Back in the day, when I was trying to build a wee publishing empire, that would offer a few lordly voices to talented people who might otherwise become servants of mediocrity and glibness — nearly two score years ago — I found to my surprise there was enthusiasm for it. But too, opposition from the most surprising quarters. For instance, commercial publishers were instinctively repelled. They weren’t just the (leftwing) “arts councils” that blocked us, whenever opportunity called. Ad agencies were also scandalized.

I once received a memorable, hectoring lecture from an otherwise friendly ad executive, giving me a lift home from a party we had both attended. As I hint, I rather liked this guy, and his decisive, “tough as nails” approach to messy issues. He was not, like other advertising people, an incurable “suck-up.” He would explain, without hogwash, why it was in his customer’s interest to buy something; what the benefits were, and what the drawbacks of a false frugality. But he would also candidly qualify what he said in his sales pitches. He didn’t ask, “What is truth?” — but characteristically told it. Moreover he showed the other qualities of a good and decent salesman. He would not take it personally if he didn’t make the sale. He’d continue to be helpful.

Pontius, as I will call him, was explaining to me why my Idler magazine could never serve a larger market, and why it was certain to fail, even if I struggled heroically for a few years. He, personally, enjoyed the magazine, but that was the kiss of death. All in all, it wasn’t worth doing. He would offer to help, but really, that would be like peddling drugs to a minor. Rather than lead me astray, he said, “Cut your losses.” I had real potential in real publishing, he suggested, and so, it was time for me to “suck up.”

This was advice meant kindly. He was acting in loco parentis to what he perceived to be an orphan boy. He could be my Lord Chesterfield: “the Machiavelli of the minors.” He could point to my path of least resistance. He used the word, “convenience,” brashly.

Had I listened to him, I might have saved myself about half-a-million dollars. Had I ever found a generous investor, I might have cost him a few millions more. In fact, I briefly did, and had he not had some genius for spotting tax deductions, I would have cost him.

While I never met Pontius again (I had met him before), I remember him so vividly, that I hear his echo in the words of other men. A ruthless man, on the surface, yet with a heart of silver, if one were onside. A reliably honest advisor, to those who would be his friends.

The Church, I reflected, was from her beginning, a very bad business proposition; and becoming her “client” (getting baptized) was not a very sensible career move.

To relax my analogy somewhat, there are fools who are drawn to music and art. In this world, most become miserable failures, unrecognized while struggling on the cusp of penury, or below. But a tiny few strike it rich. Paradoxically, great success need not involve compromise. One hits the Zeitgeist at a sweet point, and Bob’s your uncle. (I had an uncle named Bob.) Luck is the great bestower of riches in this world; you have it or you don’t. And while it may be true that some are good at surfing it, there are waves in the ocean you will not survive.

Returning to Pontius, he had an answer to this: a formula for success in business. It was in his word, “convenience.” The market is, consciously and unconsciously, searching at every moment for the easy way out. This pertains even to buying groceries. No one has made a fortune by launching a chain of Inconvenience Stores. Bear that in mind if you want to make a million.

The next morning after my ride with Pontius, when I went into the workplace, I assigned myself first thing a calligraphy task. I composed yet another motto to hang on the wall of the Idler office:

“Always forsake the easy way out.”