Excerpts from

  The Hour of Opportunity
by Orison Swett Marden

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Book Description
In The Hour of Opportunity Marden teaches the reader how to be awake and alert to everything that happens in the workplace; to treat all obstacles as potential opportunities on the road to success; and how to recognize the good even in a bad situation. A great "pick-me-up" for anyone who is feeling stuck and needs a new outlook on how to get ahead!

Chapter 1



"To take Time by the forelock" – meaning to take hold of Opportunity just as you would grab a robber by the hair on top of his head, is considered one of the first metephors known to Greek art. It was the work of the sculptor Lysippus, a contemporary of Alexander the Great.

The famous bronze named “Take Time By The Forelock” was lost, but one who saw it has described the glorious statue of a man as follows:

Opportunity, he was a boy in the flower of his youth; handsome in appearance, his hair fluttered at the whim of the wind, leaving his locks untidy. His forehead shone with grace, and his cheeks glowed with youthful splendor. With wings on his feet and shoulders to indicate swiftness, he stood upon a sphere, resting upon the tips of his toes as if ready for flight. His hair fell in thick curls from his brow, easy to lay hold upon; but upon the back of his head no hair was present, and when he had once passed by, it was not possible to seize him. One hand is balancing a set of scales on the edge of a razor, while the other hand is adjusting the scales.

"Opportunity" – the belief that one must seek out and take advantage of the right time to do something. This main idea was a gift from Lysippus to all mankind. He believed that our affairs are indeed, on the razor's edge, meaning, "Now is the time for decision, and time will not wait."

An old poem, written by an unknown source, gives us a more vivid idea of the significance of the statue:

"What art thou?" "Time, the all-subduer."

"Why standest on thy tiptoes?" "I speed ever."

"Why thy double wings on each foot?"

"I fly with the wind."

"In thy hand, why that razor?" "'Tis a sign to men

That quicker than any edge am I."

"But why thy hair over the eye?"

"To be grasped by him who meets me."

"The back of thy head, why bald?"

"When once I have rushed by, with winged feet,

One can never grasp me from behind."

"Why made thee the artist thus?" "For thy sake,

O stranger, he placed this warning lesson in the doorway."


"Man," says Mathews, "is to a great extent the child of opportunity. Estimate as we may the chances of the individual and his achievement of success, there is yet another factor in the equation, the power of circumstances, which we cannot wholly ignore."

To support Mathews’ claim, I supply the following example, taken from an incident that occurred during the reign of George IV. A village doctor by chance visited the state apartments at a time when his majesty was experiencing a seizure. The chance visitor drew the royal blood and brought the king back to consciousness and by his friendly and quaint humor he made his somewhat despondent ruler laugh aloud. The monarch took a liking to him, and made him his royal physician; so the doctor’s fortune was "made," as was common to say at the time.

Now we may say what we will in regard to the good doctor; there were multitudes of men in his calling quite as competent as he, who did not "happen" to visit the state apartments at this critical juncture. However, this singular opportunity made the difference between him and the others. At the same time, it is plain enough that the education of the doctor was an essential element; and if he had not been well prepared for his opportunity when it came, his ignorance and incompetence would have been displayed to the highest degree and the opportunity would have been useless to him.

This is further illustrated by an often told anecdote of Ole Bull. During many years the eminent violinist had been practicing upon his favorite instrument, and this practice had properly equipped him for the fame which later came; but at this time he was still obscure and unknown to the general public as a musician. Yet his opportunity came in this way:

The eminent songstress Malibran once passed a window at which Ole Bull, the youth from Norway, was playing; and it seemed to her that she had never heard the violin give forth such exquisite music. She inquired for the name of the

unknown young man. And not long after, when she disappointed her audience at a concert, through some sudden argument with her manager, Ole Bull was sent for to entertain the large audience that had gathered; and his playing in that single hour placed him near the head of the musical world. It was to him the hour of opportunity, and he was prepared for it.

This point is further illustrated by the story which has been eloquently told by George Cary Eggleston. It is concerning the servant-boy Antonio, who was not only an occasional stone-cutter, but who had become greatly skilled in the use of his tools. Usually serving as a mere servant-boy in the kitchen, he was absolutely unknown to fame. Once when his master invited many friends to a banquet, the ornamental work, which was to be prepared by the confectioner for the center of the table, was ruined. His master was very concerned that his table would not be properly set. At this juncture the stone-cutter boy offered to supply what was lacking. Calling for a large quantity of butter, he quickly molded an impressive crouching lion, which was placed upon the table. The merchants and princely guests at the party were some of the most skilled critics of art, and when their eyes fell upon the lion made of butter they marveled at this work of “a genius”, and asked their host what eminent sculptor had prepared it. When the confectioner told the story, the host declared that he would pay Antonio's expenses to pursue artistic studies; and the servant-boy, who was prepared for his opportunity when it came, is now known in the history of art by the name of Canova, one of the greatest sculptors of all time. If the boy had not been ready for his opportunity when it came, he would have lived and died a servant-boy.


