that it has paid, but in the long run you lose by it.

I regret to say that we sometimes have occasion to meet students here who are inclined to be dishonest. Such students come to Mr. Palmer or to me, and say they wish to go home. When they are asked why they wish to go home, some of them say they wish to go because they are sick. Then, when they have been talked with a few minutes, they may say that they do not like the food here, or perhaps that some disappointment has befallen their parents. In some cases I have had students give me half a dozen excuses in little more than the same number of minutes.

The proper thing for students to do, when they wish to go home, is to state the exact reason, and then stick to it. The student who does that is the kind that will succeed in the world. The students, who are downright dishonest in what they say, will find out that they are not strong in anything, that they are not what they ought to be. The time will come when that sort of thing will carry them down instead of up.

In a certain year- I think it was 1857- there was a great financial panic in the United States, especially in the city of New York. A great many of the principal banks in the country failed, and others were in daily danger of failure. I remember a story that was told of one of the bank presidents of that time, William Taylor, I believe. All the bank presidents in the city of New York were having meetings every night to find out how well they were succeeding in keeping their institutions solvent. At one of these meetings, after a critical day in the most trying period of the panic, when some men reported that they had lost money during that day, and others that so much money had been withdrawn from their banks during the day that if there were another like it they did not see how they could stand the strain, William Taylor reported that money had been added to the deposits of his bank that day instead of being withdrawn.

What was behind all this? William Taylor had learned in early life that it did not pay to be dishonest, but that it paid to be honest with all his depositors and with all persons who did business with his bank. When other people were failing in all parts of the country, the evidence of this man's character, his regard for truth and honest dealing, caused money to come into his bank when it was being withdrawn from others.

Character is a power. If you want to be powerful in, the world, if you want to be strong, influential and useful, you can be so, in no better way than by having strong character; but you cannot have a strong character if you yield to the temptations about which I have been speaking.

Some one asked some time ago, what it was that gave such a power to the sermons of the late Dr. John Hall. In the usual sense he was not a powerful speaker; but everything he said carried conviction with it. The explanation was that the character of the man was behind the sermon. You may go out and make great speeches, you may write books or addresses which are great literature, but unless you have character behind what you say and write, it will amount to nothing; it will all go to the winds.

I leave this question with you, then. When you are tempted to do what your conscience tells you is not right, ask yourself: "Will it pay me to do this thing which I know is not right?" Go to the penitentiary. Ask the people there who have failed, who have made mistakes, why they are there, and in every case they will tell you that they are there because they yielded to temptation, because they did not ask themselves the question "Will it pay?"

Go ask those people who have no care for life, who have thrown away their virtue, as it were, ask them why they are without character, and the answer will be, in so many words, that they sought but temporary success. In order to find some short road to success, in order to have momentary happiness, they yielded to temptation. We want to feel that in every student who goes out from here there is a character which can be depended upon in the night as well as in the day. That is the kind of young men and young women we wish to send out from here. Whenever you are tempted to yield a hair's breadth in the direction which I have indicated, ask yourself the question over and over again: "Will it pay me in this world? Will it pay me in the world to come?"