The Person Who Never Makes a Mistake Will Never Make Anything

Theodore Roosevelt? Albert Einstein? Benjamin Franklin? Samuel Smiles? Josh Billings? Mr. Phelps? G. K. Chesterton? Robert Smith Surtees? Joseph Conrad? Will Rogers? Anonymous?

samsmiles11Dear Quote Investigator: Mistakes are unavoidable in the life of an active and vital person. Several adages highlight this important theme:

1) A man who never makes a mistake will never make anything.
2) The person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.
3) A fellow who never makes a mistake must get tired of doing nothing.

Many famous names have been linked to sayings of this type including Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: This is a large and complex topic. Below is a summary that presents a list of expressions that fit into this family together with dates and attributions:

1832: He who never makes an effort, never risks a failure. (Anonymous)

1859: He who never made a mistake, never made a discovery. (Samuel Smiles)

1874: The man who never makes enny blunders seldum makes enny good hits. (Josh Billings)

1889: A man who never makes a mistake will never make anything. (Attributed: Mr. Phelps)

1896: It’s only those who do nothing that make no mistakes. (Joseph Conrad)

1900: The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything. (Solid Attribution: Theodore Roosevelt)

1901: Show me a man who has never made a mistake, and I will show you one who has never tried anything. (Anonymous)

1903: The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all—doing nothing. (Poor Richard Junior’s Philosophy)

1911: The fellow who never makes any failures, never makes any successes either. (Anonymous)

1927: Every man makes mistakes; they say a man who never makes mistakes never makes anything else. (G. K. Chesterton)

1936: The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all—doing nothing. (Flawed Attribution: Benjamin Franklin)

1969: The man who never makes a mistake must get plenty tired of doing nothing. (Anonymous)

1993: The man who never makes a mistake must get tired of doing nothing. (Weak Attribution: Will Rogers)

1995: A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new. (Weak Attribution: Albert Einstein.)

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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Relativity: A Hot Stove and A Pretty Girl

Albert Einstein? Helen Dukas? Apocryphal?

time10Dear Quote Investigator: Albert Einstein was asked to explain the abstruse theory of relativity so many times that he reportedly created a comical illustration involving a hot stove and a pretty girl. Would you please explore the provenance of this tale?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in “The New York Times” in March 1929. The phrase “nice girl’ was used instead of “pretty girl”: 1

Numerous anecdotes are being circulated concerning Einstein. He once told a girl secretary when she was bothered by inquisitive interviewers, who wanted to know what relativity really meant, to answer:

“When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”

The quotation was not directly from Einstein. Indeed, the reporter simply noted that the tale was being circulated. Yet, the vivid comparison was very popular and many variants evolved in the following years. Einstein was still based in Germany in 1929, so earlier instances of the anecdote may have been published in German.

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Notes:

  1. 1929 March 15, New York Times, Einstein Is Found Hiding On Birthday: Busy With Gift Microscope, (Wireless to The New York Times), Quote Page 3, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)

Education Is What Remains After You Have Forgotten Everything You Learned In School

Albert Einstein? B. F. Skinner? Edouard Herriot? C. F. Thwing? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Agnes F. Perkins? James Bryant Conant? E. F. L. Wood? George Savile? Lord Halifax? Anonymous?

school10Dear Quote Investigator: My question concerns a provocative aphorism about memory, schooling, and curriculum. Here are four example statements that can be grouped together:

1) Culture is that which remains with an individual when he has forgotten all he learned.

2) Culture is what is left when what you have learned at college has been forgotten.

3) Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.

4) Education is what is left after you have forgotten all you have learned.

It would be possible to split this set into two subgroups: adages for education and adages for culture. But all the statements conform to the same underlying template, and this leads to a natural collection.

The French Prime Minister Edouard Herriot has been linked to the saying about culture. The famous physicist Albert Einstein and the prominent psychologist B. F. Skinner have been connected to sayings about education. Would you please examine this family of expressions?

