People are constantly complaining that we have no practical men; that we have, for instance, hundreds of politicians and hundreds of generals; that one can find as many business managers of all sorts as one wants nowadays, but that we have no practical men.  At least everyone is complaining that there are not any to be found.  It is even asserted that there is no efficient personnel on some of our railway lines; it is said that it is quite impossible to get a more or less decent administrative staff for a steamship company.  You hear of train collisions or of the collapse of a bridge under a train of a newly opened railway; you read of another train almost hibernating in a snowdrift:  it was due to arrive in a few hours and it was snowed up for five days.  In one place hundreds of tons of goods are lying rotting for two or three months before they are dispatched, and in another it is reported (though it is hardly credible) that a railway administrator–that is some railway inspector—has administered a punch on the nose to a merchant’s clerk, who had been worrying him about the dispatch of his goods, and indeed, sought to excuse his administrative act on the ground that he had been ‘a little short-tempered’.  There are, it seems, so many government offices that one’s imagination boggles at the mere thought of it; everyone has been in the civil service, everyone is in the civil service, everyone intends to be in the civil service, and this being so, how is it possible that a decent administrative staff cannot be made up of such excellent material to run some steamship company?

The answer sometimes given to this question is very simple—so simple, indeed, that one finds it difficult to believe such an explanation.  It is true, we are told, that everyone in our country is, or has been, in the civil service, and that this has been going on, in accordance with the best German model, for the last two hundred years, from grandfather to grandson, but the trouble is that our civil servants themselves are the most impractical men in the world, and things have come to such a pass that abstraction and lack of practical knowledge were, till quite recently, considered even by the civil servants themselves as the highest virtues and qualifications.  However, we did not really mean to discuss civil servants, we intended to talk only about practical men.  There can be no doubt that diffidence and complete absence of personal initiative have always been regarded in our country as the chief and best sign of a practical man—and are so regarded still.  But if such an opinion can be regarded as an accusation, we have only ourselves to blame.  Lack of originality has from time immemorial been regarded throughout the world as the chief characteristic and best recommendation of a sensible, business-like, and practical man, and at least ninety-nine per cent of men (and that’s putting it at the lowest) always were of that opinion, and only perhaps one man in a hundred looks and always has looked on it differently.  

Dostoevsky The Idiot  (first published 1 Jan 1868)

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