Too Many Irons in the Fire

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This saying was evidently born in a blacksmith’s shop. It has done service in every kind of shop, and has passed into one of those proverbs which are as often false as true. Indeed, this is the character of the greatest number of proverbs. True in a limited and special range, they are used as of universal application. Now, though a man may have “too many irons in the fire,” it is just as true that he may have not enough irons in the fire. It is foolish to take on more work than one can do well. It is wicked to work so excessively as to exhaust the strength, weaken digestion, impair sleep, and shatter the nervous system. When these results are produced by an inordinate use of the passions, they are called dissipations. But they are none the less dissipations when they spring from an inordinate addiction to business.

But it is not in this direction that men are said to have too many irons in the fire. When a man is carrying on so many separate enterprises that he must neglect some of them wholly, and can attend to none of them thoroughly, he is properly said to have too many irons in the fire. But the same phrase is applied to a man who turns his hands to many different kinds of trade. It is the serious belief of many that a man can not be a good workman in more than one art; that, if a workman means to be skillful, he must devote his life to a single trade, and in confirmation of such notions proverbs fly thick—”Jack of all trades and good at none,” being a specimen!

In olden times, when men had little education, and were slow and dull, it may have been true that a man could master but one trade. But with the growth of intelligence among laboring men, their brains are nimbler, their hands are quicker, and they can pursue a more diversified industry.

At any rate, the working-men of America have kicked this proverb out of their shops. It has been the pride, and the thrift, too, of free labor in America, that it could do any thing. A farmer does not confine his labor to one or two crops. Whatever will pay well in the market he soon learns to raise, and is all the better for learning. A real Yankee may learn the carpenter’s trade. Having a taste for fine work, he teaches himself cabinet-making. Or if occasion serves, he carves or builds models for machinery. Times being slack, he comes down to the coast, hires out in a ship-yard, and, after a little, is a very good ship-carpenter. No one after that would be surprised to find him in a wheel-wright’s shop, and, at last, he settles down as a carriage-maker.

Is there any thing in these several trades so difficult as to require for success in them the whole of a man’s life and his undivided mind? They are all of a family. The knowledge which a man gets in one is applicable to them all. Nay, they help each other. In the ship-yard a man gets ideas of strength and solidity that would make him a better house-builder. In cabinet-making he will obtain an accuracy and fineness of work which will improve his hand all the way down through coarser trades. His mind will be improved. He will not be likely to get into ruts. He will be apt to carry the habit of thinking into all his business. It is said that farmers want to buy all the land that bounds their farm. A working-man should be curious to understand every trade that touches his trade. A man of a single trade is like a knife with a single blade. Every blade in addition makes it a better knife, up to the point when it becomes too bulky for convenient use. And this figure very well illustrates the benefit of being able to pursue several different avocations. If the blade of a one-bladed knife breaks, there is the end of it; but if it has two blades, it is serviceable yet. A big blade for coarse work, a fine blade for fine work, a sharp-pointed blade, an awl, a lancet, in short, blades that are tools for half-a-dozen different uses, make the knife all the more valuable. A one-bladed man is not to be despised. But he is, after all, but a kind of jack-knife man. Commend me to a man that carries a whole handleful of blades!

So far from exhorting a young mechanic to stick to one thing, I should urge him to be master of his trade as soon as possible, and then to be curious of all other trades that are nearly related to it.

A carpenter ought to be a good roofer, whether in pine-shingles, in slate, in tin, in felt, or in paper and gravel. A village blacksmith ought not to be content with shoeing horses, mending plows, setting tires, etc.; he should become a manufacturing blacksmith; competent, if other work gives out or a profitable demand exists, to make tools, to fashion the hundreds of articles which pass under the name of house-furnishing goods. Of course, he will do the most of that which pays the best; but variety will make his work pleasanter, will prevent his income from being greatly affected by periodic disturbances in the market, and will always give him one blade with a cutting edge.

As we rise from inferior to superior trades, and, still more, to professions, the more striking does this truth become. An inferior trade is one in which hand-work is largely in excess of head-work, and a superior trade is one in which the head-work predominates. And whenever, in any calling, the chief part of the business is thinking, it then has become a profession.

No man is capable of carrying on a profession or a superior trade who is not able to organize many distinct branches into one. Work grows complex as it rises upon the scale of value. A man who can do but one thing, or who understands but one industry, will always be a subordinate. It is this power to comprehend variety and to organize them to unity that makes a master-workman. Each superior trade results from the combination of several superior trades. Each material which goes into the working of a given industry comes from some subordinate trade. A contractor brings together in the building of a single house the products of half a hundred separate shops. He should possess a general knowledge of the quality and working properties of every one of these elements. Here is a place in which, if he is not Jack-at-all-trades, he will be good in none, or, rather, he will not be good in that one trade which unites all the rest!

We are not unconscious that there are many trades which require peculiar training and fineness incompatible with much meddling with others; that there are some products that are jealous, and refuse to yield their best forms to any thing but an almost exclusive addiction to themselves; that at a certain stage of manufacturing there comes in an element of fine art— the finishing stage. At this point, delicacy and perfectness can be had only by steady and long practice. But the general truth remains, that in the common industries of life a workman who makes himself acquainted with many allied branches of trade is apt to be better educated, more intelligent, more prosperous, better armed against revulsions and depressions of business, and more likely to rise from a subordinate to an independent condition. In short, a man of few ideas and narrow skill will always live on wages. The man of enterprise and various skill will soon be able to live on his capital. Some sturdy old Englishman, we forget who, derided the maxim, “Too many irons in the fire,” saying, “You can’t have too many; put them all in—shovel, tongs, and poker!”

Henry Ward Beecher

The Manufacturer and Builder – March, 1869

- Jeff Burks

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5 Responses to Too Many Irons in the Fire

  1. I would have thought the phrase “too many irons in the fire” derived from ironing laundry with a series of irons warmed at the fire, but perhaps Beecher is right.

    It is, indeed, nice to be able to do different varieties of paying work when asked.

  2. daltxguy says:

    And the man who knows nothing eventually runs the place…

  3. It may be worth pointing out that Beecher was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Many of the thirteen Beecher siblings were educators and activists for social reform. Henry, like his father Lyman Beecher, was a respected writer and preacher, but was later the subject of a notorious scandal, q.v. Wikipedia.

  4. Jeff, I love the picture for this article! Can you tell me who it is by? Many thanks!

    • Jeff Burks says:

      It is an oil painting by French artist Marie-François Firmin Girard (1838 – 1921).

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