My Experience With The Golden Rule 9781258335021

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My Experience With The Golden Rule

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My Experience With The Golden Rule James Cash Penney

Probably every man, as he enters upon middle life and after, becomes more or less reminiscent. This does not mean that he is less interested in present-day affairs. It means that he has traveled so far from his youth and early manhood and from the activities which characterized them that he can look back upon it all in somewhat accurate retrospect. It is as if he had spent a long time in high altitudes, then, having descended to sea level, he looks at the uplands, where he has been a traveler, and sees them for the first time in sharp outline. This means that we do not see nor can we correctly interpret the present until we move away from it. I bring this comparison before you for a purpose. I want to show that we build lasting values for later life precisely as we are motivated in youth. For what we do in the beginning of our careers capitalizes us all the way along. If it happens that one is challenged in youth by ethical principles and if one is led, or even compelled, to adopt them, he will begin to have high altitude experiences. In other words, it is well for every one of us to be forced by whatever circumstances to work righteously. This is the supreme benefit even if, in the doing of it, it seems to go ”against the grain.” We learn, slowly, that all accomplishment and advancement are gained only by a contest - a fight with the circumstances and conditions through which we pass. And we gradually begin to see that great principles have it in them to make the going rough, hard and foot-wearying. To seek to do the best for ourselves by doing right for all concerned is by no means an easy proposition, It is, in fact, infinitely hard. But at the same time it guarantees us safety and security as dividend on the investment of the effort we make. It does not keep us from attaining material success, hard as the going may be. But it makes the way safe and the method effective. All of this I present to you as a later life conviction regarding certain experiences of my youth which, today, I find to be the reliable compass and rudder of my ship of life. I have many times related the story of my boyhood and youth. Stern 1

discipline took command of me in my early years. As I look back over the entire range of my life’s journey I would say that discipline has never let up. I seem to have moved from one contest to another - from one hard situation to another. As I try to read it all now it seems to me as if life has been trying to make me understand that a man has only to work with the universal law and purpose and they, in turn, will work from him. But if he decides to work, trusting wholly to his own judgment ignoring all wiser leadership, he will get hurt. The truth of this is made plain by testing it. And the test itself goes on as long as life lasts. I can best illustrate what I mean by relating some major influences of my boyhood and youth. These influences took possession of me in the sense that they set the direction and the pace for the work which ultimately became my life occupation. What I am referring to is this: I grew up under the direction and inspiration of two remarkable people. My mother was born to the life and customs of Southern aristocracy. My father was of pioneer stock. Their marriage brought about a complete change in the life conditions and habits - of my mother particularly - for the newlymarried couple entered upon the pioneering life in the most testing terms - and of toil always stern in its demands. I often wonder how a young girl, nurtured in the exclusive privileges of a well-to-do home, could meet the demand of what was literally a life of ”roughing it.” But for both of them the pioneering experience, through which they had to pass, was an earnest challenge to be accepted in the spirit of earnest effort. I have always wondered at the courage, quiet fortitude and strength that inspired my mother in this new obligation, which compelled her to work in partnership to make a raw land obedient to the demands of home-building. My father learned early in life the meaning and the purpose of labor. To him it was not a burden but a privilege. The reason for this I will bring before you in a moment. First, let me explain that in my early years I witnessed my father busy in two callings. He was a preacher and a farmer. In both of these activities he was successful. For he accepted both preaching and farming as responsibilities to be met and ”paid in full.” Therefore, neither the one cause nor the other came first. Both received from him all he had to give. And all he had to give was constantly on the increase because he thought about it. Then there was still another point of view, or rather he let me call it another practice, which tended to make him an outstanding man. It was this: He believed that the purpose of religion in life is not fulfilled merely by a Sunday observance of it, for an hour or two. He looked upon it and practiced it as the quickening spirit of everything he did. Therefore our family life from 2

