The Joys of Living By Orison Swett Marden


To live free in an unfree world requires a change of mental outlook. Orison Swett Marden (1850–1924) is a fantastic coach for exactly that.

He was the biographer of the Gilded Age, a serious student of how people go from rags to riches. He founded Success magazine during a period when the US economy was freer than it was any time before or after. Marden admired the great men and women of this period, and he became their preferred philosopher, inspiring the likes of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and J.P. Morgan.

He was also the editor of Success magazine, a hugely influential publication during the age when Americans adored their inventors and entrepreneurs — and deeply loved the richest of the rich among them, though always cautioning them to retain their ideals and visions of utopia.

He studied the phenomenon of progress and tried to discern the causes of greatness. He located them in the hearts and minds of the men and women who made the difference. The point was not to celebrate privilege but rather to see the possibilities available to every person.

The Joys of Living is his instruction book for a rich, full, and free life. This 100th anniversary edition shows that his prose has lost none of its original power — and it is even more relevant now that we are faced with more obstacles to success. His core point is to look beyond the obstacles and become hyper-aware of the opportunities. He shows how in chapters on mental outlook, debt and money, reading and family life, hope and despair, and young and old age.

The greatest discovery of the time, he writes, was not a technology, but a philosophy. It was the philosophy that the individual human mind was the most productive resource on the planet, more powerful than all the natural resources or man-made machinery. It was the human mind that was the real source of progress and prosperity.

Previous generations believed they were trapped by fate, by class, by social position, or by forces more powerful than they. This generation saw the truth that nothing could contain an idea whose time had come, so long as there were great men and women around who believed in it and acted upon it.

Marden’s recipe is made of three parts: seeing, emulating, and acting. To his mind, there are no circumstances we face that would make doing this impossible. The source of joy is around us but we have to seek it, see it, embrace it, and expand upon it.

This little book beautifully encapsulates the capitalist spirit not only of his time but of all time. Indeed, this might be the most inspiring book you have ever read. But not because it solves all mysteries concerning who we are, how we got here, and what we should seek as the very purpose of life. He stays away from these larger questions, because it is the smaller questions that are more interesting and yield more actionable answers.

What he deals with is a more mundane aspect of philosophy: how we should approach each day in order to get the most out of life. This is a philosophy of how to live an excellent life, no matter what our calling is. Capitalist, monk, mother, teacher, worker, banker, mechanic, musician, preacher, writer — whatever we do can be done with a sense of joy, a spirit of awe, and an ambition to drive forward the engines of progress.

Nowhere does Marden talk of storming Washington, agitating for our rulers to overthrow themselves, sending institutions into upheaval, much less agitating for society-wide transformation and uplift. He speaks only to the individual. He tells you what you can do in your time, right where you are, to bring happiness to your life. Social and political change is an effect — it comes only after we change ourselves and live the fullest possible life.

His values: work, creativity, seeking out joy, feeling happiness, letting go of the past, living in the present, never regretting mistakes, never feeling fear, always being loyal, spreading good cheer, looking past obstacles, being kind to others, staying out of debt, keep life balanced between the need for money and the need for beauty, and never losing one’s ideals. This is the essence of the Marden worldview.

As for daily discouragements and obstacles, they are unavoidable features of life. They exist in all times and places. You can never get rid of the enemies of your personal progress but you can make the most of things as they are. In the course of this, we all make blunders and have plenty of reason to criticize ourselves. But this is the most unproductive activity. You can’t accomplish anything for the future if your gaze is always in the past.

Marden writes: “Nothing is more foolish, nothing more wicked, than to drag the skeletons of the past, the hideous images, the foolish deeds, the unfortunate experiences of yesterday into today’s work to mar and spoil it.”

The right attitude for the entrepreneur is to think of the past as dead and tomorrow as not yet born. The only time that really belongs to us is the here and now, the passing moment. If we dedicate ourselves to make the best out of the present, one decision and action at a time, we can make a great future for ourselves. The art of living is the art of living in the today.

Among the many things that defeat a person, Marden ranks temper very high. Temper leads to public humiliation by making an awful and unforgettable spectacle. Temper demonstrates for everyone a loss of control over the brain, thus revealing the inner brute. Everything we normally try to hide — meanness, nastiness, viciousness — are put on display in front of friends and coworkers. Control of temper, then, is a key to success. And the same is true of moods in general. “No one can be really happy or successful unless he is master of his moods.”

Another killer of progress in life is the habit of envy. That comes from resenting the success of others and wishing bad things to come to those who are evidently achieving things. This is a very common feature of the human spirit, but it is catastrophic for the heart and soul. Instead, we should seek to emulate the methods of those who succeed, and even cheer them on. If we do that, successful people will also become allies in our own success.

Marden wrote this book in his last years, so he has strong advice for old age: never stop learning, never stop extracting information from those around you, never stop acting to improve life, never stop thinking of every day as new. These habits are the key to retaining youth even until one’s last breath.

“The trouble with many people who lack imagination is that they have no utopia, no vision, and life is a hard, monotonous grind. Everyone should have a utopia and should live in it much of the time — a place where everything is ideal, and where everybody and everything is what they ought to be.”

“Man was made for growth — to realize poise of mind, peace, satisfaction. It is the object, the explanation, of his being. To have an ambition to grow larger and broader every day, to push the horizon of one’s ignorance a little further away, to become a little richer in knowledge, a little wiser, and more of a man — that is an ambition worthwhile.”

“Books make it possible for every person born into the world to begin where the previous generation left off.”

“Debt is one of the greatest sources of unhappiness, especially with young married people.

In a large city like New York, many people feel that they are nobodies.”

“One of man’s greatest passions is that of achievement, the passion for doing things, the ambition to accomplish.”

“Do not flatter yourself that you can be really happy unless you are useful. Happiness and usefulness were born twins. To separate them is fatal.”

“Nothing else more effectually retards age than keeping in mind the bright, cheerful, optimistic, hopeful, buoyant picture of youth, in all its splendor, magnificence; the picture of the glories which belong to youth — youthful dreams, ideals, hopes, and all the qualities peculiar to young life.”

“The greatest conqueror of age is a cheerful, hopeful, loving spirit.”

The Joys of Living captures that spirit better than any book. It was written in a time when people knew what freedom meant. It points to a way that that freedom can be recaptured in our own lives.

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  • Jeffrey Tucker

    The Joys of Living

    The Joys of Living This is such an inspirational book. It was written at the tail end of the Gilded Age generation of entrepreneurs and sought to discern the mindset of success. It is all about hope for tomorrow and the need to act today. He identifies so many human failings that lead to personal failure and entrench it. As self help books for freedom lovers go, this is a great book. Kick off the discussion! Questions, comments, observations or elaborations? Either reply here or create a new discussion using the tag Library_The Joys

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