The Making of Manhood by William James Dawson

The making of Manhood by William James Dawson is a book about the first use of primitive tools to hunt, create fire and defend against predators. It begins with an account of how Stone Age man met their end in competition for food with another species – wolves. The story moves on to describe the arrival of Homo erectus who developed new weapons like spears and bows that were still carried over from stone age times into modern day hunting methods.

Vintage man climbing on rocky mountain with tethered cable.

Drudgery’s Gains in the Making of Manhood, 1894 Dawson, William James

By drudgery, I mean labor that isn’t enjoyable in and of itself, doesn’t immediately stimulate our finest abilities, and only tangentially contributes to our overall progress. Although such a definition is not ideal, it accurately captures what we often understand by the phrase.

Now, if this is what we mean by drudgery, we’re all drudges, right? We all have to do a lot of things that we would rather not do on a daily basis. Even in the callings that seem to have the most perfect match between abilities and effort, such as those of the writer or artist, drudgery hounds all progress… Our popular sayings reflect our perceptions of these truths, such as “easy writing makes hard reading” and “what costs a man little is typically worth little.” However, few of us have a realistic understanding of the enormous effort that goes into the stunning achievements of a great artist or a well-known writer. The same may be said of the lives of famous statesmen, legislators, reformers, businessmen, and other notable persons from other walks of life. Examine such lifestyles, and the amount of long-term toil that lurks underneath all the glitz and glam of public renown is huge, and even terrible to the lazy. Walter Raleigh, more than any other Elizabethan figure, conveys the appearance of having accomplished great things with an airy ease and innate fluency of touch. Elizabeth, on the other hand, remarked of Raleigh, “he could toil dreadfully.” Every great guy may be claimed to be the same, so it’s no surprise that we’ve come to assume that brilliance is just an unlimited capacity for taking pains.

When a guy complains about the drudgery of his lot, I have the right to assume that he has not learned the discipline of labor, and that his chafing against the limits of his surroundings is due to innate indolence rather than repressed talent. Browning established the theory in his poem The Statue and the Bust that it is a man’s wisdom to strive to the utmost even for the smallest prize that may be within his grasp, for masculinity develops through such rigorous conflict, and manhood decays without it.

The clerk who does not want to be the best clerk in the office, or the carpenter who does not aspire to be the finest carpenter in the workshop, is unlikely to succeed in any other endeavor for which he believes his superior abilities are better suited…. I have little faith in the young man who is constantly protesting his circumstances and telling an incredulous world what great things he could accomplish if his circumstances were different. When people brag about having broad abilities for everything, they frequently end up with specific talents for nothing. In nine out of ten situations, the inept clerk would be as inept as a writer, artist, or speaker. If I were asked to assist a young person in moving to a more suitable sphere for his abilities, I would first need to be satisfied that he had faithfully completed the obligations of the lesser sphere in which he found himself. Superior talent is always demonstrated by superior performance of inferior tasks. It is to the man who is loyal in little things that power over greater things is granted. Because the larger a man is, the greater is his capacity of drudgery, he who has never acquired the skill of drudgery is unlikely to develop the talent of great and unforgettable labor.


The benefits of drudgery, on the other hand, are not only apparent in the tangible triumphs of life, but also in the influence they have on the individual. Let me give you an example of a situation that occurs often. Consider a guy who devotes his youth to the pursuit of a sought degree, a scholastic honor, or an award. It’s likely that when he gets what he’s fought for, he’ll discover that the pleasure of ownership isn’t as great as the thrill of the battle. We should be schooled by disillusionment as part of life’s discipline; we strive forth to some gleaming peak, only to discover that it is simply a bulwark thrown out by a higher mountain that we could not see, and that the true top remains yet far beyond us. But, as a result of the conflict, are we worse off? No, we are clearly the better for it, since whatever delusion has brought us here, it is apparent that without it, we would not have risen as far as we have. So a man may succeed or fail in obtaining the prize he desires, yet he cannot help but be the winner in himself. He has not yet achieved, but he has prepared himself to do so. It is preferable to fail at a big thing than to succeed at a little one, and the battle that fails is preferable to the stolidity that never aims in any case. And why is that? Because we will undoubtedly acquire some magnificent and noble attributes as a result of our battle. Even if such a man does not get the prize he seeks, he has developed a command over his random wants, a discipline of mind, a power of patient application, and a firmness of will and purpose that will serve him well throughout whatever toils his life may face in the years ahead. Even if he receives the prize he seeks, the true reward is found not in a degree, a certificate, or a fleeting moment of acclaim on a memorial day, but in the deeper strength of spirit, the broader range of insight that the long discipline of unflagging labor has taught him. This is so true that Lessing, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, declared that if he had to choose between attaining truth and searching for truth, he would pick the latter. The ultimate benefit is always found in the effort rather than in the reward. What we become must always take precedence over what we get.



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