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Sir William Osler: A Way of Life

"No mind, however dull, can escape the brightness that comes from steady application."
“No mind, however dull, can escape the brightness that comes from steady application.”

In several of his speeches, Charlie Munger has referred to Sir William Osler, the Canadian physician and co-founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital. The first to bring medical students out of the classroom and directly into the hospital for clinical training, he is often described as the “Father of Modern Medicine.”

Osler was a fascinating, accomplished, and erudite man who liked to quote Thomas Carlyle’s prescription that “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly in the distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.”

As I followed up on Osler, I quickly came to his speech “A Way of Life,” delivered to students at Yale University in 1913. True to Carlyle’s prescription, Osler proposes that men work steadily towards success and fulfillment in life by taking the world in strict 24-hour increments, letting neither yesterday nor tomorrow be a worry today. (He called it “Life in day-tight compartments.”)

Below are some of my favorite excerpts from this wonderful talk. I recommend you read it slowly and read it twice.


While we are all fools to some extent, Osler expounds on the value of putting one foot in front of the other and slowly progressing.

I wish to point out a path in which the way-faring man, though a fool, cannot err; not a system to be worked out painfully only to be discarded, not a formal scheme, simply a habit as easy or as hard to adopt as any other habit, good or bad … The way of life that I preach is a habit to be acquired gradually by long and steady repetition: It is the practice of living for the day only, and for the day’s work; Life in day-tight compartments.


Tomorrow is uncertain and yesterday is history. Osler advises that we need to find peace in the moment.

The workers in Christ’s vineyard were hired by the day; only for this day are we to ask for our daily bread, and we are expressly bidden to take no thought for the morrow.

To the modern world, these commands have an Oriental savor, counsels of perfection akin to certain of the Beatitudes, stimuli to aspiration, not to action. I am prepared on the contrary to urge the literal acceptance of the advice … since the chief worries of life arise from the foolish habit of looking before and after. As a patient with double vision from some transient unequal action of the muscles of the eye finds magical relief from well-adjusted glasses, so, returning to the clear binocular vision of today, the over-anxious student finds peace when he looks neither backward to the past nor forward to the future.


In De Oratore, Cicero tells the story of how Temistocles was approached by someone offering to teach him the “art of memory,” which would enable him to remember everything. Temistocles, however, tells the man that he would be more grateful if the man could tell him how to forget. In a similar vein Osler advises unshackling yourself from the daily problems of life.

As a vaccine against all morbid poisons left in the system by the infections of yesterday, I offer “a way of life.” Undress your soul at night; not by self-examination, but by shedding, as you do your garments, the daily sins, whether of omission or of commission, and you will wake a free man, with a new life.


Long before grit became a subject of study, Osler echoed the advice of Tyler Cowen, that one of the keys to success is the ability to sit and focus your attention and wrestle with your problems.

Realise that you have sixteen waking hours, three or four of which at least should be devoted to making a silent conquest of your mental machinery. Concentration, by which is grown gradually the power to wrestle successfully with any subject, is the secret of successful study. No mind, however dull, can escape the brightness that comes from steady application … Shut closer in hour-tight compartments, with the mind directed intensely upon the subject in hand, you will acquire the capacity to do more and more, you will get into training; and once the mental habit is established, you are safe for life … Concentration is an art of slow acquisition, but little by little the mind is accustomed to habits of slow eating and careful digestion …


Osler counselled living a quiet and peaceful life, as this would help you with your responsibilities.

The quiet life in day-tight compartments will help you to bear your own and others’ burdens with a light heart.


Want more Osler? Check out this collection of his addresses and letters, and this biography.