If I Shoot at the Sun, I May Hit a Star

P. T. Barnum? Britney Spears? George Herbert? Jane Russell? W. Clement Stone? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Norman Vincent Peale? Les Brown? John McEnroe?

Dear Quote Investigator: There exists a collection of sayings that uses celestial bodies to illustrate advice about setting goals. Here are three examples:

  1. If I shoot at the sun, I may hit a star.
  2. If we aim at the moon—we may hit a star!
  3. Shoot for the moon. If you miss it, you will still land among the stars.

The moon and sun are impressive objects in the sky while the stars are less luminous and therefore not as visually striking. Hence, I think that these adages mean the following: If you set a very difficult goal for yourself then even if you are only partially successful you will find that the result is still superb.

Modern astronomical knowledge makes the sayings more difficult to interpret. Stars (other than the sun) are much farther away from the Earth than the sun or the moon. Hence, hitting a star is actually much more difficult than hitting the sun or moon. Indeed, there is another set of aphorisms that switches the role of the moon and the stars:

  1. If you don’t aim for the stars, you’re not going to get to the moon.
  2. I’ll shoot for the stars, and I’ll settle for the moon.

These types of sayings have been credited to P. T. Barnum, Norman Vincent Peale, and others. Could you examine this class of quotations?

Quote Investigator: An important precursor to this collection of sayings was written by the poet and Anglican priest George Herbert who died in 1633. In the poem “The Church-Porch” a verse exhorted the reader to be humble but also to “aimeth at the sky”. Herbert contended that one would achieve more by targeting the sky instead of adopting the easier task of aiming at a tree: 1

Pitch thy behaviour low, thy projects high;
So shalt thou humble and magnanimous be:
Sink not in spirit; who aimeth at the sky,
Shoots higher much, than he that means a tree.
A grain of glory mix’d with humbleness
Cures both a Fever, and Lethargickness.

The advice that one should aim at the moon to achieve something great has been proffered for many years. In 1846 an instance of this type of guidance suggested that one may not hit the moon but still “hit a high mark”. The following words were credited to George Herbert, and QI hypothesizes that this expression evolved from Herbert’s verse given above: 2

…still George Herbert’s advice on a higher matter is applicable to this, that we had better shoot at the moon if we want to hit a high mark.

In 1859 an expression of this kind was already labeled an “old saying”. In the following excerpt the result of shooting at the moon was not as impressive as landing among the stars; nevertheless, it was portrayed as desirable: 3

You remember the old saying, Beatrice, “Shoot at the moon and you will hit the top of the highest tree.” If you could not be a genius you may, nevertheless, have made greater progress by the effort to be one.

In 1865 a statement mentioned shooting at the stars instead of the moon. The conceptual pattern of the aphorism was the same. The result of pursuing an exalted goal was the achievement of a less impressive but useful goal: 4

Probably the ingenious author goes on the principle that if you shoot at the stars you may hit a tree. If you cram your novel with Cabinet Ministers and Latin and Greek and Lafitte, you may get the public to listen to your substantial but prosaic grievance, that an inmate of Whitecross Street prison may not receive visitors on a Sunday.

In 1876 another astronomical object was presented as an unreachable but valuable aspirational target: the sun: 5

Again, he would say, “shoot an arrow at the sun every morning.” “But we can’t hit it,” was the answer. “You will hit higher than if you aimed lower,” he would reply.

In 1879 the name of George Herbert was invoked again. This time the saying credited to him concerned the moon and a tree: 6

This was an ideal scheme, but nothing great is ever accomplished by the man who has not a high ideal: and George Herbert’s words were never forgotten by the bishop, “that it is good to shoot at the moon even though you only hit a tree.”

Finally, in 1891 an expression matching a version given by the questioner was printed in a collection of quotations and short writings that had been “Compiled by Ladies of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California”. The words were ascribed to the famous American showman Phineas T. Barnum: 7

If I shoot at the sun, I may hit a star.
—P. T. Barnum

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1895 a newspaper in San Antonio, Texas commended shooting at the sun: 8

It helps either man or woman to have a noble model and to aim to accomplish noble deeds similar to those of his, or her chosen model. It is better to shoot at the sun than to grovel in the dirt.