Quote Investigator: This family of quotations has been evolving for more than one hundred years, and instances were already circulating before linkages were established to any of the persons named by the questioner. Newspapers credited Edouard Herriot with a comparable adage about culture by 1928. Albert Einstein wrote an essay in 1936 that included a commensurate remark about education, but he credited the words to an unnamed “wit”.

In 1942 E. F. L. Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax employed the remark about education during a speech. Later the statement was reassigned to the 17th century figure George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax. QI believes that this attribution was constructed because of confusion between names. In 1965 B. F. Skinner included an instance of the saying about education in an article about teaching, but he disclaimed credit. Details for these citations are given further below.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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Play Is the Highest Form of Research

Albert Einstein? Neville V. Scarfe? Anonymous?

playing12Dear Quote Investigator: A marvelous quotation about play is attributed to the most brilliant scientist of the modern age, Albert Einstein:

Play is the highest form of research.

I would like to include this statement in a paper I am writing, but I have not been able to find a good citation. Sadly, quotations misattributed to Einstein are very common, and I fear that this may be another example. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made this statement. The following nearly identical remark appeared in a section called “Probably Not By Einstein” within the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press: 1

Playing is the highest form of research.

QI believes that he has located the most likely origin of this popular misattribution to Einstein. In 1962 the journal “Childhood Education” published an article titled “Play is Education” by N. V. Scarfe that contained the following passage: 2

All play is associated with intense thought activity and rapid intellectual growth.

The highest form of research is essentially play. Einstein is quoted as saying, “The desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of a vague play with basic ideas. This combinatory or associative play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought”

The careful reader will note that the quotation credited to Einstein was placed after his name and not before. The phrase “The highest form of research is essentially play” was not attributed to Einstein; those words should properly be credited to N. V. Scarfe who wrote the article.

One important mechanism for the generation of misattributions is based on the misreading of neighboring expressions. A reader sometimes inadvertently transfers the ascription of one statement to a contiguous statement. QI conjectures that the words of Scarfe have been re-ordered and reassigned to Einstein to yield the common quotation under investigation. This may have occurred through a multi-step process.

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Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not by Einstein, Page 482, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1962 November, Childhood Education, Volume 39, Issue 3, “Play is Education” by N. V. Scarfe, Start Page 117, Quote Page 120, Published Association for Childhood Education International, Washington D.C. (Verified with scans; thanks to Jacksonville, Florida public library)

The Difference Between Stupidity and Genius Is That Genius Has Its Limits

Albert Einstein? Alexandre Dumas, fils? Elbert Hubbard? Brooks F. Beebe? Anonymous?

trio09Dear Quote Investigator: The following funny saying is usually attributed to Albert Einstein:

The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.

Yet, no one provides any justification for crediting the brilliant scientist with this jest. Is this another fake Einstein quote?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made this statement. Indeed, it is listed in a section called “Probably Not By Einstein” within the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

A precursor statement written in French appeared in volume 2 of the “Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle” (Great Universal Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century) within an entry for “Bêtise” (Stupidity). This volume was published circa 1865, and the quotation was credited to Alexandre Dumas: 2

Une chose qui m’humilie profondément est de voir que le génie humain a des limites, quand la bêtise humaine n’en a pas. (Alex. Dum.)

One possible translation into English is the following:

One thing that humbles me deeply is to see that human genius has its limits while human stupidity does not.

The attribution “Alex. Dum.” was probably a reference to Alexandre Dumas, fils, who was a dramatist known for the work “The Lady of the Camellias”, widely referred to as “Camille”. He shared his name with his father, Alexandre Dumas, père, who was the author of the popular novels “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers”.

Another statement written in French appeared in the journal of a scholarly association in 1886. The words were placed between quotation marks to indicate that the joke was already in circulation, and no specific attribution was given. 3

« Le génie humain a des bornes, Mais la sottise n’en a pas. »

One possible translation into English is the following:

“Human genius has its limits, but stupidity does not.”

