If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.
Stanhope was headed to France—in a hurry. He was 19, recently elected to Parliament and had just completed his first speech. When silence rather than applause greeted his inaugural effort, he was more than a bit discomforted. After several long moments, a senior member rose and explained that it was illegal for anyone under the age of 20 to address the assembly. The breach carried with it a £500 fine. The most prudent course of action for the future 4th Earl of Chesterfield seemed to be a leisurely sojourn on the continent until he turned 20 and the violation forgotten. It was an emblematic start for a man whose career would have its share of ups and downs. But there were more ups than downs. During the ensuing decades, Lord Chesterfield would serve as Ambassador to Holland, chief negotiator of the second Treaty of Vienna, founding governor of London’s Foundling Hospital, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, and Secretary of State. Yet despite his accomplishments as a statesman, today he is best known for the sometimes good, sometimes dreadful advice provided to his son in hundreds of letters over the span of thirty years. Published posthumously by his son’s widow as, Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, the work has inspired praise and contempt. Samuel Johnson claimed the letters “teach the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master.” While the assessment is perhaps a bit harsh, some would quibble with the value such advice as, “there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter,” “the cure for love is marriage,” and “Women are only children of a larger growth; they have an entertaining tattle, and sometimes wit; but for solid reasoning, good sense, I never knew in my life one that had it.” On the other hand, he provides his son with such helpful bon mots as, “Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well,” “An injury is much sooner forgotten than an insult,” and “ the less one has to do, the less time one finds to do it in.” How this advice was received by its recipient is lost to the mists of time. It can be inferred, however, from a 1750 letter in which the Earl complains, “I wish to God that you had as much pleasure in following my advice, as I have in giving it to you.” (Truly, a universal parental lament!) Critics and children aside, when taken together, he has enough wise sayings to rival even Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately, the saying commonly attributed to Lord Chesterfield that we started with, isn’t one of his at all.
What the Earl actually wrote was, “I recommend you to take care of the minutes: for hours will take care of themselves.” This was a riff on a saying by Mr. Lowndes, a former Secretary of the Treasury, (described by His Lordship as, “a very covetous, sordid fellow”) who said, “Take care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves.” The saying in its most commonly known form probably comes from a variation penned by Maria Edgeworth, an early 19th century Irish writer who is often favorably compared to Jane Austen and Walter Scott. Then again, in modern times it’s been attributed to a Tibetan Lama!
Obviously, the wisdom of the saying gives it a pedigree that transcends any supposed author and makes it a good launching point for the New Year. Whether you let the hours or the years take care of themselves, pay attention to the present. It’s the quality of the moment that determines your success and happiness. So gratefully accept the good and parry the bad. Focus on your strength and not your weakness. Worry less and express more confidence. Most of all, enjoy yourself. Finally, and with apologies to Lord Chesterfield, go ahead and laugh out loud! Happy New Year! —Ebert