Purpose and Persistence Are Required for Success: Unrewarded Genius Is Almost a Proverb

Calvin Coolidge? Theodore Thornton Munger? M. M. Callen? Orison Swett Marden? Edward H. Hart?

purpose22Dear Quote Investigator: Many books extolling self-improvement include a didactic passage that begins as follows:

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.

These words have been credited to U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, but I have not been able to find a good citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A closely matching text was attributed to Calvin Coolidge by 1929, but the passage did not originate with the former President. Instead, it evolved over a period of several decades. Interestingly, the original text located by QI emphasized the importance of “purpose” to success and did not mention “persistence”.

In 1881 the Reverend Theodore Thornton Munger of New England published a book of guidance for young people titled “On the Threshold”. The first chapter was called “Purpose”, and the author stated the following, Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A purpose is the eternal condition of success. Nothing will take its place. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men of talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is a proverb; the “mute, inglorious Milton” is not a poetic creation. The chance of events, the push of circumstances, will not. The natural unfolding of faculties will not. Education will not; the country is full of unsuccessful educated men; indeed, it is a problem of society what to do with the young men it is turning out of its colleges and professional schools. There is no road to success but through a clear, strong purpose.

A purpose underlies character, culture, position, attainment of whatever sort. Shakespeare says: “Some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them;” but the latter is external, and not to be accounted as success.

The boldface text above highlights some of the points of similarity and contrast with the modern text about persistence which has often been attributed to Coolidge.

The phrase “mute, inglorious Milton” was a reference to the popular poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray who was contemplating the graves of the largely-anonymous people who lived and died in the small villages of the English countryside. Gray imagined a person who might have rivalled the power and acclaim of the poet John Milton. Yet, the person was mute and did not achieve glory because chance and circumstance prevented the emergence of his or her greatness. Munger implicitly re-imagined the scenario by suggesting that a clear and strong purpose might have allowed the mute Milton and others to acquire success.

Munger’s words were remembered, and a shortened version of the passage above was further disseminated when it was included in an 1889 collection titled “A Homiletic and Illustrative Treasury of Religious Thought” which was published in a series of editions. 2

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1891 Reverend M. M. Callen delivered a baccalaureate sermon to graduating high school students in Michigan. A section of his speech was clearly based directly or indirectly on Munger’s remarks although the phrasing was different: 3

Nothing will take the place of purpose. Talent is good, but nothing is more common than unsuccessful men of talent. Genius is good, but the man who has genius usually sits in the shade and admires it. Intellectual culture is good, but the country is full of unsuccessful educated men, and neither Washington nor Lincoln were of the schools. Favorable circumstances are not to be despised—with or without any or all of these you may have success, but never without purpose.

In 1892 a newspaper in Indiana published a column of “choice clippings” that reprinted Munger’s words without attribution. The passage was streamlined via the omission of some phrases and sentences, e.g., Milton was not mentioned: 4

A purpose is the eternal condition of success. Nothing will take its place. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men of talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is a proverb. The chance of events, the push of circumstances will not. Education will not; the country is full of unsuccessful educated men. There is no road to success but through a clear, strong purpose.

The best-selling author Orison Swett Marden was an influential creator of inspirational and self-help books. In 1897 he published “Rising in the World: Or, Architects of Fate: A Book Designed to Inspire Youth to Character Building”. Two passages in the work displayed several points of similarity with the words of Munger: 5

Mere energy is not enough; it must be concentrated on some steady, unwavering aim. What is more common than “unsuccessful geniuses,” or failures with “commanding talents”? Indeed, “unrewarded genius” has become a proverb. Every town has unsuccessful educated and talented men. But education is of no value, talent is worthless, unless it can do something, achieve something. . . .

