Place a quinine tablet and a strychnine tablet of the same size on the table before you. Can you, by looking at them, smelling of them, or feeling of them, tell them apart? Would you know the difference instantly, by their appearance, between bichloride of mercury tablets and soda tablets? Down in the basement of a manufacturing chemist’s huge building, there is a girl placing tablets in boxes and bottles. They come to her in huge bins. One tablet looks very much like another. Upon her faithful, conscientious and unerring attention to every minute detail of her rather routine and monotonous work may depend the fate of empires.
In an office on the main floor of this same building sits a man directing the policy of the entire industry. Upon him rests the responsibility for the success of the enterprise a year, five years, twenty years ahead. He gives an order: “Purchase land. Build a factory for the making of carbolic acid. Equip it with the necessary machinery and apparatus. Purchase in advance the needed raw materials. Be ready to put the product on the market by the first of September.” The execution of that order involves minute attention to thousands of details. Yet, if the man who gave it were to consider many of them and render decision upon them, the business would rapidly become a ship in a storm with no one at the helm.
The work of the girl in the basement, sorting tablets, may turn out to be far more important in the world’s history than the work of the man in the front office, managing the business. It is just as important, therefore, that she should be fitted for her vocation as that he should be fitted for his.
Fortunately for carrying on the business of the world, there are many people who love detail, take delight in handling it, find intense satisfaction in seeing that the few little parts of the great machinery of life under their care are always in the right place at the right time and under the right conditions. Since there is such an incalculable mass of these important trifles to be looked after, it is well that the majority of people are better detail workers than formulators of policies and leaders of great movements. Tragedy results when the man with the detail worker’s heart and brain attempts to wear the diadem of authority. He breaks his back trying to carry burdens no human shoulders are broad enough to bear. He is so bowed down by them that he sees only his mincing footsteps and has no conception of the general direction in which he is going. Nine times out of ten he travels wearily around in a little circle, which grows smaller and smaller as his over-taxed strength grows less and less.
When you put a man of larger mental grasp in charge of a wearying round of monotonous details, you have mingled the elements out of which a cataclysm sometimes comes. These are the men who, with the very best intentions in the world, fail to appear with the horseshoe nail at the correct moment. To be there, at that time, with the horseshoe nail is their duty. Nothing greater than that is expected of them. Yet, because their minds grasp the great movements of armies in battles and campaigns, they overlook the horseshoe nail and, as the old poem says: