Manvotional: 4 Rules on How to Make the Most of Life

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 26, 2013 · 63 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals

“How to Make the Most of Life”
From Every-day Religion, 1886
By James Freeman Clarke

Some persons make a great deal of life; others very little. To some it is intensely interesting; to others, very vapid. Some are tired of life before they have begun to live. They seem, as has been said, to have been born fatigued. Nothing interests them. This is a species of affectation with some persons to whom it seems a mark of genius to be weary of life. They think it argues an enormous experience and that they have exhausted everything. Wherever it is an affectation it is a very shallow one. Noble and manly natures seldom fall into this pit of satiety. They are full of hope and energy. To them life has inexhaustible charms. It is ever more rich, full, and varied. Each day dawns with new expectations, and closes with fresh hopes for to-morrow. And it is these living men who keep the rest of us alive. Whenever we meet them more sunshine comes into the day. Let us only share their enthusiasm, and we too cannot help making a great deal of life.

This…is the first rule for making the most of life: Forget yourself in some interest outside of yourself. He who is turned inward, thinking of himself, admiring himself, complaining that he is ill-treated; he who thinks he ought to have more of the rewards of life—he is the one who does not begin to live. Life is born out of communion—communion with God, Nature, man. “We only live,” says the profound thinker, the philosopher Fichte—”we only live when we love!” How true that is! We must be interested in something in order to be alive, and no one can take a great deal of interest in himself. Looking in the glass is an unprofitable occupation. Socrates, indeed, taught, “Know thyself;” but the self-knowledge which he advised did not consist in minute self-inspection, but in testing thought and work by that which other men think and do. Socrates did not occupy himself with self-study, but went about the streets of Athens taking an interest in all that was thought, said, and done. He was interested in others—in the condition of the State, the progress of truth, the diet of the soul, the stimulus of goodness, the restraints on evil. How men could be made better and wiser—that was what engaged his whole thought, and this made his life one which has been the inspiration of mankind.

But, you may say, we cannot all be inspired apostles or great philosophers. No; but the motive, the principle which made their lives rich, we can have in ours. This principle is, to be interested in something good; to have an object, an aim, a purpose outside of ourselves.

In the great storms which have lately swept over the north Atlantic, a steamer from our shores discovered another, dismasted and rudderless, drifting before the gale, its decks swept by terrible seas. The sailors volunteered to man a boat, and go to save those on the wreck. The labor was appalling, the dangers frightful; but they succeeded, and saved the lives of their fellow-men. Which has made the noblest use of life, the self-indulgent epicurean, who amuses himself with a little art, a little literature, a little criticism and a little vapid social pleasure, or these rugged, brave hearts, who bade defiance to storm and sea, and brought salvation to those in despair? To forget yourself is the secret of life; to forget yourself in some worthy purpose outside of yourself.

The poor steamer foundered because it drifted; because its steering apparatus was lost. The man who has no aim higher than himself also drifts; he has nothing by which to steer, nothing toward which to direct his life. Do not drift, but steer; that is the second rule.

These men, however, it may be said, were enthusiasts; they had enthusiasm for some pursuit, to which they devoted themselves. But most of us are of a more plain, common-sense, practical nature…