Nothing can take the place of an all-absorbing purpose; education will not, genius will not, talent will not, industry will not, will-power will not. The purposeless life must ever be a failure. What good are powers, faculties, unless we can use them for a purpose? What good would a chest of tools do a carpenter unless he could use them? A college education, a head full of knowledge, are worth little to the men who cannot use them to some definite end.

In June 1902 a trade journal called “Insurance Sun” published the text of a speech delivered by Edward H. Hart who was a manager at the Penn Mutual Insurance company. A section of the talk was quite similar to the remarks of Munger; however, Hart insisted that “persistence” was paramount and did not highlight “purpose”. Thus, the text evolved toward the most common modern version: 6

Nothing in the world will take the place of the quality of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men of talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated men who have been failures. Determination alone is omnipotent. Press on has solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race.

Top researcher Barry Popik located the important citation given above. His webpage on this topic is available here.

In 1914 an instance of the passage without attribution was printed in a trade journal for pharmacists called “The Spatula”. This text included the word “derelicts”: 7

Nothing in the world will take the place of persistence.
Talent will not—nothing is more common than unsuccessful men of talent.
Genius will not—unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not—the world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
The two slogans, “Press on” and “Deliver the goods,” have solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race.

In 1929 “The Dallas Morning News” of Dallas, Texas ascribed an instance of the passage to Calvin Coolidge while acknowledging another Texas newspaper: 8

Calvin Coolidge in San Marcos Record: Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not do it; nothing is more common in unsuccessful men than talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

During the ensuing years multiple slightly different versions of the saying were attributed to Coolidge. “The Yale Book of Quotations” included an instance and stated: 9

Coolidge wrote this after his retirement, for the New York Life Insurance Company, on whose board of directors he served.

In conclusion, a family of closely related passages evolved from a text written in 1881 by Theodore Thornton Munger. The initial passage was focused on the importance of “purpose”. By 1902 Edward H. Hart employed a variant in a speech that stressed the primacy of “persistence”. By 1929 Calvin Coolidge was being credited with an instance about “persistence” that closely matched the words of Hart.

Image Notes: Cropped picture of a mountain climber from Unsplash at Pixabay. Cropped version of the frontispiece portrait in the 1913 biography “Theodore Thornton Munger: New England Minister” by Benjamin Wisner Bacon.

(Thanks to Barry Popik, Fred R. Shapiro, and other researchers for their pioneering work on this topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1881 (Copyright 1880), On the Threshold by Theodore T. Munger (Theodore Thornton Munger), Chapter 1: Purpose, Quote Page 9, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1889, A Homiletic and Illustrative Treasury of Religious Thought by H. D. M. Spence, Joseph S. Exell, and Charles Neil, Volume 3, Second Edition, Quote Page 260, Section: Fixity and Tenacity of Purpose, Published by R. D. Dickinson, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1891 June 22, Jackson Daily Citizen, The First Requisite (Reverend M. M. Callen baccalaureate sermon for East Side High School graduating class), Quote Page 7, Column 3, Jackson, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1892 July 13, Steuben Republican, The Home Circle: Choice clippings and original items are solicited for this column, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Angola, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1897, Rising in the World: Or, Architects of Fate: A Book Designed to Inspire Youth to Character Building, Self-culture and Noble Achievement by Orison Swett Marden, Chapter 6: One Unwavering Aim, Quote Page 119 and 120, Published by The Success Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1902 June, Insurance Sun, Volume 14, Number 12, Higher Things, (Address by Mr. Edward H. Hart, California manager for the Penn Mutual, at the celebration of the company’s 55th anniversary), Start Page 317, Quote Page 320, Column 2, Insurance Sun Publishing Company, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1914 September, The Spatula: An Illustrated Magazine for Pharmacists, Volume 20, Number 12, Trade Tips and Topics, Secret of Success, Quote Page 649, Column 2, The Spatula Publishing Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1929 August 16, The Dallas Morning News, The State Press, Quote Page 2, Column 4 and 5, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Calvin Coolidge, Quote Page 173, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)