day to day - indeed, from hour to hour - went on seriously. And every job that fell to his hands to do, whether that job was in the pulpit or in the home or on the land, he made a witness of his religious responsibility. This is the fact back of the previous statement, that my father’s religion combined with his work became the privilege of his life and not the burden of the day. It has not been my purpose up to this point to write of personal experiences through my early years, but rather to set before you what I may call the spiritual atmosphere in which we lived. To show you that it was no part of my father’s method of procedure to let me run free of responsibility, permit me, at this point, to bring before you a single instance of the type of influence which he imposed upon me. It shows that both philosophers if the true kind and the experiences of life of the best kind agree in this - that the righteous life is always a testing life. But it is a strengthening life. One day when I was eight years old my father called me into conference. He opened the proceedings with no preliminary remarks, stating to me abruptly but firmly: ”From now on you will be responsible for buying your own clothing.” Young as I was I knew that what he said was a decision which I must accept. It was by no means a topic for discussion by a debating society. My father’s order caught me short on an important item of my wardrobe. My shoes were quite beyond repair. SO I put it up to him for help on that item so that I might start at ”scratch” with a new pair. I should have known better. My request was turned down promptly with this comment: ”No, I have told you that you are to buy your own clothing from now on.” That closed the conference. So I began to think how I could earn a little money to capitalize myself for my clothing. For I felt that my father was trying to arouse me to find my own ways and means of doing this thing. No experience in my life has been more revealing in its great value than this. If I pause at this point to tell you by what device I began to solve my money needs, do not think for a moment that I present the story because of itself it is amusing or particularly interesting to an adult reader. I bring it before you for a more elevated reason: The conclusions to be drawn from it are worthy of any reader of any character at any time, for they are of a supreme fact. This is what happened: I earned enough money to buy my shoes and to have, in hand, a surplus of two dollars and fifty cents. I invested this in a pig! To help in the matter of his feeding, my father permitted me to follow the corn huskers at harvesting time. What I gathered was my gleaning and I fed it to my pig generously. In time he became a real pet, for I was establishing relations with him based 3

on mutual interest and expectation. But I had to remember that he was an investment and not a chum. So when the day came that I could sell him profitably I had to let him go. A part of the proceeds I invested in small pigs, repeating the process, on the chain principle, perhaps, until I had brought together a drove of twelve. One day I ran into an ethical principle. It cam about like this. My father said to me: ”I thought I would let you go ahead and see how far you could get with your pigs. But the neighbors have begun to complain. They want you to get rid of them.” There I was in business and experiencing public dissatisfaction! I had made, for a boy not yet in his teens, a fairly good start and here I was forced to yield to other people. I said to my father: ”These pigs are not yet ready for market. I can get only three cents a pound for them and that will make me lose money.” When my father said anything to me involving a decision he always meant exactly what he said. So I sold the pigs! It was a long time after the event that I was able to look back upon the experience as one might look back upon a mountain range where he has been tramping and see its skyline. Let it suffice for me to say that what I learned out of that business experience and the three parties concerned, namely, myself, my father and the neighbors, proved to be a treasure worthy to possess. My father knew that if I was compelled to clothe myself it would make me think and search and find ways of earning the money to do it. And furthermore he knew that I would learn this important fact: We do not meet the demands of life with money. But with the imagination, forethought, plans and energy that earn the money. Through life we learn many principles of business operation. But this one is of high rating among them all. Then, one thing further, my father took pains to make me understand: 1. That I should not exercise my ingenuity to get money if by so doing I caused distress to other people. 2. That any effort is worth only what can be gotten out of it by the action of the fair deal. Then something happened that set me up in business, so to speak, with an entirely new idea. I little suspected to what a a degree I was destined in the years to come to do business with this idea to which I refer. This is how I was introduced to it: My father said to me one day: ”We would resent it if a neighbor distressed and discomforted us in any way. Therefore, you see that a neighbor 4

will resent distress and discomfort if we cause it. This means,” he said, ”we must do to everyone as we wish to be done by.” And so there emerged into my youthful experience the Golden Rule. I will not detain you with further experiences of my boyhood beyond saying that in time I was graduated from the high school, worked at one job and another, finally arriving at what seemed to me to be just the one thing I wanted to do. Namely, to work in a retail store. I got a job with a firm which advertised its services to the public under that caption GOLDEN RULE STORE What I had encountered as a boy in the pig business was still leading me. And just as I had found out that I must be considerate of the neighbors, so now I was in a position to realize that I was working in a business in which the neighbors (that is the customers) were to be given the highest possible consideration. Nothing less, in fact, that the age-old principle of doing to every other as one would be done by. So I began to observe and to study the Golden Rule in action in a relatively small retail store, learning at the same time methods of merchandising that one must follow if it - the Golden Rule - was to function, let me say, as chairman of the board. I worked with enthusiasm and with all the energy I possessed. I learned from my employers and from my fellow-employees how to retail, display stock, price merchandise, advertise, attract customers. You all know with what avidity a young man will give himself up to a job that appeals to his ambition, that attracts him with promise of future betterment. My job appealed to me and I went at it with determination to make what I would call the ”curriculum of the great school of business” teach me all it had to give. In time there came my turn to be graduated into an advanced position. My employers, having moved me from the original store to another, announced to me that they were ready to give me managership in a new store and to sell me a one-third interest in the business. The capital stock was to be $6,000. My employers, now to become my partners, were willing to lend me the major portion of my share which eventually I should pay off from the profits of the business. This experience lifted me to a high level of ambition and hopeful outlook. I cannot even today convey to you the force of it. I was, as I have said, a traveler on a high altitude determined to get the widest outlook possible by never letting up on effort to climb still higher. Up to this time I had been an observer, a student and in a limited way, a practicer of the Golden Rule as sponsored by somebody else. But now I 5

