One fine afternoon I was walking along Fifth Avenue, when I remembered that it was necessary to buy a pair of socks. I turned into the first sock shop that caught my eye, and a boy clerk who could not have been more than seventeen years old came forward. “What can I do for you, sir?” “I wish to buy a pair of socks.” His eyes glowed. There was a note of passion in his voice. “Did you know that you had come into the finest place in the world to buy socks?” I had not been aware of that, as my entrance had been accidental. “Come with me,” said the boy, ecstatically. I followed him to the rear of the shop, and he began to haul down from the shelves box after box, displaying their contents for my delectation.
“Hold on, lad, I am going to buy only one pair!” “I know that,” said he, “but I want you to see how marvelously beautiful these are. Aren’t they wonderful?” There was on his face an expression of solemn and holy rapture, as if he were revealing to me the mysteries of his religion. I became far more interested in him than in the socks. I looked at him in amazement. “My friend,” said I, “if you can keep this up, if this is not merely the enthusiasm that comes from novelty, from having a new job, if you can keep up this zeal and excitement day after day, in ten years you will own every sock in the United States.”
My amazement at his pride and joy in salesmanship will be easily understood by all who read this article. In many shops the customer has to wait for someone to wait upon him. And when finally some clerk does deign to notice you, you are made to feel as if you were interrupting him. Either he is absorbed in profound thought in which he hates to be disturbed or he is skylarking with a girl clerk and you feel like apologizing for thrusting yourself into such intimacy.
He displays no interest either in you or in the goods he is paid to sell. Yet possibly that very clerk who is now so apathetic began his career with hope and enthusiasm. The daily grind was too much for him; the novelty wore off; his only pleasures were found outside of working hours. He became a mechanical, not inspired, salesman. After being mechanical, he became incompetent; then he saw younger clerks who had more zest in their work, promoted over him. He became sour. That was the last stage. His usefulness was over.
I have observed this melancholy decline in the lives of so many men in so many occupations that I have come to the conclusion that the surest road to failure is to do things mechanically. There are many teachers in schools and colleges who seem duller than the dullest of their pupils; they go through the motions of teaching, but they are as impersonal as a telephone.