Attitude Is a Little Thing That Makes a Big Difference

Winston Churchill? Theodore Roosevelt? Zig Ziglar? Anonymous?

churchillzig02Dear Quote Investigator: I work in an office where they hang inspirational posters on the wall. The caption of one sign credits the following words to the master orator Winston Churchill:

Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.

I think that the person who created the poster knows that a distinguished attribution is a little thing that can make a big difference in the perception of a quotation. But this ascription seems laughably unlikely. Could you examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: This expression is not listed in “Churchill by Himself”, a comprehensive collection of Churchill quotations, 1 and QI has not located any substantive evidence linking the statement to him.

Writers have been deploying sentences that emphasized the contrast between a “little thing” and a “big difference” for more than one-hundred years. Here is an example in a letter about photography printed in Recreation magazine in 1895: 2

In our High School Scientific Association we founded an amateur photographic club, of which I was elected president, and we have pecks of fun out of it. Some of us learned, in a short time, that “little things make a big difference in the wonderful art of photography.”

Here is an example in 1920 from a book by an advertising specialist: 3

In the offices of most newspapers and many magazines there simply isn’t time to fuss over the little things that make such a big difference in the appearance of advertisements.

In 1977 a famous motivational writer and speaker named Zig Ziglar wrote a comment about attitude in his popular book “See You at the Top” that matched the saying under investigation: 4

Attitude is the “little” thing that makes the big difference. The story of life proves that it is often the minute things that spell the differences between triumph and tragedy, success and failure, victory or defeat. For example, if you call a girl a kitten, she will love you. Call her a cat and you’re in trouble.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

It is possible that Ziglar was using an expression that was already in circulation. Certainly, the example in the excerpt above appeared many years ago in Ayer’s American Almanac for the year 1889: 5

Call a girl a kitten, and she rather likes it; call a woman a cat, and she will hate you.

Other writers of motivational books have utilized the saying about attitude. In 1996 John Mason published “Conquering An Enemy Called Average” which included the following: 6

It isn’t our position, but our disposition that makes us happy. Remember, some people freeze in the winter. Others ski. A positive attitude always creates positive results. Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.

By 2002 another similar saying about attitude was being disseminated. The book “A Call to America: Inspiring and Empowering Quotations from the 43 Presidents of the United States” credited this statement to Theodore Roosevelt: 7

Your attitude about who you are and what you have is a very little thing that makes a very big difference.

By 2003 the statement had been attached to the statesman Winston Churchill: 8

‘Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference’      Winston Churchill

In conclusion, QI has located no substantive support for assigning this saying to Winston Churchill or Theodore Roosevelt. Currently, the earliest usage belongs to Zig Ziglar though it is not clear whether he coined the expression.

(Many thanks to R. B. who inquired about this saying and provided the impetus for QI to shape this question and perform this investigation.)

Notes:

  1. 2008, Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations, Edited by Richard Langworth, PublicAffairs, New York.
  2. 1895 May, Recreation, Editor and Manager George O. Shields, (Letter to the editor from Paul A. Ulrich), Volume 2, Number 5, Quote Page 390, Column 2, Published by G.O. Shields (Coquina), New York. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1920, Making Advertisements and Making Them Pay by Roy S. Durstine (Roy Sarles Durstine), Quote Page 164, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1977, See You at the Top by Zig Ziglar, Segment Five: Attitude: Chapter One, Quote Page 204, (Twenty-seventh printing in January 1982), Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, Louisiana. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1988, Ayer’s American Almanac: 1889, Month: September 1889, Unnumbered Page, Published by Dr. J. C. Ayer and Company, Practical and Analytical Chemists, Lowell, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1996, Conquering An Enemy Called Average by John Mason, Section: Nugget Number 17, Quote Page 48, Published by Insight International, Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Verified with scans)
  7. 2002, A Call to America: Inspiring and Empowering Quotations from the 43 Presidents of the United States, Editor Bryan Curtis, Section: Theodore Roosevelt, Unnumbered Page, Published by Rutledge Hill Press, a division of Thomas Nelson Inc, Nashville, Tennessee. (Google Books Preview)
  8. 2003, Knowledge: How to Be an Effective and Emotionally Intelligent Leader by Michael Massey (Epigraph to Chapter 8), Quote Page 53, Troubador Publishing Ltd., Leicester, UK. (Google Books Preview)