Then let us look at a man of another type, who certainly was not an enthusiast, yet who made more of his life, did more, learned more, than any man of his generation. I mean Benjamin Franklin. He was clear-headed and sagacious; but that is not the key to his remarkable career. I think the secret of his vast success was that he did everything as well as it could be done. He put his mind into his work. His motto might have been, “Whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with thy might.” He prized the present moment, and gave his whole thought to it. Most of us do a great many things mechanically, satisfied if we do as well as others, no worse than the majority, so as not to risk much loss or incur much blame. The power of Franklin lay in this; that whatever his hand found to do, he did it with his might. He did not wait till to-morrow to do something, but did what his hand found to-day. It is surprising how little he had of what is called ambition. It seemed to make very little difference to him what he did, or where he was. He drifted to Philadelphia, but when there he did not drift, but steered. He took the first decent work which he could find, and did it with his might. The Governor of the Province proposed to him to go to London, promising to help him to buy a printing-press, that he might do the public printing. After Franklin had gone the Governor forgot his promise. But it made little difference to Franklin. Being in London, he went to work as a printer, and there he remained till some occasion sent him back again to this country. Prudent, economical, industrious, watchful, he could not help growing rich. But he does not seem to have cared much about that. What he wished was to find all the secrets of the work he was doing, finish it in the best way, and to teach others how to do things well. In his shop in Philadelphia, in a printing-office in London, ambassador at the court of Louis XVI., conversing with British statesmen and philosophers, he was the same—a wide-awake person, with his mind keenly fixed on the thing nearest him. He did not worry about possible future evils, nor torment himself about an irrevocable past. He put his whole soul into the present moment, the work just at hand. He gave as earnest thought to the methods of his society of young men in Philadelphia for study and discussion, as to a treaty with France or the formation of the American Constitution. Each thing as it came, took his whole mind, heart, and strength. That was why he did so much. He lived, as has been said, in the whole. Most of us are very apt to live in the half. We put part of our mind into our present work; with the rest of our mind we are worrying about the past or the future, or imagining what other better things we might be doing. So we work in a half-and-half way. Do with your might what your hand finds to do; that is our third rule.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is another striking instance in our times of a man who made the most of life. He proved the truth of his own saying, “Let the single man plant himself on his instincts, and the huge world will come round to him.” He had two leading ideas, by which he lived, and which he taught to his age. One of them was “Self-reliance,” the other “God-reliance.” Trust in your own deep and permanent convictions, though the whole world insist that you are wrong. “Call a pop-gun a pop-gun, though the ancient and honorable declare it to be the crack of doom.” He believed in that which was highest, and did that which was nearest, following the suggestive lines of Wordsworth :—

“The primal duties shine aloft like stars;
The charities which soothe and bless and save,
Are scattered at the feet of man like flowers.”

Pursuing his own way quietly, trusting in the intuitions of his soul, saying his own words, not those of any one else, accepting the present moment with its immediate inspiration, and believing in an overhanging heaven and an infinite spiritual presence, Emerson did with his might what his hand found to do, and saw the great world come round to him. Trust in God and your own soul, is the fourth rule.


{ 63 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ben January 26, 2013 at 10:01 pm

You don’t think that “yourself” is a worthy purpose on which to focus? I may argue it’s the most important purpose. Living selfishly need not exclude things/people outside ourselves, but ultimately external is another means to the internal end.

2 Libin Daniel January 26, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Just the pick me up I needed. This is powerful!

3 Brett McKay January 26, 2013 at 10:34 pm


I don’t think the author is arguing that one should never think about himself, but is rather arguing against that being one’s primary mode of operation. I’m a big proponent of personal improvement, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about myself — rather I identify places that need improvement and then get to work. My own improvement rarely comes from sitting around thinking about me — in fact the opposite often happens — I end up stagnant and unhappy. The author is decrying those who think they can “find themselves” by navel gazing. The “Eat Pray Love” narcissists of the world. In fact, I believe you are much more likely to find yourself, and true happiness, by getting outside yourself, loving and serving others, and working in a purpose bigger than yourself. There’s room for introspection, definitely, but then you must forget yourself and get to work. That’s the great paradox: to find yourself, lose yourself.

A good pairing to the Socrates quote that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” is the quote from psychologist Sheldon Kopp that “The unlived life is not worth examining.”

4 Carl Oliver January 26, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Thanks for this post. I realized my tenancy to do just enough to be as good or slightly better than others at my mundane daily tasks. There is no satisfaction in that kind of living. It is mere survival. I need to do everything to the very best of my ability. Thanks again!

5 Ruben January 26, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Fantastic piece, I really needed this.

6 manikkam January 27, 2013 at 12:41 am

it is to be read twice to have the deep impression

7 Perry Hua January 27, 2013 at 2:16 am

Honestly this is such an amazing post! I’ve been so reclusive lately but I’m going to turn things around. Thanks AOM!

8 Tim January 27, 2013 at 6:12 am

I believe a man should put his own needs first. This does not make a man selfish, however. On the contrary; every man has the need to serve a purpose bigger than himself.

9 Jeremia January 27, 2013 at 6:55 am

I really enjoyed this piece. Thank you so much for sharing it.

One question: Brett, where did you first hear about Mr. Clarke and his practical lithograph? He sounds like a man worth reading up on.

10 Steve January 27, 2013 at 7:08 am

Wow, very timely for me. Great work here. Thank you.

11 Ken January 27, 2013 at 7:13 am

Great Manvotional. I’ve been floundering at my own goals lately. I’ll take this advice to heart.

12 Antoine January 27, 2013 at 7:21 am

This was great!!! I need to put 100% effort into all endevors in life. I agree life shouldnt be about yourself it should be about something greater than yourself. Life here on earth is short, we should do something that will out live us. Which is a very altruristic point of veiw and I can think of nothing better!!!