In 1899 a sermon was delivered to the graduating class of a high school in Indiana. The speaker presented an adage of this type that he ascribed to the well-known Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson: 9

Our first requisite is that we have some definite purpose to which we shall give our life. And I plead with you to let that purpose be high. “Aim high,” writes Emerson, “and you may hit a star.” Regard, therefore, the work to which you give your life as worthy of your effort.

By 1904 this class of aphorisms was familiar enough that it was subjected to parody. A Cleveland, Ohio newspaper printed a set of anti-proverbs which modified and twisted the meaning of existing proverbs. Here are three examples: 10

“Home,” is where the mortgage is.
“Aim at a chorus girl,” and you may hit a star.
People who live in glass houses should dress in the dark.

In 1906 a farmer in England wrote an enjoyable variant that mentioned a familiar object found in agricultural fields: 11

If I shoot at the moon I might hit the top of a haystack, so that if I try after the perfection of these counsels I might at least attain to a pretty good state of medical, milking, and sanitary efficiency.

In 1914 the adage ascribed to P. T. Barnum was incorporated into an advertisement for bread in a Michigan newspaper: 12

Have you ever heard that eating the crust of bread will make the hair curl? Well, maybe it will and maybe it won’t. You will be the better for trying.

P. T. Barnum said, “If I shoot at the sun, I may hit a star.” You may not get curly hair from eating — Harvest Bread — but you will have a good, clear complexion and a comfortable feeling in the region of your stomach…

In 1921 a speech about Sunday Schools presented another variant in this class of sayings: 13

“Thou shalt be ambitious,” he said “Have a high aim. If you shoot at the sun and miss it, you will go higher than by shooting into the cellar.”

In 1941 the rising film-star Jane Russell was interviewed in an Associated Press article. She discussed her upcoming role in the movie “The Outlaw”: 14

“I certainly am not going to let this good ‘break’ go to my head,” said Miss Russell. “I’m going to try to be a success, but if I fail and never appear in another picture again, I’m not going to be disappointed. That’s where so many people make tragic mistakes. “If we aim at the moon—we may hit a star!”

In 1975 an American football player who was about to join a team in Houston, Texas expressed certainty about his future success: 15

Asked if he weren’t overly optimistic, Hardeman replied, “If you aim for the moon and land among the stars you’re still on high ground.”

In 1983 a newspaper in Oklahoma used an expression that swapped the usual roles of the stars and moon in the sayings given previously in this article, e.g., in the saying immediately above: 16

When you reach for the stars but only land on the moon, you’re somewhat disappointed. Oklahoma City’s Purple Power fast pitch softball team, however, would tell you a lunar landing isn’t all that bad.

In 1987 a newspaper in Florida published another example in which the typical roles of the stars and moon were swapped: 17

“To use a space term, if you don’t aim for the stars, you’re not going to get to the moon,” said Jim Benedict, president of J.H. Benedict and Associates Advertising, which has offices in Cocoa Beach and Daytona Beach.

In 1988 the well-known tennis player John McEnroe was interviewed on the 60 Minutes television program, and he presented a convoluted version of the saying: 18

I think the sky’s the limit. I’ll shoot for the moon, I’ll shoot for the stars, and I’ll settle for the moon and I’ll give it a hell of a try.

Also in 1988 Norman Vincent Peale, the prominent motivational author who wrote the bestseller “The Power of Positive Thinking”, used a version of the adage: 19

His advice: “Shoot for the moon. If you miss it, you will still land among the stars.”

In 1996 a message posted to the Usenet distributed discussion system attributed an instance of the saying to the self-help author and philanthropist W. Clement Stone: 20

Aim for the Moon. If you miss, you may hit a Star.
- W. Clement Stone

In 2000 the pop-music icon Britney Spears used an instance of the aphorism to describe her viewpoint toward life: 21

“That’s my whole philosophy: Shoot for the moon; if I don’t make that, I can land among the stars.”

Also in 2000 an instance of the statement was credited to the motivational speaker Les Brown: 22

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Les Brown

The important reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” included a version of this adage based on the following template: 23

If you shoot (aim) for the stars, maybe at least you will hit the moon (get over the trees, etc.).

In conclusion, this class of sayings has a long history and there are many different variations based on permutations of astronomical objects and trees. QI believes that the 1633 verse of George Herbert was an important aboriginal source. The first instance known to QI of “If I shoot at the sun, I may hit a star” was ascribed to P. T Barnum. But QI was unable to find direct evidence, i.e., a book by Barnum or an interview containing the statement. Over the years multiple prominent people have used expressions from within this popular class of adages.