The opportunity was the main thing in the mind of Professor Sargent, the director of the gymnasium at Harvard University. His opportunity came when he was an obscure student at Bowdoin College, preparing for his great life work.

"During the first year," he explained, "while attending to the duties of the gymnasium and preparing to enter college, I did my own janitorial work. Entering the freshman class at Bowdoin in 1871, two years after, I took charge of the gymnasium and continued to work my way through college. I graduated in 1875. It was at this time that I became passionate for inventing. The apparatus in the gym was heavy and cumbersome, a new solution was needed, and I began to remodel or modify old pieces of equipment and invent new ones. Before the close of my first year in the gymnasium we gave an exhibition which attracted so much attention and was so far ahead of anything that had been previously known that my salary was immediately raised; and the next year, on the strength of the work I was doing at Bowdoin, I was invited to go to Yale University at a salary of sixty dollars a week." Having spoken at length, the professor made the point that the seizing of an oppor-tunity is of the utmost importance, even though the immediate compensation may seem small and inadequate at the time: "It is not the value of their services to which men should look”, he continued, “but to the opportunity offered. Many a young fellow would refuse to take a situation at five dollars a week as I did, feeling that his work was worth far more; but Bowdoin and five dollars a week opened the way to Yale and sixty dollars a week." In 1872 Professor Sargent became the instructor in gymnastics at Yale University, and for the following three years had charge of the gymnasiums both at Yale and at Bowdoin. He later took the entire responsibility at Yale, and subsequently became the director of the Harvard gymnasium; and he was remembered and recognized throughout the country as the most eminent instructor in his department.


The point that I would make in regard to the preparation of our youth for the opportunities of life is further illustrated by the story which I found in the "Youth's Companion” magazine. The story is of John Grant, who worked in a hardware store at two dollars a week. It was said to him by his employers, upon his entering their store: "Make yourself useful by becoming acquainted with all the details of this business; and as fast as you prove yourself capable, we will recognize your services in some way."

After several weeks young Grant, who had been closely watching, observed  that his employer always attended to the checking of the bills of imported foreign goods. These were in French and German. He set to work to study the bills, and to learn commercial French and German in which they were written.

One day, when his employer was much pressed for time, Grant offered to do the checking for him; and he did it so well that the next bills which came in were handed to him almost immediately.

One day, a month later, he was called into the office and interviewed by both the active members of the firm. The senior member said: "In my forty years' experience in this business you are the first boy who has seen this opportunity

and improved it. I always had to do the work until Mr. Williams came, and one reason why he became a member of the firm was because he could attend to this part of the business. We want you to take charge of the foreign goods. It is an important position; in fact, it is a matter of necessity that we have someone who can do this work. Only you, out of the twenty young men we have here, saw the opportunity, and prepared yourself for it."

His pay was advanced to ten dollars a week; in five years he received eighteen hundred dollars salary, and had been sent to France and Germany. "John Grant," said his employer, "will probably become a member of the firm at thirty. He saw the opportunity, and equipped himself to manage the task, and it took some sacrifice; but it paid off. It always pays to be prepared."

"The accurate boy is always the favored one," said President Tuttle, of the Boston and Maine Railroad. "I do not wish to employ men who will not work to help improve my organization. Careless men are liabilities and they act as though their employer is nothing more than an idiot, or a fool. If a carpenter must stand at the elbow of his worker to be certain that his work is right, or if a store owner must double-check his bookkeeper's formulas, he might as well do the work himself rather than employ another to do it in that way; and it is very certain that the employer will get rid of such a blunderer as soon as he can."


When George W. Childs was only twelve years old he went to work in Philadelphia, where he received only enough money to pay for his room and still have fifty cents left. Childs earned just twenty-five dollars a year for all his outside expenses. Yet it was an opportunity; and so he worked very hard to make the most of it.

"I did not merely do the work I was required to do," he said, "but I did all that I could, and put my whole heart into it. I wanted my employer to feel that I was more useful to him than he expected me to be. I was not afraid to make fires, clean and sweep, and to perform what some young gentlemen nowadays consider as menial work and therefore beneath them. It was while I was working here as an errand boy that I made the most of the opportunity to read multitudes of books; and I attended book sales at night, so that I could learn the market value of books and anything else that might be useful later on in my business as a bookseller. I fixed my ambition high, so that I might at least be always moving in an upward direction.

"I lived near a theater, and many of the actors knew me, so I could have gone in and witnessed the performances. Other boys did it, and I would have liked to have done it; but I thought it over, and concluded that I would not, and I never did. A young man should not yield to any temptation to relax his efforts when preparing for his business, solely for the purpose of amusing himself. At least that was the way I looked at it. I was always cheerful, and took a keen interest in my work, and took pleasure in doing it well.”

"When after some time I secured an office in the Public Ledger building, I said to myself, 'Some time I will own that paper;' and I directed my work in such a way that when the time came I was able to buy it, and I was also able to manage it properly."

