Unless You Try To Do Something Beyond What You Have Already Mastered, You Will Never Grow

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Ronald E. Osborn? Anonymous?

beyond07Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage about personal growth has appeared in many self-help and motivational texts:

Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.

Often the words are attributed to the well-known transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I have been unable to determine the source, and I am skeptical. Would you please examine the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Emerson died in 1882, and the statement has been attributed to him only in recent decades. No citation has been provided, and the linkage is not substantive.

The earliest evidence located by QI was published in “Forbes” magazine in March 1945. A long-standing feature of the periodical was a page titled “Thoughts on the Business of Life” which displayed miscellaneous quotations and aphorisms. A short passage of three sentences containing the maxim was credited to someone named Ronald E. Osborn. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1

Undertake something that is difficult; it will do you good. Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.
—Ronald E. Osborn.

“Forbes” did not state where it had collected this quotation. News reports in the following years referred to speeches delivered by a professor of church history at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana named Ronald E. Osborn, and it was possible that this religious orator and teacher was the quotesmith. 2 However, this identification is conjectural because of the existence of several individuals named Ronald E. Osborn.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In June 1945 “The Nunda News” of Nunda, New York printed a filler item that precisely matched the quotation in “Forbes”, and the newspaper listed the same ascription to Ronald E. Osborn. 3

In 1950 a paper in San Antonio, Texas ran an advertisement for an office supply and furniture company that included a shortened and altered instance of the passage using the word “attempt”. No attribution was listed; instead, the work “selected” was specified: 4

Unless you attempt something beyond what you have already done, you will never grow!
—Selected

The full version of the passage credited to Osborn continued to circulate. For example, in 1955 the “Trenton Evening Times” in New Jersey printed an article titled “Quotable Quotes” that included the text, and in 1958 the “Los Angeles Tribune” printed it as a filler item: 5 6

Undertake something that is difficult; it will do you good. Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.
—Ronald E. Osborn.

In 1988 a columnist in an Oklahoma City, Oklahoma newspaper ascribed the remark to an unnamed friend: 7

A friend says unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.

By the 1990s the saying had been reassigned to the prominent thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson instead of the uncelebrated Osborn. For example, a 1997 book titled “Solution-Focused Therapy with Children: Harnessing Family Strengths for Systemic Change” used the saying as a chapter epigraph: 8

Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.
-RALPH WALDO EMERSON

In 2000 a writer in the national newspaper USA TODAY ascribed the adage to Emerson: 9

If something is nudging at you to challenge yourself and do more with your life, listen to that nudge. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.”

In conclusion, the passage in the 1945 citation should be credited to Ronald E. Osborn. The linkage of the saying to Ralph Waldo Emerson occurred many years after his death and the supporting evidence is not substantive.

Image Notes: Motorcycle picture from AleksandarCucu on Pixabay. Mountaineer picture from aatlas on Pixabay. Both images have been resized and cropped.

(This exploration was initiated by QI and was not based on a request from the public.)

Notes:

  1. 1945 March 15, Forbes, Thoughts on the Business of Life, Quote Page 46, Column 1, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1951 June 27, The Oregon Statesman, Over 1,000 Delegates at Turner for Christian Church Conclave (Statesman News Service), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Salem, Oregon. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1945 June 22, The Nunda News, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Nunda, New York. (Old Fulton)
  4. 1950 May 1, San Antonio Express, (Advertisement: Clegg Clippings Office Supplies and Furniture), Quote Page 12A, Column 8, San Antonio, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1955 January 31, Trenton Evening Times, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 14, Column 5, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1958 August 8, Los Angeles Tribune, Brazier in Talk before Democrats, (Filler item), Quote Page 23, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1988 May 25, The Daily Oklahoman, Section: South, Please Don’t Pick The Daisies by Robert E. Lee, Quote Page 1, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (NewsBank Access World News)
  8. 1997, Solution-Focused Therapy with Children: Harnessing Family Strengths for Systemic Change by Matthew D Selekman, (Epigraph of Chapter 10), Quote Page 210, Publisher by Guilford Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  9. 2000 June 15, USA TODAY, At Work by Andrea Kay (Andrea Kay is a Career consultant), Page number: ARC, Gannett News Service, Arlington, Virginia. (NewsBank Access World News)