Mark Twain? H. Jackson Brown? Mother of H. Jackson Brown? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The Virgin Galactic company of Richard Branson plans to offer suborbital spaceflights for tourists. The organization put together a beautiful brochure containing the following quotation credited to Mark Twain [VGMT]:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
Can you tell me where this was written by Mark Twain? I have not been able to locate this astute piece of advice in his novels or essays.
Quote Investigator: QI will be unable to tell you where to find this passage in the works of Twain because he never wrote it. Yet, the words are regularly credited to him. For example, the April 20, 1998 issue of The New Yorker magazine printed a vibrant full page advertisement depicting an ocean scene that prominently featured a version of this saying with the label “attributed to Mark Twain” [NYMT].
The website TwainQuotes.com edited by Barbara Schmidt is a key resource for checking quotations attributed to Twain, and Schmidt states that “the attribution cannot be verified. The quote should not be regarded as authentic” [TYTQ].
The earliest appearance that QI has located is relatively recent, 1990. The bestselling author H. Jackson Brown, Jr. published the work containing the quotation, but he did not take credit for it. The book “P.S. I Love You” contained a collection of wise aphorisms from Brown’s mother. Each page contained one thought, and the advice under investigation was printed on page 13. Each remark was prefaced with “P.S.” and ended with “I love you, Mom” [PSJB].
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Spoiler Warning: This post contains a spoiler for the game Minecraft.
Brown is best known as the author of “Life’s Little Instruction Book” which contains “Suggestions, Observations, and Reminders on How to Live a Happy and Rewarding Life”. The advice from his mother in “P.S. I Love You” was reassigned to Mark Twain sometime between 1990 and 1998.
In August 1998 the saying was printed in the Miami Herald newspaper. The author of the article was lead astray because he received the passage from another person who ascribed the words to Twain [MHTY]:
… of Coral Gables sent me this wonderful quotation from Mark Twain. It will tell you where my head is these days. My heart, too.
In September 1998 a shortened form of the expression was printed in the Salt Lake Tribune, and once again the sage from Hannibal, Missouri received the credit [SLMT]:
Mark Twain once said, “Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
In May 2012 a message about the game sensation Minecraft was posted on the discussion website Reddit [MCRD]. Below is part of a screen image from a message by a person using the handle Wherg. This image is shown near the end of Minecraft:
Minecraft was created by gifted game designer Markus Alexej Persson who is more commonly known as Notch. QI believes that xNotch is the handle that Persson uses on Reddit and xNotch posted this comment:
I love that quote, it pretty much defines how I want to live my life. Unfortunately, I later found out it’s unlikely Mark Twain ever said that. :/
The quotation can be found today in some of the large online databases, e.g., thinkexist.com and quotationsbook.com where it is attributed to Mark Twain.
In conclusion, QI has located no evidence of this saying before 1990, and believes that it is not connected to Mark Twain. The writer H. Jackson Brown, Jr. published it and credited his mother. QI has found no reason to doubt this attribution. Thanks for your engaging question.
Update history: On May 3, 2012 information about appearance of the quotation in the Minecraft game was added.
[VGMT] Virgin Galactic website at virgingalactic.com, Link on homepage for Downloadable Brochure describing suborbital space flights. Quotation ascribed to Mark Twain is on the first page. (Accessed 2011 September 29) link
[NYMT] 1998 April 20, New Yorker magazine, Page 25, Advertisement with title “Warming Trends in the Caribbean”, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)
[TYTQ] TwainQuotes.com website edited by Barbara Schmidt, Comment at bottom of webpage titled Discovery. (Accessed 2011 September 29) link
[PSJB] 1990, “P.S. I Love You” by H Jackson Brown, Page 13, Rutledge Hill Press, a Thomas Nelson Company, Nashville, Tennessee. (Many thanks to the librarian at the Columbia County Public Library in Lake City, Florida for verifying the quotation on paper; Cross-checked using Amazon Look Inside)
[MHTY] 1998 August 9, Miami Herald, “Keep Moving — ‘With a Bouquet in Your Hands’” by David Lawrence Jr., Section Viewpoint, Page 3L, Miami, Florida. (NewsBank)
[SLMT] 1998 September 27, Salt Lake Tribune, Travelogue Series Launches With a Tour of Rockies’ National Parks, Page H3, Salt Lake City, Utah. (NewsBank)
[MCRD] 2012 May 3, Reddit website, Post title: This quote at the end of Minecraft really got me, Posted by: Wherg, Reddit, Inc. subsidiary of Advance Publications. (Website reddit.com accessed may 3, 2012) link