A Master in the Art of Living Makes Little Distinction Between His Work and His Play

James Michener? Zen Buddhist saying? L.P. Jacks?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been deeply moved by an inspirational passage that I thought was written by a Zen Buddhist master:

The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.

However, when I recently searched the internet to locate the name of the Zen master I was shocked to find that the words were attributed to the late author James Michener whose fame was based on writing fat tomes that became bestsellers.

Michener did win a Pulitzer Prize and I do not wish to disparage his work but when I think of a spiritual guide I envision someone different. Could you look into this quote and determine who really created it?

Quote Investigator: There is no compelling evidence that this quote was crafted by Michener. Nor is there evidence of a Zen Buddhist origin. The spiritual tradition of the creator of the passage is Unitarian. Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, an educator and Unitarian minister who is pictured in the center image above, crafted the quotation and used it in a book he authored in the 1930s. His name is often abbreviated as L. P. Jacks.

Several websites that specialize in collecting quotations do attribute the words to James A. Michener, e.g., ThinkExist [TEZ], QuotationsBook [QBZ], and Quoteland [QLZ]. No specific citation into the large body of Michener works is given. There are different versions of the quotation, but the alterations are usually not large.

WorldofQuotes has the passage listed under the category Zen Buddhist Quotes [WQZ]. A website called “The Anywhere Office” prefaces the passage with the following:  “Here is a quote I have hanging on my home office wall. It ties in perfectly with my philosophy of work life integration.” After the quote is the label: “From the Zen Buddhist text”. Commentators on the webpage wonder if the words should be assigned to James Michener [AWOZ]. Sometimes the passage is used without a specific attribution as in this example of a wife’s loving description of her husband [TSZ]:

She then summed up her “soul mate’s” life in two warm paragraphs she had read somewhere.

“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religions. He hardly knows which is which.

He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.” And with that she said thank you and sat down.

The earliest instance of the quote located by QI occurs in the 1932 book “Education through Recreation” by Lawrence Pearsall Jacks. The passage appears in the first chapter near the beginning of the book. The modern version of the passage has been altered. For example, in this original version, the sub-phrase “his love and his religion” does not appear. The quote begins with “A master” and not “The master” [LPJ]:

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself he always seems to be doing both. Enough for him that he does it well.

Jacks does not credit the words to anyone else, and the paragraph summarizes the main theme of his book. QI thinks he is the likely originator of the influential passage. Thanks for your question and QI hopes that you are able to find enjoyment in your work and your play.

(This question was inspired by a question from “Will B.” in the comments section at the weblog of Freakonomics: Quotes Uncovered.)

[TEZ] ThinkExist website, Quote attributed to James A. Michener, “The master in the art of living”, Accessed 2010 August 27. link

[QBZ] QuotationsBook website, Quote attributed to James A. Michener, “The master in the art of living”, Accessed 2010 August 27. link

[QLZ] QuotationLand website, Category: Motivational Quotes, Quote attributed to James A. Michener, “The master in the art of living”, Accessed 2010 August 27. link

[WQZ] WorldofQuotes website, Category: Zen Buddhist Quotes, “The master in the art of living”, Accessed 2010 August 27. link

[AWOZ] TheAnywhereOffice website, Quote labeled “From the Zen Buddhist text”, “The master in the art of living”, Accessed 2010 August 27. link

[TSZ] 2003, Off the Record by Tim Skubick, Page 394, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Google Books preview) link

[LPJ] 1960 [reprint of 1932 book], Education through Recreation by Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, Page 1 and 2, [reprint of Harper & Row, New York], McGrath Publishing Company &  National Recreation and Park Association, Washington D.C. (Google snippet view, Verified on paper) link

One thought on “A Master in the Art of Living Makes Little Distinction Between His Work and His Play

  1. Thank you for researching this. I recently read Tina Seelig’s book, “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20″ and found the quote in chapter 6 attributed to “the Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu.” I like to inscribe good quotes from one book into others when they relate strongly to the material, and this one’s a great fit for David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” and “Making It All Work,” which I’ve found enormously helpful over the years.

    But I couldn’t remember having read any such thing in the Tao Te Ching, so I did a quick Google search to confirm it. As I thought, it’s not from any Taoist work. But it turns out David Allen had already used the quote in another book, “Ready for Anything.” There, according to several Google hits (I don’t have a copy on hand), he attributes it to Michener, probably having used one of the many references which make that mistaken attribution.

    I still wanted to jot down this highly relevant quotation in my copy of “Making It All Work,” though, and was perplexed about which attribution to make–until I came across your page. Thanks again for pinpointing the likely origin of these wise words!

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