Showing Up Is 80 Percent of Life

Woody Allen? Marshall Brickman? Donkey Hotey? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

woody02Dear Quote Investigator: I am trying to track down the origin of a quotation about success in life that has divaricated into many versions. Here are some examples:

Ninety percent of success is just showing up.
Showing up is 80 percent of life.
Eighty percent of success is showing up.
Seventy-five percent of life is showing up.
In life, 50% of it is showing up.

Some of these expressions are credited to the famous comedian and director Woody Allen, but I have not located a solid citation. Could you explore the provenance of these sayings?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match known to QI was printed in the New York Times in August 1977. Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman co-wrote the Oscar winning screenplay for the 1977 movie Annie Hall, and they were interviewed together by the journalist Susan Braudy. The following words were spoken by Marshall Brickman, but he attributed the adage to Woody Allen: 1

I have learned one thing. As Woody says, ‘Showing up is 80 percent of life.’ Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed. I’ve done both.

This citation is given in two key reference works: The Yale Book of Quotations 2 and The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs 3 both from Yale University Press.

In 1989 Woody Allen was asked about this saying by William Safire, the language columnist for the New York Times, and Allen replied with a letter in which he asserted: “I did say that 80 percent of success is showing up.” Hence, Allen accepted credit for a common variant of the expression using the word “success” instead of “life”. The details of this interesting cite are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Explicating success by splitting it into percentages has a long history. Here is an example in 1915 that was based on a modification of a classic remark credited to Thomas Edison: 4

Edison said “ninety per cent of a man’s success in business is perspiration.” He would have hit it more nearly had he said, “ninety per cent of a man’s success is due to intelligent work.”

Over the years many different attributes have been mentioned as contributors to success and measured in percentages including: “willingness to work”, “absolute honesty”, “technical training” and “brains”. In 1967 a column called “Dr. Crane’s Worry Clinic” suggested “psychology” was fundamental: 5

Psychology accounts for at least 50 per cent of success in almost every field of endeavor, including preaching and teaching as well as salesmanship.

In 1977 Marshall Brickman credited Woody Allen with the following maxim as noted previously:

Showing up is 80 percent of life.

In 1978 the New York Times reported that the notable ballerina Gelsey Kirkland was given a T-shirt with a version of the adage. However, the percentage displayed on the clothing differed from eighty. Indeed, as the saying was culturally transmitted the percentage specified varied greatly: 6

Along with therapy, there were friends. One gave her a T-shirt imprinted with a favorite slogan. “Woody Allen once said that ’99 percent of life is showing up.’ I’d put that shirt on every day. I’d look at myself in the mirror. And a little by little things got better.”

In 1979 the adage was placed into a collection “The Book of Quotes” compiled by Barbara Rowes. A newspaper advertisement for the book included the quotation as part of a quiz: 7 8

Showing up is 80 percent of life.
—Woody Allen

In 1980 a column in the Boston Globe about the popular composer Richard Rodgers included the saying, but the word order was modified: 9

If Woody Allen is right in saying that “Eighty percent of life is showing up,” well, Richard Rodgers showed up.

In 1982 the blockbuster business book “In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies” used a variant of the aphorism as the epigraph of chapter five. The phrase was ascribed to Woody Allen, but the word order was changed and “success” was substituted for “life” 10

Eighty percent of success is showing up.
— Woody Allen.

In 1983 the Boston Globe columnist Nardi Reeder Campion wrote about the experience of attending a school reunion and how it changed as a person grew older. She included another variant of the maxim which she attributed to Allen: 11

With a 45th reunion comes a new phase of competition, the one described by Woody Allen when he said “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.”

In 1988 the syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman wrote an article that illustrated the confusion surrounding the maxim. She listed two versions and then expressed contrition for using the wrong statement: 12

In a more innocent moment, I did a bit of creative fandangoing with Woody Allen. I misquoted him. He did not say, “80 percent of life is showing up,” He said, “80 percent of SUCCESS is showing up.”