13 Mato Tope January 27, 2013 at 8:17 am

Always amazes me how these old articles hit the nail on the head every time.
It seems to advocate not so much live life to the full,- which many take as pursuing experiences for their own sake – but rather live fully every moment of life.
Or; “… to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” As Henry David Thoreau put it.

14 Bryan Mittler January 27, 2013 at 9:12 am

Wonderful reading. Really helped my morning start out right!

I understand and agree with the author that self introspection and inflated self concern causes a man to miss out on life around him. I’ve seen in it in my own life and in the lives of others I work with. So often the cure has been to get busy doing something! Thanks for the great post. I will share it with our leaders in training for Christian ministry.

15 Davis January 27, 2013 at 9:42 am

Outstanding, AOM. Very inspirational.

16 kahless January 27, 2013 at 10:12 am

Wow .. this hit way close to home. I have struggled with drifting my entire life, fatigued, trying things (photography, sports,etc) to light the fire to no avail. Now, on the cusp of 49, unmarried, no children, a dwindling family, and friends who are on diverging paths, it seems incredibly difficult to change the path…

17 MIKE WHITT January 27, 2013 at 11:15 am

Thanks for the post. Having served in the Navy now for over 30 years (and still going strong) I can tell you the most important thing that has always made me successful was to take care of the people and take care of the command, thus others not self (something Ben Franklin said I think). Yes, there are times when I needed to focus on myself a little or get some me time but 95 percent was always thinking about others and enabling them to success. In turn, it has always worked out for me as well. I never worried about getting promoted, getting rewards, etc. — it all just comes to you based on your taking care of the people (or whatever else you are trying to take care of) and believing in God. It’s an amazing phenomenon of life. Great post and a great pick me up. Warm regards, Mike

18 Jared O January 27, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Excuse me but, I think this is rather trite advice. We all know this. The question is
how to realize this in our lives.
And I would argue some points.
Currently i do what my hand finds with might. I try my best and I succeed often. But i don’t like it and I oftentimes get too tired for other more fulfilling activities. Getting stuck in something you don’t like is not a good idea. If you have the ability to change things, do so. Of course this is often impossible, but that is just life.
And it is important to differentiate introspection from self pity. I keep myself away from self pity, via introspection. Of course overdoing it is wrong, but so is mindlessly putting effort into things you don’t like provided you have the freedom of choice.

19 Deeter January 27, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Perfect timing.

Where do you find these old essays? Always love them.

20 Mike January 27, 2013 at 12:38 pm

If I could thumbs up your response @Brett, I would do so. It is incredibly telling that most folks suffering from depression also spend an amazing amount of time alone, dwelling on their own situation, their own suffering, their own hopes, their own dreams…. it seems that man is wired so that if he is self-focused he is self-defeating. IF self focus was the means to greatness we would have a culture that holds up the teenage mentality as the ideal man.

21 Roberto January 27, 2013 at 12:40 pm

I need to read this a few more times to wrap my head around it and comprehend it all, but nonetheless this is great!

22 RVPadron January 27, 2013 at 1:06 pm

I just met Mat Emerzian the author of Every Monday Matters. His story of a life lost to drugs, sex and rock n roll was transformed when his counselor’s first task for him was to do something for someone else. Weeks later he realized “It wasn’t about me”. The rest is history. I think we tap into a special and unique attribute of our creation (a God characteristic) if you will when we realize that. It does not mean that we don’t take care of ourselves. Its a paradigm . . . a perspective which causes us to act.

23 Dan January 27, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Thank you for sharing. @Brett, I laughed out loud at the “Eat, Pray, Love” narcissists of the world comment, because sadly it is spot on.

24 sugapablo January 27, 2013 at 1:33 pm

“But, you may say, we cannot all be inspired apostles or great philosophers.”

Why not? ;)

25 Nate January 27, 2013 at 1:43 pm

This was such a great post to read. I put these rules in my Moleskine. Man is not meant to be a lone, and true happiness and freedom is found not in having yourself for yourself, but to give yourself to others. It takes more courage and more strength. But when we do that we fulfill the deepest longing of our souls.

26 sugapablo January 27, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Also, funny that you combine a lesson about Emerson with a rule about G-d, considering his views on the subject were not mainstream. While he was not an atheist, his views on the bible as not being literal and Jesus being misconstrued as a god, got him into a lot of trouble in his day.

