It Isn’t the Mountain Ahead That Wears You Out; It Is the Grain of Sand in Your Shoe

Muhammad Ali? Robert W. Service? Anonymous?

matterhorn02Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation about perseverance is attributed to the famed boxer Muhammad Ali:

It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.

While I was researching this phrase I came across another version that was attributed to the popular poet Robert W. Service who died in 1958:

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out — it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.

Could you provide clarification?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in 1916 in a trade publication for the insurance industry. The adage was printed with no accompanying text as a filler item, and no attribution was given: 1

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it is the grain of sand in your shoe.

In 1920 the expression was published in “The Journal of the New York State Teachers Association”. Once again, no attribution was given. Other sayings emphasizing steadfastness and determination were printed adjacent to the statement: 2

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it is the grain of sand in your shoe.

Back up your ideas with courage that will not back down, and there will be no way too long, no road too rough.

The reason most men and women do not accomplish more is that they do not attempt more.

By 1925 the saying had been extended with an explanatory sentence. This longer version was published in Forbes magazine together with the single word acknowledgment: “Service”. QI hypothesizes that this word referred to a magazine or newsletter called “Service” and not to the poet Robert W. Service. If Forbes wished to credit the “Bard of the Yukon” then his full name would have been listed: 3

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out—it’s the grain of sand in your shoe. Be master of your petty annoyances and conserve your energies for the big worth while things.—Service.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1927 a newspaper in Indiana printed the extended saying, but the paper did not attempt to provide an ascription: 4

It has been said that “It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out—it’s the grain of sand in your shoe. Be master of your petty annoyances and conserve your energies for the big worth-while things.”

In 1933 a version of the expression appeared in the mass-circulation monthly Reader’s Digest. The order of the two sentences was flipped and the acknowledgement “Service” was given: 5

On Annoyances: Be master of your petty annoyances and conserve your energies for the big, worthwhile things. It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out — it’s the grain of sand in your shoe. — Service

In 1944 Henry Powell Spring included the saying in his collection titled “What Is Truth”. Every word in the “Wisdom of the Ages” section of the book was printed in uppercase: 6

BE MASTER OF YOUR PETTY ANNOYANCES AND CONSERVE YOUR ENERGIES FOR THE BIG, WORTHWHILE THINGS. IT ISN’T THE MOUNTAIN AHEAD THAT WEARS YOU OUT-IT’S THE GRAIN OF SAND IN YOUR SHOE. – SERVICE.

In 1976 an advice columnist in the Boston Herald newspaper of Massachusetts employed a version of the expression: 7

I like the phrase “It isn’t the mountains ahead that wear you out, it’s the grain of sand in your shoes.” People seem to have awfully sandy shoes these days.

In 1986 “The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations” included the saying with an ascription to Robert Service. The quotation also appeared in the re-titled 1987 collection “Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations”: 8 9

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out — it’s the grain of sand in your shoe. Robert Service

By the 2000s a variant of the adage using the word “pebble” instead of “grain of sand” was being credited to the renowned pugilist Muhammad Ali: 10

“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe.”
— Muhammad Ali

In 2008 a book by the wife of the religious and political figure Jerry Falwell attributed an instance of the saying to him: 11

It is not the mountains ahead of us which wear us down. It is often the grain of sand in our shoe. God never puts more on us than He puts in us to bear up every burden.
—Jerry Falwell

In conclusion, the earliest instances of this expression starting in 1916 were anonymous. QI believes the ascription to Robert W. Service was probably a mistake caused by a misreading of the single word acknowledgement: Service. Attributions to Muhammad Ali and Jerry Falwell occurred relatively recently after the saying was already established.

(Thanks to Jonathan Sideris whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1916 May 18, The Western Underwriter, Section: Life, (Freestanding quote without attribution), Quote Page 10, Column 2, Published by the Western Underwriter Company, Cincinnati, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1920 February, The Journal of the New York State Teachers Association, Volume 7, Number 1, (Freestanding short passage), Quote Page 31, Column 2, Published by The New York State Teachers Association, Rochester, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1925 May 1, Forbes, Thoughts on Life and Business, Quote Page 104, Column 3, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  4. 1927 October 10, Evansville Courier (Evansville Courier and Press), T.P.A. Notes by H. R. Tilford, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Evansville, Indiana. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1933 September, Reader’s Digest, Volume 23, Cues to Cultivate, (One quote from a group of five), Quote Page 61, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)
  6. 1944, “What Is Truth” by (Henry) Powell Spring, Quote Page 171, The Orange Press, Winter Park, Florida. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1976 January 3, Boston Herald, Chatter Line: ‘Guilt feelings’ makes her life a struggle, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1986, The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Will and Determination, Quote Page 367, Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, Toronto. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1987, Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations: Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Will and Determination, Quote Page 367, Barnes & Noble Books, Division of Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 2003 November 23, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Section: Sports, Tossing Off Pebble Costs the Cardinals Mountain of Bucks by Bryan Burwell, Page F1, St. Louis, Missouri. (NewsBank Access World News)
  11. 2008, Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy by Macel Falwell, (Quote inside box), Quote Page 148, Howard Books: A Division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Google Books Preview)