The Question Isn’t Who Is Going to Let Me, It’s Who Is Going to Stop Me

Ayn Rand? Apocryphal?

aynrand01Dear Quote Investigator: The Newsfeed section of the Time magazine website recently wrote about a successful fashion retailer which was selling a shirt called an “Unstoppable Muscle Tee” that displayed a quotation attributed to a top-selling author and controversial philosopher:

“The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.” — Ayn Rand

The Time scribe seemed to disapprove of the garment. My reaction was: Are these really the words of Ayn Rand? I have searched for them and cannot find them in any of her novels or essays?

Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to find this precise quotation in the writings of Ayn Rand. However, QI hypothesizes that the sentence was derived from a dialog in her best-selling 1943 novel “The Fountainhead”.

Ayn Rand’s main character, Howard Roark, attended a school called The Stanton Institute of Technology to learn about architecture. He refused to follow the design precepts that he considered anachronistic and wrong-headed, and he was expelled from the school for insubordination.

Roark’s modernistic designs of glass and concrete shocked many of the teachers in the Institute. Roark and the Dean of the school met for a final discussion before he left the campus. In the excerpt below the Dean delivered the first line and then the speaker alternated: 1

“Do you mean to tell me that you’re thinking seriously of building that way, when and if you are an architect?”

“Yes.”

“My dear fellow, who will let you?”

“That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?”

“Look here, this is serious. I am sorry that I haven’t had a long, earnest talk with you much earlier…. I know, I know, I know, don’t interrupt me, you’ve seen a modernistic building or two, and it gave you ideas. But do you realize what a passing fancy that whole so-called modern movement is?”

QI conjectures that the third and fourth lines above were altered and combined to generate a single sentence, and this sentence was directly assigned to Ayn Rand. The process may have occurred via multiple intermediary steps.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 2001 the book “Welch: An American Icon” by Janet Lowe was published, and it told the story of the business executive Jack Welch who became chairman of General Electric corporation. Chapter three used the following words attributed to Rand as an epigraph: 2

The question is not “who is going to let me,” it’s “who is going to stop me?” Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

The sentence above is not in the named novel, and even the quoted phrases are not quite accurate. The correct phrases are “who will let you” and “who will stop me”. Nevertheless, it is plausible that the construction of this misquotation was inspired by the dialog given earlier.

In 2003 the expression appeared in the book “Love It, Don’t Leave It: 26 Ways to Get What You Want at Work”. The authors did not give an attribution and treated the remark critically: 3

The question isn’t who is going to let me—it’s who is going to stop me.
If that sounds like you, consider yielding occasionally because:
You can’t always be right. Sometimes someone else has a better solution, updated information, or a fresh perspective.

In May 2013 the Forbes magazine website published an article titled “Top 100 Inspirational Quotes” and the statement under investigation was listed ninety-third: 4

The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me. –Ayn Rand

In October 2013 an article on the “Time” magazine website stated that the fashion chain “Forever 21 has a penchant for releasing controversial clothing”. A picture of a shirt with a saying ascribed to Rand was displayed: 5

The “Unstoppable Muscle Tee,” priced at $11.80, bears a quote from the author and philosopher, framed as a motivational statement:
“The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.” — Ayn Rand

In conclusion, QI has not been able to find the quotation displayed on the shirt in the writings of Ayn Rand. QI thinks the statement was probably derived from the dialog in a scene in “The Fountainhead”. It roughly corresponds to the sentiment expressed by Howard Roark, a fictional character created by Rand.

(Great thanks to astute Wall Street Journal reporter Jason Zweig who pointed out the article on the Time website and questioned the accuracy of the quotation on the shirt. The inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration. Also, thanks to Skylar for her library help on multiple occasions.)

Notes:

  1. 1971 (Copyright 1943), The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Quote Page 23, Signet Book: Published by the Penguin Group, New York. (Reprint of 1943 Bobbs-Merrill edition)(Verified with scans of Signet edition)
  2. 2001, Welch: An American Icon by Janet Lowe, (Quotation is epigraph for Chapter 3: The Companies General Electric Dumped), Quote Page 81, John Wiley and Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2003, Love It, Don’t Leave It: 26 Ways to Get What You Want at Work by Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans, Quote Page 167, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Preview)
  4. Website: Forbes magazine, Article title: Top 100 Inspirational Quotes, Article Author: Kevin Kruse: Contributor, Author description: I write about wholehearted leadership and employee engagement, Date on website: May 28, 2013. (Accessed forbes.com on October 10, 2013) link
  5. Website: Time magazine, Article title: Forever 21 Is Now Selling a Shirt With an Ayn Rand Quote On It, Article subtitle: But do the chain’s customers even know what objectivism means?, Article author: Courtney Subramanian, Date on website: October 10, 2013. (Accessed newsfeed.time.com on October 10, 2013) link