The earliest evidence in English located by QI was published in a periodical called “The Travelers’ Record” which acknowledged a French newspaper. The saying was included in a list titled “Some of Dumas’s Maxims”. Here were three items from the list. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 4

Some of Dumas’s Maxims
[L’Echo de Paris, translated in the Transatlantic]

Let all your alms-giving be anonymous. It has the double advantage of suppressing at the same time ingratitude and abuse.

God made fools in order that life might be more tolerable to people of wit.

What distresses me is to see that human genius has limits and human stupidity none.

The saying has been circulating and evolving in English for more than one hundred years. An instance was attributed to Albert Einstein by 1994; however, Einstein died in 1955, so this citation has little probative value.

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Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not By Einstein, Page 478, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. Circa 1865, Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle: Français, Historique, Géographique, Mythologique, Bibliographique, etcetera, Volume 2, Entry: Bêtise, Quote Page 650, Column 1, Published by Pierre Larousse, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1886, Bulletin de la Société Libre D’émulation du Commerce et de L’industrie de la Seine-Inférieure, “Dissertation sur la vulgarisation de la langue latine” par M. E. Nicolle, Start Page 85, Quote Page 86, Imprimerie de Espérance Cagniard, Rouen, France. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1890 February, The Travelers’ Record, Volume 25, Some of Dumas’s Maxims, (L’Echo de Paris, translated in the Transatlantic), Quote Page 8, Column 2, (Google Books Full View) link

The Secret to Creativity Is Knowing How to Hide Your Sources

Albert Einstein? C. E. M. Joad? Nolan Bushnell? Coco Chanel? Conan O’Brien? Franklin P. Jones? Charles Moore? Bruce Sterling? Joe Sedelmaier? Anonymous?

coco07Dear Quote Investigator: I have a difficult challenge for you. Here are three versions of a popular maxim:

1) The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
2) Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
3) The key to originality is hiding your sources.

These expressions are usually attributed to the famous scientist Albert Einstein. However, no one bothers to supply any supporting references. Somehow the true source has magically disappeared, it seems. Would you please help to uncover the accurate provenance?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein ever made a remark of this type. It is not listed in the comprehensive collection “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

QI hypothesizes that this maxim evolved from a statement made in 1926 by a prominent English commentator and broadcaster named C. E. M. Joad. The initials abbreviated the full appellation Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad. Below is a dated series of phrases outlining the transformational process:

1926: the height of originality is skill in concealing origins
1933: originality is little more than skill in concealing origins
1938: originality was merely skill in concealing origins
1953: originality has been described as the art of concealing origins
1970: originality is the art of concealing your source
1985: creativity is the art of concealing your sources
1989: the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources

In 1926 Joad published “The Babbitt Warren” in England, and the following year “The New Republic” magazine printed a review. Joad evaluated the United States harshly in his volume, and the reviewer reprinted a sampling of his critical remarks including a precursor of the adage under investigation. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Whereas in Europe the height of originality is genius, in America the height of originality is skill in concealing origins.

In no country is personality valued as it is in America, and in no country is it so rare.

Joad was pleased with this expression, and he developed multiple variants which he placed in his later writings. As the saying continued to evolve it was attributed to Franklin P. Jones, Albert Einstein, Coco Chanel and others. Detailed citations are given further below.

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Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Examined on paper)
  2. 1927 March 9, The New Republic, Raspberries from England by Robert Littell, (Book Review of “The Babbitt Warren” by C. E. M. Joad), Start Page 74, Quote Page 74, Column 1, The Republic Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on microfilm)

I Would Spend 55 Minutes Defining the Problem and then Five Minutes Solving It

Albert Einstein? A Yale Professor? Apocryphal?

fiftyfive08Dear Quote Investigator: The importance of laying the proper groundwork before attempting to solve a problem is emphasized in a popular statement that is usually attributed to the scientific luminary Albert Einstein. Here are three versions:

If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

Given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes understanding the problem and one minute resolving it.