was publicly announced as an advocate of it. I was advertised as one who would keep the spirit of it in all transactions with the public. For the little store, at Kemmerer, Wyoming, which we now call the ”mother” store of the nation-wide organization that bears my name, was, when I opened it, a unit in the Golden Rule chain of my partners. Unless one has experienced the countless responsibilities of retailing and the equally countless human relationships it sets up, one will scarcely appreciate how true it is that whatever the spirit of business is, be it Golden Rule or selfishness, somebody must be driving that rule into practice every minute. I could see myself spreading the spirit of the Golden Rule into every home that housed a customer of mine. It seemed to me that in this there was a great opportunity to spread the spirit of fair dealing. Now let me pause for a moment to remind you of a statement I made in the beginning and to amplify it a little. It concerns what one runs into who sets out to be a Golden Rule merchant, or clergyman, or farmer, or anything else. There were a lot of cowboys in Kemmerer in my time. One of them put the fact I have in mind in better words than I can command. Speaking of a rodeo he said: ”There is one thing about a broncho that is always true. With never an exception. He is full of unexpectedness.” The point is this, any ethical principle that one may adopt is just as full of unexpectedness. I mean, in the challenge it puts up to one. The problem with the broncho is to get on and stay on. This is the problem with the Golden Rule - to understand and to apply. To do this leads one into countless situations in which, to keep one’s vision clear, it takes all one’s skill and grit and faith. This is not due to unfaithfulness in one’s application but to the difficulty for human judgment to see the ethical nature of every situation. And you all know, business is all ”situations.” They are constantly arising. Often they have to be handled on the run. If one can be faithful to one’s best, even in a few things, I assume that ultimately he will be rewarded as the good and faithful servant was in Bible times - to be ruler over many things. It was at this time that I got the vision of a chain of stores under partnerownership. When my employers, now my partners, placed upon my shoulders the responsibility of managing a store and sold me an interest in it, I developed as I could never have done under employment. This suddenly appealed to me as the secret of loyal employee and employer relationship. It all reduced itself to choosing the best men, giving them the highest and hardest training and compensating them with an interest in the business. I knew that this plan, developed and expanded, would have the same stimu6

lating effect upon others that it had had upon me. From that time on and throughout all these years what ultimately become our company has been giving men an opportunity to share in the growth and development of the business they contribute to in their daily work. But let me again emphasize - the secret lies in choosing the right men not for what they do at the time but for what they are capable of doing. Not for their present ability, but for that latent skill and judgment that I am sure exist in every man waiting to be put into action. This leads me to speak briefly of the Golden Rule in an application which, it seems to me, is too little considered and honored. Relations between employer and employee are today strained and turbulent. The desirable state of affairs would be smoothly proceeding work to mutual interest brought about by a mutually honored policy that aims to establish and maintain that interest. There may be a reason for such turbulent labor relationship due to a practice which you may be interested in having me illustrate in this manner: Dr L. P. Jacks, of Oxford University in England, relates the case of a worker in a prepared-food factory whose occupation for eight hours a day is the single unvarying act of chopping the top off an egg as it moves along a mechanical carrier. He cites the case of a woman who has done this unvarying act every day for thirty years. He presents this instance in his book - ”The Faith of a Worker” - as an illustration of employment at the lowest level of benefit to the employee. For it calls for little or no skill with absolutely no opportunity for development of latent resources. Mass production is probably responsible for much labor of this limiting type. Its immediate bad effect upon the worker is that being a repeated mechanical motion it makes no challenge to his initiative, inventiveness, observation or interest. HE is, in effect, merely a cog in the greater machine which produces its product in mass. In hiring men we have always tried to proceed, as well as human interest and judgment permit, like this: A man must show some skill in the line of work that is to be done. But we think less, within reason, of the skill he has attained than of the latent power he shows toward the development of greater skill. He must show a reasonable mastery in self-handling. Similarly, a reasonably standardized home life. The desire to make the job in hand a ladder-rung for higher altitude activity as against regarding his work as a flat surface on which to rest. By a process of man-training education that keeps the employee alive and alert as to what is going on about him in the business, it results that 7