(In Memoriam: Special thanks to my brother Stephen who asked about this saying.)

Notes:

  1. 1709, “The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations” by George Herbert, [The Thirteenth Edition Corrected; First Edition was published in 1633], The Church-Porch, Start Page 1, Quote Page 12, Printed for John Wyat, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1846 December, The English Review, Englishwomen of the 17th and 19th Centuries, Start Page 285, Quote Page 330, Francis & John Rivington, London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1859, “Beatrice; or, Six Years of Childhood and Youth” by Mrs. S. Valentine [Laura Valentine], Quote Page 127, William Tegg & Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1865 September 30, The Saturday Review, Volume 20, Who is the Heir? [Book Review], Start Page 429, Quote Page 430, Column 1, Published at the Saturday Review Office, London. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1876 September 8, Kalamazoo Weekly Gazette, “Picnicing Pioneers. The Fifth Annual Re-Union a Success Socially and Numerically” Quote Page 2, Column 6, Kalamazoo, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1879, “Memoir of the Life and Episcopate of George Augustus Selwyn, D.D.” by Rev. H. W. Tucker [Henry William Tucker], Volume 2 of 2, Quote Page 256, William Wells Gardner, London. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1891, More Borrowings, Compiled by Ladies of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California, Quote Page 24, [Copyright 1891 by Sarah S. B. Yule and Mary S, Keene], C. A. Murdock & Co., Printers, San Francisco, California. (Google Books full view) link
  8. 1895 May 19, San Antonio Daily Light, Contributed Scraps, Page 3, Column 1, San Antonio, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  9. 1899 May 7, Elkhart Weekly Review, The Baccalaureate Sermon, Page 2, Column 3, Elkhart, Indiana. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1904 July 24, Cleveland Leader, Section: Book Page, Nonsense for Wise Men, Page 2, Start Column 2, Quote Column 4, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1906, The Diary of a Working Farmer: Being the True History of a Year’s Farming in Essex by Primrose McConnell, Quote Page 61, The Cable Printing and Publishing Company, London. (Google Books full view) link
  12. 1914 October 8, Muskegon Chronicle, [Advertisement for Harvest Bread of the Muskegon Baking Co.], Quote Page 3, Column 4, Muskegon, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  13. 1921 September 20, Boston Globe, Ten Commandments for Sunday Schools: Marion Lawrance Talks at Park Street Church, Page 3, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive)
  14. 1941 February 23, Times-Picayune, Unusual Film Chance Given Youthful Duo, [Associated Press], Section 3, Page 11, Column 3, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  15. 1975 March 12, Dallas Morning News, “Right Track, Trainers Hope” by Sam Blair, Section: B, Page 1, Column 6, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  16. 1983 August 18, The Daily Oklahoman, Section: NORTH, Purple Power brings home national prize by Mike Baldwin, Oklahoma Publishing Company. (NewsBank Access World News)
  17. 1987 August 24, Sun-Sentinel, Space Coast County Beginning Its First Advertising Campaign by Chris Carey [The Orlando Sentinel], Section: WEEKLY BUSINESS, Page 14, News and Sun-Sentinel Company, Florida. (NewsBank Access World News)
  18. 1988 May 2, USA TODAY, McEnroe on way back but slowly this time Section: SPORTS, Page 02c, [The words of John McEnroe were introduced with the following: "he told 60 Minutes Diane Sawyer in an interview that aired Sunday"], Gannett Co., Inc., McLean, Virginia. (ProQuest)
  19. 1988 May 26, USA TODAY, “Peale still positive; Words he lives by” by Bethany Kandel, Section: NEWS, Page 2A, Gannett Co., Inc., McLean, Virginia. (NewsBank Access World News)
  20. 1996 May 2, Usenet Newsgroup: misc.fitness.aerobic, Subject: Re: Flatter Abs?, From: Stacy-Michelle Reid. (Google Usenet groups archive; Accessed November 19, 2012) link
  21. 2000 March 6, Rockford Register Star, “Spears takes on new album, maturity” by Elizabeth Trever Buchinger, [Gannett News Service], Page 1C [GNB Page 23], Column 6, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  22. 2000 July 20, Aberdeen Daily News, [Freestanding quotation adjacent to the top banner], Quote Page 4A, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank)
  23. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 239, Column 2, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)