Because there are so many different variations I do not have much confidence that this was actually said by the acclaimed genius. Would you please explore this expression?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein ever made a remark of this type. It is not listed in the comprehensive collection “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

The earliest relevant evidence located by QI appeared in a 1966 collection of articles about manufacturing. An employee of the Stainless Processing Company named William H. Markle wrote a piece titled “The Manufacturing Manager’s Skills” which included a strong match for the saying under investigation. However, the words were credited to an unnamed professor at Yale University and not to Einstein. Also, the hour was split into 40 vs. 20 minutes instead of 55 vs. 5 minutes. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Some years ago the head of the Industrial Engineering Department of Yale University said, “If I had only one hour to solve a problem, I would spend up to two-thirds of that hour in attempting to define what the problem is.”

Albert Einstein died in 1955, and by 1973 a version of the saying had been assigned to him in an article in the journal “Invention Intelligence” based in New Delhi, India. Interestingly, the hour was split into three parts instead of two. No supporting data for the attribution was given: 3

Often the problem as given is misleading, and you have to work through a mass of data to define the real problem. Often this step consumes more time than deriving the solution. Einstein said: “If I were given an hour in which to do a problem upon which my life depended, I would spend 40 minutes studying it, 15 minutes reviewing it and 5 minutes solving it.”

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Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Examined on paper)
  2. 1966, The Manufacturing Man and His Job by Robert E. Finley and Henry R. Ziobro, “The Manufacturing Manager’s Skills” by William H. Markle (Vice President, Stainless Processing Company, Chicago, Illinois), Start Page 15, Quote Page 18, Published by American Management Association, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1973 August, Invention Intelligence, Volume 8, Number 8, Can I Learn to Invent? by A. M. Elijah (Director, Institute of Creative Development, Poona-1), Start Page 294, Quote Page 297, Issued by the National Research Development Corporation of India in New Delhi, India. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system)

Common Sense Is Nothing More Than a Deposit of Prejudices Laid Down in the Mind Before Age Eighteen

Albert Einstein? Lincoln Barnett? Apocryphal?

spacetime06Dear Quote Investigator: Albert Einstein’s astonishing theory of relativity is highly counter-intuitive. For example, the theory indicates that time can pass at different rates in different reference frames. This certainly challenges common sense. The following germane statement is attributed to Einstein:

Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.

Are these really the words of Einstein?

Quote Investigator: The earliest relevant evidence located by QI was published in May 1948 by Lincoln Barnett who was the former editor of “Life” magazine. He wrote a three-part series titled “The Universe and Dr. Einstein” for the April, May, and June issues of “Harper’s Magazine” which included a discussion of the theory of relativity. A version of the saying was attributed to Einstein by Barnett, but the words were not placed between quotation marks. Boldface has been added: 1

At first meeting these facts are difficult to digest but that is simply because classical physics assumed, unjustifiably, that an object preserves the same dimensions whether it is in motion or at rest and that a clock keeps the same rhythm in motion and at rest. Common sense dictates that this must be so. But as Einstein has pointed out, common sense is actually nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind prior to the age of eighteen. Every new idea one encounters in later years must combat this accretion of “self-evident” concepts. And it is because of Einstein’s unwillingness ever to accept any unproven principle as self-evident that he was able to penetrate closer to the underlying realities of nature than any scientist before him.

The material in the series was used as the foundation of a book by Barnett under the same title of “The Universe and Dr. Einstein” that was released in 1948 in New York and 1949 in London. The excerpt given above was also included in the book. Interestingly, the foreword was written by Albert Einstein who commended the work: 2

Lincoln Barnett’s book represents a valuable contribution to popular scientific writing. The main ideas of the theory of relativity are extremely well presented. Moreover, the present state of our knowledge in physics is aptly characterized.

Einstein’s remarks provided evidence that he had read the manuscript, and apparently he had not objected to the viewpoint about common sense that Barnett had ascribed to him.