In 1989 the well-known language columnist William Safire presented two distinct versions of the saying. Safire stated that President George H. W. Bush used the expression: “Ninety percent of life is just showing up”, and New York Governor Mario Cuomo employed: “Most of life is just a matter of showing up”. Both men credited Allen, so Safire contacted the comedian to attempt to ascertain the correct version: 13

“The quote you refer to,” Mr. Allen writes, “is a quote of mine which occurred during an interview while we were discussing advice to young writers, and more specifically young playwrights.

“My observation was that once a person actually completed a play or a novel he was well on his way to getting it produced or published, as opposed to a vast majority of people who tell me their ambition is to write, but who strike out on the very first level and indeed never write the play or book.

“In the midst of the conversation, as I’m now trying to recall it, I did say that 80 percent of success is showing up.”

Why that particular percentage? “The figure seems high to me today,” Mr. Allen says, “but I know it was more than 60 and the extra syllable in 70 ruins the rhythm of the quote, so I think we should let it stand at 80.”

While researching this article QI came across the following entertaining variant: 80% of success is showing up … on Google. The image signature was Donkey Hotey:showgoogle

In conclusion, there is good evidence that Woody Allen employed the saying “Showing up is 80 percent of life” since he was present at the 1977 dual interview during which it was ascribed to him.

By 1982 the distinct maxim “Eighty percent of success is showing up” was in circulation, and the phrase was attributed to Allen. By 1989 Allen himself was willing to assert authorship of this expression. It is possible that Allen used this version in an earlier interview that has not yet been located by QI or other researchers.

Note: Top lexicographical researcher Barry Popik explored the related saying “The world is run by those who show up”.

(Great thanks to Jay who told QI about a cartoon in the Wall Street Journal of June 6, 2013 with the caption “Actually, I’ve found 90 per cent of success isn’t showing up, it’s shutting up.”)

Notes:

  1. 1977 August 21, New York Times, Section 2: Arts and Leisure, He’s Woody Allen’s Not-So-Silent Partner by Susan Braudy, Page 11 (ProQuest Page 83), New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Woody Allen, Page 17, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro Page 140, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1921 April 8, The Insurance Field, Volume 43, Where He “Overlooked A Bet”, Quote Page 21, Column 1, The Insurance Field Company, Louisville, Kentucky. (HathiTrust) link link
  5. 1967 December 18, Las Vegas Daily Optic, Dr. Crane’s Worry Clinic by George W Crane, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Las Vegas, Nevada. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1978 May 31, New York Times, Gelsey Kirkland Happy Right Where She Is by Jennifer Dunning, Quote Page C14, New York. (ProQuest)
  7. 1979, The Book of Quotes, Compiled by Barbara Rowes, Quote Page 207, A Sunrise Book: E. P. Dutton, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1979 July 22, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, (Advertisement for “The Book of Quotes” edited by Barbara Rowes), Quote Page BR8, New York. (ProQuest)
  9. 1980 January 3, Boston Globe, The sound of success: His work was play by Ellen Goodman, Quote Page 19, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  10. 2004 (Reprint of 1982 edition), In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr., (Epigraph for Chapter 5: A Bias for Action), Quote Page 119, HarperBusiness Essentials: HarperCollins, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)
  11. 1983 July 17, Boston Globe, “Wellesley ’38: a Different World, But in Many Ways the Best of Times” by Nardi Reeder Campion, Quote Page 1, (ProQuest uses the spelling “Weelesley” in the article title), Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  12. 1988 December 30, The Post-Standard, “Harbinger, Wifty and Other ’88 Boo-Boos” by Ellen Goodman, Quote Page A-8, Column 4, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  13. 1989 August 13, New York Times, On Language: The Elision Fields by William Safire, Start Page SM16, Quote Page SM18, New York. (The ProQuest database splits the Safire article into two parts and uses the title “Secret of Success” for the part containing the quotation)(ProQuest)