I’m an atheist myself. Just making a historical point. ;)

27 Josh January 27, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Reprints like this one, from texts I wasn’t presented with in college, are why I invest more time in this site and less time perusing lad mags whose best literary days are behind them.

28 Quinn January 27, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Interesting article. Franklin and Emerson are no longer examples but ideals that should be relegated to the realm of myth.

Hard to to lose yourself in something greater than yourself when there is a job to do, bills to pay, and kids to raise. Also, I’m too old for the military, so much for the larger picture.

Each time I have tried to steer my life, something always gets in the way and messes things up. I feel like I am being dragged through a series of deadlines and obligations.

Not too impressed with life. However, I am grateful for decent roads, hot and cold running water, and good schools; and my job, which is far from my ideal, but it is steady and I am good at it.

29 Rob January 27, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Thanks for another great article, Brett and Kate. Keep up the good work.

30 Brett McKay January 27, 2013 at 5:15 pm

It’s funny, I used an excerpt from Mr. Clarke for one of our earliest Manvotionals on “True and False Manliness:”

I’m not sure how I came upon that excerpt originally, but then I kind of forgot about him. But I was reading a book about Lincoln this week, and it mentioned him, and I thought, “that name sounds familiar,” and when I realized why, I thought “I really ought to read more of his stuff.” So I went looking and found this gem.

He was a Unitarian minister and quite popular and influential in his day:

Many of the excerpts I’ve found have come simply from sifting from the treasure trove that is Google Books. You select for Free Google eBooks and then search for topics like “manliness” and “courage.” You have to spend some time hunting through the not so good stuff, but you can find some real gems that way.

I’m not sure what you mean by “you” since I’m not the author of this piece, but Clarke’s views on God were similiar to Emerson’s — they were friends and both members of the Transcendentalist Club.

31 Cary January 27, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Great stuff. Perfect fuel for my weekly “why am I here? what am I gonna do about it? and how am I gonna do it?” session.

32 Strathy January 27, 2013 at 6:18 pm
33 Dewar January 27, 2013 at 9:13 pm

@Jared O. I know the feeling. You are searching for the ‘best thing’ to do at any one time. Life is long, you only need to consistently do things and eventually they will sum to be your best. And follow your intuition; when you need to quit something, quit. But while you are there do the best you can because you never know how valuable the skills you have earned may be later on. The moment I submitted to this I understood the value of this entire essay. Your continual assessment of your relationship to these thoughts will eventually allow you the wisdom.

34 Micah January 27, 2013 at 9:18 pm

“The more it’s not about you, the more you will love what you do”

35 Slade January 27, 2013 at 10:11 pm

I think this post is great. I’m going to get this printed and framed on my wall for people to read. I think it would do good for other men to read it out of curiosity.

36 Matthew January 27, 2013 at 11:31 pm

Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.

37 Matt January 28, 2013 at 7:45 am

Truth. When I find myself worried about myself, I remain stagnant and unaffected, but when I lose myself in something greater than myself – that’s when I have shined the brightest. Great advice. Worthy to be passed on to the next generation.

38 Grayson January 28, 2013 at 9:16 am

“Most of us are very apt to live in the half”

I really needed the perspective on this today. Seems my mind is constantly divided in multiple directions resulting in an indecisive stupor that creates its own fatigue. Much obliged, Brett. Now back to work…

39 Tomas January 28, 2013 at 9:34 am

I’ts a great article, and a very inspiring one. I jus have to point out, however, that Epicurus was not the self indulgent kind of man often portrayed. Indeed, he lived a very frugal life.

40 jacob January 28, 2013 at 6:36 pm

Informative article much enjoyed

41 Andrzej January 29, 2013 at 9:31 am

Rule 4, in it’s literal form, is hard to condone when you’re an atheist.

Though “Trust in yourself” works in a pinch.

42 Captain America January 29, 2013 at 1:49 pm

I think at the end of the day, our happiness consists in achieving real flourishing, which ultimately means conforming to and advancing God’s will.

43 Zin Khant Aung January 29, 2013 at 8:23 pm

“Live for yourself and you’ll live in vain; Live for others, and you’ll live again”

44 KambizAmini January 30, 2013 at 10:11 am

Thanks, great article! But it is easier said than done. I like the first rule very much, it applies to me a lot. It seems that more we think of the little me more unhappy we got.