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Notes:

  1. 1948 May, Harper’s Magazine, Volume 196, The Universe and Dr. Einstein: Part II by Lincoln Barnett, Start Page 465, Quote Page 473, Column 1, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1949 (Copyright 1948), The Universe and Dr. Einstein by Lincoln Barnett (Lincoln Kinnear Barnett), (Foreword by Albert Einstein dated September 10, 1948), Quote Page 6 and 49, Published by Victor Gollancz Ltd., London. (Verified with scans)

Anyone Who Doesn’t Take Truth Seriously in Small Matters Cannot Be Trusted in Large Ones Either

Albert Einstein? Apocryphal?

einstein06Dear Quote Investigator: My University has an Academic Integrity Office which has launched a poster campaign that includes an image of Albert Einstein together with the following statement which has been ascribed to the brilliant physicist:

Anyone who doesn’t take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted with large ones either.

Misquotations linked to this famous genius are very common, and I have not yet found convincing evidence that these really are the words of Einstein. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this quotation and its ascription are genuine; however, the words were originally written in German by Einstein; hence, multiple translations into English were possible.

In 1957 the journal “New Outlook: Middle East Monthly” printed a statement with the following description:

Excerpt from Albert Einstein’s last statement, April, 1955, published here for the first time through the kindness of Helen Dukas, Professor Einstein’s secretary.

The journal presented the text in German with an accompanying English translation. The English passage included a close match for the statement under investigation. Boldface has been added: 1

Wenn es sich um Wahrheit und Gerechtigkeit handelt, gibt es nicht die Unterscheidung zwischen kleinen und grossen Problemen. Denn die allgemeinen Gesichtspunkte, die das Handeln der Menschen betreffen, sind unteilbar. Wer es in kleinen Dingen mit der Wahrheit nicht ernst nimmt, dem kann man auch in grossen Dingen nicht vertrauen…

When the issue is one of Truth and Justice, there can be no differentiating between small problems and great ones. For the general viewpoints on human behaviour are indivisible. People who fail to regard the truth seriously in small matters, cannot be trusted in matters that are great.

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Notes:

  1. 1957 July, New Outlook: Middle East Monthly, Volume 1, Number 1, Albert Einstein On Israeli-Arab Relations, Quote Page 5, Published by Tazpioth, Tel Aviv, Israel, (Verified on paper)

It Is the Responsibility of Every Human Being To Aspire To Do Something Worthwhile

Albert Einstein? Armand Hammer? Apocryphal?

med08Dear Quote Investigator: A hospital in Rhode Island has a display in the main lobby listing the names of generous donors. The following quotation attributed to Albert Einstein is also printed on the display:

It is the responsibility of every human being to aspire to do something worthwhile, to make this world a better place than the one he found.

I researched this statement because I wished to know what prompted Einstein to deliver this encouragement. Oddly, I was unable to find any direct evidence that he said or wrote these words. Is this Einstein’s instruction?

Quote Investigator: No. This statement was made by the businessman and philanthropist Armand Hammer and not by Albert Einstein.

In December 1988 “Life” magazine published a cover story called “The Big Picture: The Meaning of Life” which compiled comments from a variety of “philosophers, pundits and plain folk” who pondered “what it’s all about”. The confusion about the source of the quotation stems from the entry listed for Hammer excerpted here: 1

Industrialist/physician ARMAND HAMMER

The first thing I look at each morning is a picture of Albert Einstein I keep on the table right beside my bed. The personal inscription reads: “A person first starts to live when he can live outside of himself.” In other words, when he can have as much regard for his fellow man as he does for himself. I believe we are here to do good. It is the responsibility of every human being to aspire to do something worthwhile, to make this world a better place than the one he found.

Only the short inscription sentence enclosed in quotation marks was ascribed to Einstein. The passage after the quoted words should be credited to Hammer. Thus, the expression under investigation was attributed to Hammer in the pages of “Life”.

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Notes:

  1. 1988 December, Life, The Big Picture: The Meaning of Life: Philosophers, pundits and plain folk ponder what it’s all about, (Answer by Armand Hammer), Quote Page 89, Column 2, Published by Time, Inc, Chicago, Illinois and New York, New York. (Verified on microfilm)