Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 26 Individual Responsibility

I have referred in a general way, before this, when I have been speaking to you, to the fact that each one of you ought to feel an interest in whatever task is set you to do here over and above the mere bearing which that task has on your own life. I wish to speak more specifically to-night on this subject-on what I may term the im-portance of your feeling a sense of personal responsibility not only for the successful performance of every task set you, but for the success-ful outcome of every worthy undertaking with which you come in contact.

You ought to realize that your actions will not affect yourselves alone. In this age it is almost impossible for a man to live for himself alone. On every side our lives touch those of others; their lives touch ours. Even if it were possible to live otherwise, few would wish to. A narrow life, a selfish life, is almost sure to be not only unprofitable but unhappy. The happy people and the successful people are those who go out of their way to reach and influence for good as many persons as they can. In order to do this, though, in order best to fit one's self to live this kind of life, it is important that certain habits be acquired; and an essential one of these is the habit of realizing one's responsi-bility to others.

Your actions will affect other people in one way or another, and you will be responsible for the result. You ought always to remember this, and govern yourselves accordingly. Suppose it is the matter of the recitation of a lesson, for instance. Some one may say: "It is nobody's business but my own if I fail in a recitation. Nobody will suffer but me." This is not so. Indirectly you injure your teacher also, for while a conscientious, hard-working teacher ought not to be blamed for the failures of pupils who do not learn simply because they do not want to, or are too lazy to try, it is generally the case that a teacher's reputation gains or loses as his or her class averages high or low. And each failure in recitation, for whatever cause, brings down the average. Then, too, you are having an influence upon your classmates, even if it be unconscious. There is hardly ever a student who is not observed by some one at some time as an example. "There is such a boy," some other student says to himself. "He has failed in class ever so many times, and still he gets along. It can't make much difference it I fail once." And as a result he neglects his duty, and does fail.

The same thing is true of work in the industrial departments. Too many students try to see how easily they can get through the day, or the work period, and yet not get into trouble. Or even if they take more interest than this, they care for their work only for the sake of what they can get out of it for themselves, either as pay, or as instruction which will enable them to work for pay at some later time. Now there ought to be a higher impulse behind your efforts than that. Each student ought to feel that he or she has a personal responsibility to do each task in the very best manner possible. You owe this not only to your fellow students, your teachers, the school, and the people who support the institution, but you owe it even more to yourselves. You owe it to yourselves because it is right and honest, because nothing less than this is right and honest, and because you never can be really successful and really happy until you do study and work and live in this way.

I have been led to speak specifically on this subject to-night on account of two occurrences here which have come to my notice. One of these illustrates the failure on the part of students to feel this sense of responsibility to which I have referred. The other affords an illus-tration of the possession by a student of a feeling of personal interest and personal responsibility which has been very gratifying and encour-aging. The first incident, I may say, occurred some months ago. It is possible that the students who were concerned in it may not be here now or, if they are, that it would not happen again. I certainly hope not.

A gentleman who had been visiting here was to go away. He left word at the office of his wish, saying that he planned to leave town on the five o'clock train in the afternoon. A boy was sent from the office early in the afternoon with a note to the barn ordering a carriage to take this gentleman and his luggage to the station. Half-past four came, and the man had his luggage brought down to the door of the building in which he had been staying, so as to be ready when the team came. But no team came. The visitor finally became so anxious that he walked over to the barn himself. Just as he reached the barn he met the man who was in charge there, with the note in his hand. The note had only just that moment reached this man, and of course no carriage had been sent because the first person who felt that he had any responsibility in the matter had only just learned that a carriage was wanted. The boy who had brought the note had given it to another boy, and he to someone else, and he, perhaps, to someone else. At any rate it had been delayed because no one had taken enough interest in the errand to see that whatever business the note referred to received proper attention. This occurred, as I have said, several months ago, before the local train here went over to Chehaw to meet all of the trains. It happened that this particular passenger was going north, and it was possible by driving to Chehaw for him to get there in time to take the northbound train. 1fhe had been going the other way, though, towards Montgomery, he would have lost the train entirely, and, as chanced to be the case, would have been unable to keep a very impor-tant engagement. As it was, he was obliged to ride to Chehaw in a carriage, and the time of a man and team, which otherwise would have been saved, was required to take him there.

Now when such a thing as this happens, no amount of saying, "I am sorry," by the person or persons to blame, will help the matter any. It is too late to help it then. The thing to do is to feel some responsibility in seeing that things are done right yourself. Take enough interest in whatever you are engaged in to see that it is going to come out in the end just as nearly right, just as nearly perfect, as anything you can do will go towards making it right or perfect. And if the task or errand passes out of your hands before it is completed, do not feel that your responsibility in the matter ends until you have impressed it upon the minds and heart of the person to whom you turn over the further performance of the duty.

The world is looking for men and women who can tell one why they can do this thing or that thing, how a certain difficulty was surmounted or a certain obstacle removed. But the world has little patience with the man or woman who takes no real interest in the performance of a duty, or who runs against a snag and gets discour-aged, and then simply tells why he did not do a, thing, and gives excuses instead of results. Opportunities never come a second time, nor do they wait for our leisure. The years come to us but once, and they come then only to pass swiftly on, bearing the ineffaceable record we have put upon them. If we wish to make them beautiful years or profitable years, we must do it moment by moment as they glide before us.

The other case to which I have referred is pleasanter to speak about. One day this spring, after it had got late enough in the season so that it was not as a general thing necessary to have fires to heat our buildings, a student passing Phelps Hall noticed that there was a volume of black smoke pouring out of one of the chimneys there. Some boys might not have noticed the smoke at all; others would have said that it came from the chimney; still others would have said that it was none of their business anyway, and would have gone along. This boy was different. He noticed the smoke, and although he saw, or thought he saw that it came from the chimney, and if so was prob-ably no sign of harm, he felt that any smoke at all there at that time was such an unusual thing that it ought to be investigated for fear it might mean danger to the building. He was not satisfied until he had gone into the building and had inspected every floor clear up to the attic, to see that the chimney and the building were not in danger. As it happened, the janitor had built a fire in the furnace in the basement for some reason, so that the young man's anxiety fortunately was unfounded, but I am heartily glad he had such an anxiety, and that he could not rest until he found out whether there was any founda-tion for it or not. I shall feel that all of our buildings are safer for his being here, and when he graduates and goes away I hope he will leave many others here who will have the same sense of personal responsi-bility which he had. Let me tell you, here and now, that unless you young men and young women come to have this characteristic, your lives are going to fall far short of the best and noblest achievement possible.

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 profes-sional 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 labor for twenty-five cents. He watched the clock, for fear that he would work one minute past twelve o'clock at noon and past six o'clock at night. He did not feel that he had any responsibility to look out for his employer's interests. 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 respon-sible.”