Dear Quote Investigator: I attended a graduation ceremony last year and was genuinely impressed by a quotation used in the keynote address:
What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
The speaker credited Ralph Waldo Emerson and that sounded plausible to me, but when I searched on the internet to find a specific reference I was surprised to discover substantial disagreement. Some websites do attribute the words to Emerson, but other websites favor Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and yet others credit Henry David Thoreau. Also, I found the wording varies somewhat. Not one of the attributions has a strong justification. Too many websites simply copy information from other repositories of unconfirmed data. Could you overcome this confusion?
Quote Investigator: This popular motivational saying has been ascribed to a diverse collection of individuals. Expert Ralph Keyes wrote in the Quote Verifier [QVLB]:
This quotation is especially beloved by coaches, valedictorians, eulogists, and Oprah Winfrey. It usually gets attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. No evidence can be found that Emerson said or wrote these words.
The earliest appearance of this adage located by QI is in a book titled “Meditations in Wall Street” that was produced in 1940 by the publishing house William Morrow & Company with an introduction by economics writer Albert Jay Nock. The word “before” is used instead of “ahead” in this initial saying:
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
When the book was originally released the name of the author was kept a mystery although the wordsmith was described as a Wall Street financier. However, that did not prevent eager quotation propagators from fabricating attributions. The maxim has been assigned to the introduction writer, Nock, and it has even been credited to the head of the publishing house, William Morrow.
In 1947 the New York Times printed the author’s identity: Henry S. Haskins, a man with a colorful and controversial background as a securities trader. QI believes that Haskins originated this popular saying which has in modern times been reassigned to more famous individuals. Here are selected citations in chronological order.
In 1910 the New York Times reported in a front page story that a disciplinary action was taken against the Wall Street trader Henry Stanley Haskins. The firm Lathrop, Haskins & Co. had failed and a committee report blamed “reckless and unbusinesslike dealing” on the part of Haskins. Understandably, Haskins disagreed and stated that he was being unjustly treated. His defenders claimed that he was a scapegoat [NYHH]:
The Governing Committee of the Stock Exchange, at a special meeting yesterday, took action which practically amounts to the expulsion from the Exchange of Henry Stanley Haskins, the floor member of Lathrop, Haskins Co., leaders in the Hocking pool, which collapsed on Jan. 19.
In 1940 a book containing the adage under investigation was published and a short review in the financial magazine Barron’s commented about its unknown author and its compelling aphoristic content [BMWS]:
One of the most popular guessing games current in downtown New York is finding an answer to the question, “Who wrote ‘Meditations in Wall Street’?” So far there’s no authoritative answer, but this little book deserves reading in any case. It is not just about the Street—in fact, very little of it is devoted to affairs of finance. It is the philosophy of a successful business man and financier—or so it’s stated in the extremely laudatory preface by Mr. Nock—expressed in aphorisms.
Later in March 1940 a reviewer on the opposite coast of the United States in Los Angeles also commented about the mysterious author [LTWS]:
Titled “Meditations in Wall Street,” this book just published by William Morrow & Co., New York, and reputedly written by an important financier of old New England stock, presents the anomaly of being written in Wall Street by a Wall Street man with nothing in it that deals with Wall Street.
No market theories or advice on how to get rich but only pungent and philosophical aphorisms on various phases of life are served the reader.
Later still in March 1940 the book received a very positive notice in the New York Times. The reviewer clearly thought the maxim was original and interesting because he or she reprinted it and remarked on it [NYWS]:
It is a book of meditations on life and humanity and the individual, and if they are terse and pithy they are also farseeing and wise. The author’s name is not known to the publishers; Albert Jay Nock has “heard him spoken of vaguely as ‘a Wall-Streeter,’” but the precise nature of his occupation even he does not know. …
With all the philosopher’s play of wit and diversity he never weakens his major emphasis: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” Or, as quoted by Mr. Nock in the foreword, “It is the brain which does the thinking, not the thought; it is the soul which moves us forward, not ourself.”
In May 1940 the Los Angeles Times incorrectly speculated about the author of “Meditations in Wall Street”. In a caption beneath a caricature of Albert J. Nock (image shown above) the paper presented a guess about authorship [LAJN]:
ALBERT JAY NOCK — Is believed to be the author of “Meditations in Wall Street” (Morrow.)
By 1947 the New York Times had identified the author of the book. Thus when the newspaper reprinted an aphorism from the volume it was attributed to Henry S. Haskins [NYHH]:
Glory lies in the estimation of lookers-on. When lookers-on perish as countless generations have done, glory perishes, as countless glories have done.
