The Amazing Power of Concentration

An Excerpt from You Can Be a Great American! 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness (a Growing Up Great Guide for American Boys and for the Parents and Teachers Who Love Them), by W. F. Markwick and W. A. Smith

Entry #12 in the Raising Great Americans Project! Click Here to learn More!






Success grows out of struggles to overcome difficulties.

— Smiles

He who follows two hares is sure to catch neither.

— Franklin

The important thing in life is to have a great
aim and the determination to attain it.

— Goethe

A healthy definite purpose is a remedy for a thousand ills.

— O. S. Marden

The evidence of superior genius is the power of intellectual concentration.

–B. R. Hayden


Concentration begins with the habit of attention. The highest success in learning depends on the power of the learner to command and hold his own attention,–on his ability to concentrate his thought on the subject before him. By the words “habit of attention,” we do not mean here the outward, respectful attitude of a docile pupil who listens when his teacher speaks, but something much rarer, much more important, and far more difficult of attainment. We mean that power of the mind by which a person is able to give an intelligent account of what is said, whether in conversation, in lecture, or in sermon; which enables him to grasp at one reading the important points of a problem or a paragraph; and which makes it possible for a student or a reader to so concentrate his attention on what he is doing as to be entirely oblivious, so long as it does not concern him, of what is going on around him.

This is the age of concentration or specialization of energy. The problem of the day is to get ten-horse power out of an engine that shall occupy the space of a one-horse power engine, and no more. Just so society demands a ten-man power out of one individual. It crowns the man who knows one thing supremely, and can do it better than anybody else, even if it be only the art of raising turnips. If he raises the best turnips by reason of concentrating all his energy to that end, he is a benefactor to the race, and is recognized as such. The giants of the race have been men of concentration, who have struck all their blows in one place until they have accomplished their purpose. The successful men of today are men of one overmastering idea, one unwavering aim, men of single and intense purpose. “Scatteration” is the curse of American business life. Too many are like Douglas Jerrold’s friend, who could converse in twenty-four languages, but had no ideas to express in any one of them.

“The weakest living creature,” says Carlyle, “by concentrating his powers on a single object, can accomplish something; whereas the strongest, by dispersing his over many, may fail to accomplish anything. The drop, by continually falling, bores its passage through the hardest rock. The hasty torrent rushes over it with hideous uproar and leaves no trace behind.”

It is interesting to read how, with an immense procession passing up Broadway, the streets lined with people, and the bands playing their loudest, Horace Greeley would sit upon the steps of the Astor House, use the top of his hat for a desk, and write an editorial for the New York Tribune which would be quoted all over the country; and there are many incidents in his career which go to show that his wonderful power of concentration was one of the great secrets of his success.

Men who have the right kind of material in them will assert their personality, and rise in spite of a thousand adverse circumstances. You cannot keep them down. Every obstacle seems only to add their ability to get on. The youth Opie earned his bread by sawing wood, but he reached a professorship in the Royal Academy. When but ten years old he showed the material he was made of by a beautiful drawing on a shingle. Antonio Canova was a son of a day laborer; Thorwaldsen’s parents were poor; but, like hundreds of others, these men did with their might what their hands found to do, and ennobled their work. They rose by being greater than their calling.

It is fashionable to ridicule the man of one idea; but the men who have changed the face of the world have been men of a single aim. No man can make his mark on this age of specialties who is not a man of one idea, one supreme aim, one master passion. The man who would make himself felt on this bustling planet, must play all his guns on one point. A wavering aim, a faltering purpose, will have no place in the twentieth century. “Mental shiftlessness” is the cause of many a failure. The world is full of unsuccessful men who spend their lives letting empty buckets down into empty wells.

As opposed to men of the latter class, what a sublime picture of determination and patience was that of Charles Goodyear, of New Haven, buried in poverty and struggling with hardships for eleven long years, to make India rubber of practical use! See him in prison for debt; pawning his clothes and his wife’s jewelry to get a little money to buy food for his children, who were obliged to gather sticks in the field for fire. Observe the sublime courage and devotion to his idea, when he had no money to bury a dead child, and when his other five were near starvation; when his neighbors were harshly criticizing him for his neglect of his family, and calling him insane. But, behold his vulcanized rubber; the result of that heroic struggle, applied to thousands of uses by over sixty thousand employees.

A German knight undertook to make an immense Aeolian harp by stretching wires from tower to tower of his castle. When he finished the harp it was silent; but when the breezes began to blow he heard faint strains like the murmuring of distant music. At last a tempest arose and swept with fury over his castle, and then rich and grand music came from the wires. Ordinary experiences do not seem to touch some lives, to bring out their higher manhood; but when patience and firmness bring forth their fruit it is always of the very finest quality.

It is good to know that great people have done great things through concentration; but it is better still to know that concentration belongs to the everyday life of the everyday boy and girl. Only they must not be selfish about it. Understand the work in hand before it is begun. Don’t think of anything else while doing it; and don’t dream when learning a lesson. Do one thing at a time and do it quickly and thoroughly. “I go at what I am about,” said Charles Kingsley, “as if there was nothing else in the world for the time being.” That’s the secret of the success of all hard-working men.