a man moves forward into larger areas of understanding and responsibility. I may say in brief that, on entering our employ, a man has before him an open road plus organization help of every kind to inspire him to realize in full on his ability. It would seem to me, then, that to hire a man and literally leave him as it, is the beginning of a degree of human dissatisfaction that can go to any length. But give a man an opportunity to develop his skill in a business that is a laboratory opportunity for his study and experiment, and that application of the Golden Rule will build a loyal worker - loyal to a loyal employer. So I come back again to the conviction that the Golden Rule, if one adopts it, is a difficult master to serve. The ship’s captain will not throw the compass overboard because the wind blows fair and the day is sunny. For he knows, from the experiences of the ocean’s instability, that the danger days of storm are always ”just ahead.” So the compass must always be handy and obedience to it must always be loyal. And so with the Golden Rule - the compass must be ever at hand through life’s journey. It will see us through trying times. And perhaps the most trying of all times comes when success is riding high and we may be tempted to ”through the compass overboard.” It is then we must remember that all good days in human life come from the mastery of the days of trouble that are forever recurrent. There is a message for young men who must meet the demands of daily living by daily work of some kind. Work should always be to a purpose that contributes to the common good. Any man can do that kind of work. And the world needs it constantly. How much of it a man can do, he himself will determine by what he gets of knowledge, what he develops by skill, what he seeks through initiative, what he finally contributes through effort. All these, as a point of view in a group of activities, are a responsibility that rests with him solely. No one can give them to him. But business is more and more ready to offer him the arena in which he can give them play for development. I can confidently say to young men that one is fortunate who will accept the challenge of these factors I have enumerated namely knowldge, skill and initiative, and energy; and who will determine, early in life, to make them yield the utmost of return upon what he does with them. It should be noted that each one of these factors is the winged messenger of the great principle I have spoken of in this book. A man needs no knowledge that defies the Golden Rule. He should possess no skill that dishonors it. His initiative should always be in its direction and his energy should always be in its direction and his energy should always server it in its ultimate purpose. 8

With this point of view employer and employee are among the great beneficent powers for the ultimate purpose of life, which is server, seeking to endow all who give it and all who receive it with the understanding that comes from doing for others what we would wish another to do for us. To young men, my advice is as simple and distinct as my own experience. It runs like this: Take time to discover what you would prefer above all else to make your life work. You may have to do a lot of temporary jobs before you reach the one your ambition places above all others. But if your idea is clear and your determination firm, you will surely reach it. Remember that it is often necessary in life to learn to work hard at many things before you arrive at the very great privilege of working hard at the one thing you prize the most. Think persistently into great principles. That many have persisted for thousands of years simply because their truth is unassailable, applies to all of us in all situations and problems. Hence the great Proverbs, the Golden Rule, the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, and along with these, the testimony of men who have fought their way to the rare privilege of doing what they most wanted to do. Remember, that all this effort to reach your preference in life work and your further effort to perfect it within the scope of your ability is for just one purpose. And that purpose is to give service to the utmost of your ability. There is a final matter to which I wish to give reference. It deals with something quite intangible when compared with a yard of cloth, a man’s shirt, or a pair of work shoes. It has to do with the real man who is on the inside of all of us. May I say frankly that during the most active part of my business career I tended to neglect the spiritual side of my life. This is, I am sure, a mistake business men young and old alike tend to make. Any thoughtful man will quickly admit there is a spiritual quality to life just as necessary as the physical. How to develop it, give expression to the values which arise as that part of man that develops and grows is the most serious question which faces us today. Will you forgive me if I, a layman, venture one suggestion which has proved exceedingly helpful to me during the past ten years? That is, learn how to pray. Not for yourself alone, but for your family, your associates, the men with whom you don’t get along, for your church, for our nation and the United Nations. I know of no more fitting challenge with which to close these comments on the Golden Rule than a thought given to us by Frank Laubach: ”Nothing will lift the thoughts of men to higher levels like unselfish prayer for one another.” 9