Henry S. Haskins in “Meditations in Wall Street.” (William Morrow & Co.)
In 1950 the Chicago Tribune concurred with the New York Times, and attributed adages in the book to Haskins [CTHH]:
“With some whose nerves have a deep covering of fat, happiness is less of a problem that it is an accident of anatomy.”
Henry S. Haskins: Meditations in Wall Street
In 1974 Forbes magazine credited the adage being researched to William Morrow the founder of the company that published “Meditations in Wall Street”. For many years every issue of Forbes contained a page titled “Thoughts on the Business of Life” that presented a collection of quotations. The words of Haskins credited to Morrow appeared on this page in the February issue of 1974 [FWM].
In 1980 the President of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona attributed the saying to Ralph Waldo Emerson [CSP]:
Cal Poly president Hugh La Bounty said at the awards banquet that some lines from Ralph Waldo Emerson best summed up the Scolinos philosophy and the team performance that exemplified it:
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
The Library of Congress Online Catalog lists Henry Stanley Haskins as the author of Meditations in Wall Street and it also notes that originally the author was anonymous.
In 1989 the bestselling book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” included the quotation and attributed it to Oliver Wendell Holmes. The author did not specify whether Jr. or Sr. was supposed to be responsible for the maxim [SOWH].
By the 1990s a modified and extended version of the saying was being attributed to Thoreau in a book offering spiritual guidance and numerology [LBL]:
What lies before us and what lies behind us are small matters compared to what lies within us. And when we bring what is within out into the world, miracles happen.
HENRY DAVID THOREAU
The website of the Walden Woods Project lists this adage on a webpage dedicated to misquotations of Henry D. Thoreau. The webpage points to Henry Stanley Haskins and the book “Meditations in Wall Street” as the correct provenance for the saying [WWHH].
In 2001 the celebrity psychologist Phillip C. McGraw used a version of the saying in one of his very popular books. The wording was somewhat different and the maxim was credited to Emerson [PCM]:
As Emerson once wrote, “What lies behind us and what lies in front of us pales in comparison to what lies within us.”
In conclusion, QI believes that this quotation was crafted by Henry Stanley Haskins a Wall Street trader with a checkered background. The phrase was misattributed because the true authors name was initially withheld. In addition, the assignment of the maxim to a more prestigious individual, e.g., Emerson or Thoreau made it more attractive and more believable as a nugget of wisdom. Thanks for your question and QI hopes wonderful events lie before you.
[QVLB] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 253-254, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
[NYHH] 1910 February 17, New York Times, Stock Exchange Shuts Haskins Out, Page 1, Column 5, New York, New York. (ProQuest)
[BMWS] 1940 March 18, Barron’s, Business Book of the Week, Page 2, Volume 20, Issue 12, Dow Jones & Company Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
[LTWS] 1940 March 23, Los Angeles Times, The March of Finance by Wesley Smith, Page A9, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
[NYWS] 1940 Mar 31, New York Times, Miscellaneous Brief Reviews: A Salty Philosophy, Page 96, New York, New York. (ProQuest)
[LAJN] 1940 May 5, Los Angeles Times, Caricature Image and Caption for Albert J. Nock, Page C7, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
[NYHH] 1947 May 11, New York Times, Treasure Chest: Glory, Page BR2, New York, New York. (ProQuest)
[CTHH] 1950 October 22, Chicago Daily Tribune, A Little Anthology, Page 13, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
[FWM] 1974 February 15, Forbes, Thoughts on the Business of Life, Page 90, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
[CSP] 1980 June 15, Los Angeles Times, NCAA CHAMPIONS: 5 Broncos Taken in Baseball Draft by David LePage, Page SG1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
[SOWH] 1990 (Copyright 1989), The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, Page 96, Simon and Schuster: Fireside Book, New York, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)
[LBL] 2000 (Copyright 1993), The Life You were Born to Live: A Guide to Finding Your Life Purpose by Dan Millman, Page xi, Preface, H J Kramer, Tiburon, California and New World Library Novato, California. (Google Books preview)
[WWHH] Walden Woods Project website, walden.org, The Henry D. Thoreau Mis-Quotation Page. (Accessed 2011 January 10) link
[PCM] 2001, Relationship Rescue: A Seven-Step Strategy for Reconnecting with Your Partner by Phillip C. McGraw, (reprint, illustrated) Page 4, Hyperion, New York. (Google Books preview) link