It should be noted that young Childs, very early on, made up his mind to prepare himself for every opportunity that might come to him in the publishing business. He deliberately chose to do prepare himself, and that he would not allow himself to be diverted from it by giving attention to many of the amusements which diverted so many young men in the big cities. He was young and strong and always displayed a cheerful temperament. While he did not seek out the same kinds of entertainment that so many of his peers desired, he did have an insatiable need to understand about the publishing business and to be faithful to his employer, and to earn and to save money until he was prepared for the greater opportunities which came to him in later life. His wonderful career, his accumulation of a great fortune, his wise use of his resources, his practical benevolence, his warm and friendly and useful life, were all related to these decisions of his very early teens and young adulthood when he was preparing for his opportunity.


Mr. Herbert Vreeland was responsible for the transportation of a million passengers a day in New York City. He received as a Valentine present from his associates $100,000 in recognition of his superb management of the properties entrusted to his care. Many New Yorkers then learned for the first time what railroad experts throughout the country had long known; that the transportation of a million passengers a day in New York's busy streets, without serious friction or public annoyance, was not a matter of chance. Rather, is was the result of the most effective traffic organization ever created. At the head of this organization was one man—quiet, yet forcible, with all the ability of a great general,—the master, and at the same time the friend to all the public for which he so loyally served.

Mr. Vreeland, as a lad of thirteen, worked with a gang of men at filling the city ice carts; and once in his early youth he drove a grocery wagon. When he entered the railroad business at eighteen years old he shoveled gravel on the cars of the Long Island Railroad night construction trains. This was he believed, his great opportunity. He had been ambitious to become a railroad man, and was determined to make the most of it. After a few months he was given a job of inspecting the railroad ties and roadbeds, at a dollar a day. ''I then felt," he said, "that I was well upon my way to the presidency of the corporation."

He was soon made into a switchman. The Bushwick station being not far away, he made the acquaintance of the officials there, and offered to help them in their clerical work at any and all times when he was off switch duty. It was exactly what they wanted; and what he wanted, — for he was determined to learn the railroad business from bottom to top. "Many a time," he said, "I worked till eleven or twelve o'clock at night in that little station, figuring out train receipts and expenses, engine cost and freight and passenger statistics of all kinds; and as a result of this work I quickly acquired a knowledge of railroad details in all its stages, which few managers possessed. I sought to acquire a knowledge for every branch of the business."

This was his opportunity, yet his switchman work was temporary, since it was connected with a construction train, so when the work was completed he was discharged. "This did not suit me at all," he said. "I went to one of the officials of the road and told him that I wanted to remain with the Long Island Railroad Company in any capacity whatsoever, and would be obliged to him if he would give me work. He said at first that he had nothing for me to do; but finally added that if I were willing to work on another division and sweep out and dust cars, he might have something. I instantly accepted, and thereby learned the details of another important railroad department. Pretty soon they made me a brakeman on an early mail train; and then I found out what I was worth to the world. After two full years of railroad training, I was worth just forty dollars a month. I paid eighteen dollars for room and board, and sent twenty dollars home for the support of my mother and sister."

It soon began to be understood by Vreeland's companions on the road that he was a young man with a strong ambition, who intended to become president of the railroad, — and "President Vreeland" was the name by which he was known to the boys. It was told to him that he might someday become a conductor, but he would never go any further in his career. When he did become a conductor he was advanced over the heads of many older brakemen on account of his superior knowledge and skills. But there was an accident one day, for which he and the engineer were jointly responsible. They admitted their responsibility, and were both immediately discharged. "I went again to the superintendent," said Mr. Vreeland, "and upon a strong plea to be retained, he sent me back to the ranks of the brakemen. I made no complaint, but accepted the consequences of my mistake." Soon the railroad passed into other hands, and the new managers were quick to discover that Vreeland was a man of unusual capacity, and this was tested at an early date.

When the railroad again changed hands it was found that the general manager, who did not understand the details of railroading, had to depend largely upon Mr. Vreeland's experience to enable him to carry on his work. After this, when men in high positions began to know him personally and to observe his work, Mr. Vreeland was found to be the one man who was most needed for managing the details of the Metropolitan Railway Company of New York.

In regard to this most remarkable career it is to be said that there was an opportunity and a capacity, and that Mr. Vreeland always had in him the ability to do what he later accomplished.

In a speech Mr. Vreeland said: "No artificial condition can ever, in my judgment, keep down a man who has health, capacity, and honesty. You can temporarily interfere with him or make the road to the object of his ambition more difficult, but you cannot stop him. The successful man will never be silenced, his will to press on is never dead, and because he knows it he possesses a great enlightenment that will bring him power and wealth.

Instead of preventing a man from rising, there is not an employer in the entire world that is not today eagerly seeking to identify and retain the services of highly capable people. The great hunger of the time is for good and strong men and women, people capable of assuming respons-ibility; and there is great opportunity for those who are willing to prepare themselves."

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