45 Aaron January 30, 2013 at 11:02 am

Thank you for a great article

46 sugapablo January 30, 2013 at 1:07 pm

@Brett: I actually did not notice that this was not written by you, nor did I know Clarke was a fellow Transcendentalist. Makes much more sense now. :)

Emerson always played funny in my ear, mentioning G-d time and time again, yet writing always in a way that spoke like he dismissed the very notion. Jefferson seemed to me to always walk this same line.

47 Casey January 30, 2013 at 2:04 pm

“Which has made the noblest use of life, the self-indulgent epicurean, who amuses himself with a little art, a little literature, a little criticism and a little vapid social pleasure, or these rugged, brave hearts, who bade defiance to storm and sea, and brought salvation to those in despair?”

No thanks Jeff. It’s about balance, not totally living one way or the other.

48 Nui January 31, 2013 at 12:17 am

I am a month and a half away from traveling to Mexico on a mission for my church and this article, along with countless others, has given me strength and solace in a very stressful time. Excellent read.

49 Jack Grabon January 31, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Great post. I agree that many get caught up in themselves, chasing things like happiness, security, money, etc. For me, I wasn’t finding fulfillment in what I was doing for a living so I changed course, steering towards focusing on helping others. I knew that this would bring me more satisfaction in life.

50 Don January 31, 2013 at 2:36 pm

“Life is long.”
You must be under 35!. I’d like to check back with you in 20 or 25 years and see how you feel then.

51 John Parker January 31, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Thanks for sharing!! For me I found a job that I like, that allows me to do what I love to do, travel. I love to travel around the world and experience new things, cultures, ect. I agree with you too about to truly live is to love! Very true!!

52 Dan January 31, 2013 at 9:57 pm

My god. This writing, this focus, this topic, is far beyond excellent. I’ve never met you, writer of this article, and the founders of this blog, but I speak honestly when I say you are doing a great and noble service to this modern world by propagating these ideas. You have my immense respect, and may you never falter.

53 Conner February 1, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Love “Do not drift, but steer.” I’d like to have that burned on a piece of driftwood and hung above my desk.

54 bloke_from_Ohio February 9, 2013 at 10:29 am

Rule four may be difficult to swallow as an atheist…. Then do not be an atheist.

Trusting in oneself without acknowledging the source of ones strength is likely a mistake. I find that by focusing on God and striving to be a better instrument for Him automatically takes care of many of the rules here and more.

It may be possible to live a fulfilled life without God in it. But I could never pull it off. Since my conversion, I am convinced that those without a relationship with their creator are missing out on a great deal of peace and joy. I know what the nonbeliever is missing and part of me weeps for them.

55 Nizou February 12, 2013 at 5:12 am

This text nearly made me wish to believe in God.

I mean, how happy is the believer compared to the non-believer? I’m pretty sure fooling yourself can lead to great achievements.

Thanks for this

56 Ted February 12, 2013 at 1:01 pm

The perfect pick-me-up, thanks Brett & Kate.

57 RayRay February 15, 2013 at 3:15 pm

I have allowed my life to sink into the doldrums lately, and after reading this I am beginning understand why. I haved needed a kick in the ass, and this narrative proved to be a swift one. Thanks for posting.

58 Austin Smith February 27, 2013 at 11:51 pm

If this article did not have such a good intro hook, I would not have kept reading. Fortunately, It did. Well written and much needed, thanks.

59 Cisco March 11, 2013 at 9:20 pm

I have to agree with all the previous comments. This is completely an eye opener to many generations. I am glad to have found this website. Thank you for such internal inspiration to do great things in life.

60 Jordan March 14, 2013 at 9:24 pm

Overcoming the unexpected in the face of adversity and unfavorable circumstances is what truly tests the mettle of a man. An eagle doesn’t soar because it stays away from upward drafts, an eagle soars because it embraces the storm head on. On the narrow ledge of self we face our own fears and press into the darkness with courage and in hope, because the way behind us is shut and there is no turning back. If we turn back we are destroyed, if we press forward we gain the promise.

61 Moose March 24, 2013 at 10:04 pm

Great article, Thank you for posting it. Here’s my two cents: “He who fears climbing mountains, lives out his life in potholes” a quote from a poem by Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi; a Tunisian poet.
Always remember this “Be a man”

62 Golden Rain May 8, 2013 at 4:05 pm

One must FIRST love oneself to GIVE freely to OTHERS. BOTH must be ‘in sync’. (Syncronicity…)

63 Dylan Grant October 2, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Really beautiful article!

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