S. T. Coleridge possessed marvelous powers of mind, but he had no definite purpose; he lived in an atmosphere of mental dissipation, which consumed his energy and exhausted his stamina, and his life was in many respects a miserable failure. He lived in dreams and died in reverie. He was continually forming plans and resolutions, but to the day of his death they remained resolutions and plans. He was always just going to do something, but never did it. “Coleridge is dead,” wrote Charles Lamb to a friend, “and is said to have left behind him above forty thousand treatises on metaphysics and divinity–not one of them complete!”

Commodore MacDonough, on Lake Champlain, concentrated the fire of all his vessels upon the “big ship” of Downie, regardless of the fact that the other British ships were all hurling cannon balls at his little fleet. The guns of the big ship were silenced, and then the others were taken care of easily.

By exercising this art of concentration in a higher degree than did his brother generals, Grant was able to bring the Civil War to a speedy termination. This trait was strongly marked in the character of George Washington.

People who have concentration never make excuses. They get more done than others, and have a better time doing it. Excuses are signs of shiftlessness. They do not answer in play any better than in lessons or business. Who ever heard of excuses in football-playing? When we go into all our duties with the same earnestness and devotion, we shall find ourselves rapidly rising into one of those foremost places which most of us so greatly desire.




Few men in this century have followed a single purpose through their entire lives with greater devotion than the famous missionary and explorer, David Livingstone.

He was born in Scotland, March 19, 1813, of poor parents. He loved books as a boy, studied hard to know about rocks and plants, worked in a cotton mill and earned money to go to a medical school. He was honest, helped his mother, and read all the books he could. “My reading in the factory,” he said, “was carried on by placing the book on a portion of the spinning-jenny, so that I could catch sentence after sentence as I passed at my work. I thus kept up a pretty constant study, undisturbed by the roar of machinery.”

Very early Livingstone began to think about being a missionary. He read about travels in Africa, about the work of Henry Martyn, and about the Moravian missions. He heard about China and the need of medical missionaries there; and he says that “from this time my efforts were constantly devoted toward this object without any fluctuation.”

Livingstone wanted to go to China; but he met Dr. Moffat, who was then home from Africa, and was persuaded to change his plans. Early in 1841 he reached Algoa Bay, at the south end of Africa. Then he went to Dr. Moffat’s mission station at Kuruman; but here he found the missionaries did not work well together, that there were more men than work, so he pushed on into regions where no one had been before. “I really am ambitious,” he wrote, “to preach beyond other men’s lines. I am determined to go on, and do all I can, while able, for the poor, degraded people in the North.”

This feeling sent him into the great wilderness to find what opportunities it afforded. In 1852 he started on his first great journey, made more discoveries, and crossed Africa from east to west, and then back again to the east coast. It was hard work; many were the difficulties; and his life was often in peril. Yet he saw Africa as no one before had seen it; and when he returned to England in 1857 he found himself famous, honored on every hand, and everybody ready to help on his great and noble work.

In 1859 he returned to Africa with men and money to explore further, and to see what could be done for the good of the country. He explored the Zambezi river, on the east coast; and became familiar with that side of Africa,–its people, rivers, lakes, and mountains. He returned home in 1864, but went back the next year to seek out the source of the Nile. In 1865 he started on his longest and last journey, going this time to the northwest. This was the hardest and most perilous of all his journeys; for he was often sick, his men were not faithful, the country was in a state of war, his money gave out; and he was in a very bad condition when Henry M. Stanley found him in 1871.

Stanley furnished him with money and men, and he started again for the great interior region to discover the source of the Nile, and then to return home and die. He was now sixty years old, his health had given way, but he persisted in the effort to finish his work. He grew weaker from month to month, but would not turn back. Finally, on May 1, 1873, his men found him on his knees in his tent, dead; but the results of his patient and persevering efforts will never die.

This Article is an Excerpt from You Can Be a Great American! 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness (a Growing Up Great Guide for American Boys and for the Parents and Teachers Who Love Them), by W. F. Markwick and W. A. Smith, which is available from Better Days Books in quality hardbound, sturdy trade paperback and convenient .PDF e-book editions starting at just $4.95.

Industry, Ambition, Self Control, Self-Respect, Courtesy, Faithfulness, Courage, Duty, Honesty, Enthusiasm, Humility, Patriotism… In every era of our Nation’s history, the true alchemy by which ordinary boys have been transformed into Great American Men has always and only occurred where these indispensible moral principles have been successfully applied. In an age like our own, where such manly ideals are openly mocked and derided by our popular culture, it’s time to turn to the past to recapture a clear vision of what it takes to be a Great American, and the true moral and ethical ladder that leads reliably to its attainment.

You Can Be a Great American: 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness was first published in 1900, under the title The True Citizen, How to Become One, and contains 39 essential lessons in manhood tailored to each age and transition in a boy’s life, from infancy to adulthood. It is the clearest roadmap to American Greatness ever compiled for the youth of our Nation, and remains as life-changing today as it was when first published, over 100 years ago.

Whether you are an adult raising boys in a Traditional family setting, the single parent of a son, or a boy abandoned to no or poor parenting, left to grab your own bootstraps and lift yourself up to a life of achievement, success and All-American Greatness (or an adult who knows a boy in such sad straits), You Can Be a Great American!: 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness is the only guidebook you’ll ever need.

Also available through in quality trade paperback and Kindle e-book download editions.


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