Category Archives: Orison Swett Marden

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.

Continue reading

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

If You Build a Better Mousetrap the World Will Beat a Path to Your Door

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Elbert Hubbard? Sarah S. B. Yule? John R. Paxton? Orison Swett Marden? Anonymous?

mouse14Dear Quote Investigator: A remarkably popular adage about innovation highlights mousetraps and celebrity:

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.

The origin of this saying was complex, and the topic has been contentious. Historically, the following people have been linked to the phrase: philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, aphorist Elbert Hubbard, clergyman John R. Paxton, and quotation collector Sarah S. B. Yule. Would you please examine this subject?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strongly matching statement located by QI was published in “The Atlanta Constitution” of Atlanta, Georgia on May 11, 1882 in a section called “Current Comment”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The Value of Good Work,
Ralph Waldo Emerson.

If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mouse trap than his neighbors, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.

Emerson died on April 27, 1882, so the above passage was ascribed to him shortly after his death. In the following days, months, and years the quotation appeared in a wide variety of periodicals and books together with the acknowledgement. For example, on May 15, 1882 the text along with Emerson’s name was printed in “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Cincinnati, Ohio. 2 On May 19, 1882 it was reprinted in the “The Decatur Daily Republican” of Decatur, Illinois. 3

Minor alterations in the text occurred as the quotation was widely replicated. The term mousetrap was sometimes presented as two words: “mouse trap” and sometimes hyphenated: “mouse-trap”. In modern times, the term often appears as a single unhyphenated word: “mousetrap”. The word “neighbors” was sometimes given in the singular form.

The saying was employed as a filler item in newspapers, and it also appeared in columns containing miscellaneous short news items and sayings. The specific circumstances when Emerson spoke or wrote the statement were not specified.

Over the decades the phrasing has evolved. For example, by 1901 a version with “build a better mouse-trap” instead of “make a better mouse-trap” was circulating.

An exact match for the passage above has never been found in the published writings or personal journals of Emerson. However, a solid thematic match was written in his journal dated 1855 in a section about “Common Fame”. A mousetrap was not mentioned; instead, other goods and services were specified: 4

Common Fame. I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must. If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.

Emerson was a popular speaker who delivered numerous public lectures over a period of decades. He used his journals as source material for his speeches, but the phrasing employed in the notebooks and speeches was variable. QI believes Emerson probably did voice the passage with “mouse trap” during a speech.

Indeed, a woman named Sarah S. B. Yule stated that she heard one of Emerson’s public addresses and copied the “mouse trap” statement into a notebook. In 1889 she placed the remark into a published compilation of quotations and adages titled “Borrowings”. Detailed information is given further below.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1882 May 11, Atlanta Constitution, Current Comment: The Value of Good Work: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Atlanta, Georgia. (ProQuest)
  2. 1882 May 15, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Personal, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1882 May 19, Decatur Daily Republican, Tea-Table Talk, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Decatur, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1912, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson with Annotations, Edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, 1849-1855, Volume 8, Year Specified for Journal Entry: 1855, Quote Page 528, Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link link

You Just Chip Away Everything That Doesn’t Look Like David

Michelangelo? John Ruskin? George F. Pentecost? Boys’ Life Magazine? Orison Swett Marden? Anonymous?

reclining07Dear Quote Investigator: There is an unlikely tale about the brilliant Renaissance artist Michelangelo. He was asked about the difficulties that he must have encountered in sculpting his masterpiece David. But he replied with an unassuming and comical description of his creative process:

It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.

I have heard a similar anecdote about an unnamed artist asked about sculpting an elephant:

Just chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

Would you please examine this story?

Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Michelangelo or any other great sculptor made this remark. A comment of this type was published in 1858 in “The Methodist Quarterly Review” without any overt humor. The essay discussed poetry, and the author compared the methods of adroit sculptors and poets. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

It is the sculptor’s power, so often alluded to, of finding the perfect form and features of a goddess, in the shapeless block of marble; and his ability to chip off all extraneous matter, and let the divine excellence stand forth for itself. Thus, in every incident of business, in every accident of life, the poet sees something divine, and carefully scales off all that encumbers that divinity, and permits it to be revealed in all its transcendent loveliness.

By 1879 a humorous version of the tale was in circulation. A weekly paper devoted to free religion called “The Index” printed a short item under the tile “The Simplest Thing in the World”. The statement was ludicrously credited to the leading art critic John Ruskin, and an acknowledgement to a periodical in Paris, France was included: 2

“That Venus” said a critic severely, “is a pretty poor piece of work.” “It is very easy for you to say so,” says a friend of the artist; “still a man has got to have some acquaintance with art before he can sculp a statue like that.” “Oh, bosh, as Mr. Ruskin says. Sculpture, per se, is the simplest thing in the world. All you have to do is to take a big chunk of marble and a hammer and chisel, make up your mind what you are about to create and chip off all the marble you don’t want.”—Paris Gaulois.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1858 January, The Methodist Quarterly Review, Whittier’s Poems, (Book Review of “The Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier), Start Page 72, Quote Page 78, Published by Carlton & Porter, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1879 July 10, The Index: A Weekly Paper Devoted to Free Religion, Volume 10, The Simplest Thing in the World, (Short item), Quote Page 333, Column 2, (The spelling “sculp” appears in the original text) Published by the Index Association, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

Folks Are Usually About as Happy as They Make Up Their Minds To Be

Abraham Lincoln? Frank Crane? Orison Swett Marden? Dale Carnegie? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: On twitter recently there was an exchange about a deeply insightful quotation credited to Abraham Lincoln:

Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

I love this saying, and it helps me to reflect constructively on my own turbulent emotional life. Sometimes focusing on the positive enables one to feel happy instead of unhappy. Could you determine if Lincoln or someone else created this adage?

Quote Investigator: Expert Ralph Keyes examined a version of this saying in The Quote Verifier and expressed skepticism about the common ascription: 1

“People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
This popular Internet quotation is usually attributed to Lincoln. It doesn’t sound like him, however, and no evidence has been offered that he ever said or wrote this. It has appeared in unreliable collections of Lincolniana, and was attributed to Lincoln in the 1960 film Pollyanna.

The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in a newspaper article about New Year’s Resolutions on the first day of 1914 by the columnist Dr. Frank Crane: 2

Determine this year to be master of self; that you will control your thoughts, regulate your passions, and guide your own deeds; that you will not let events lead you by the nose.

Resolve to be happy. Remember Lincoln’s saying that “folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

Crane’s column about resolutions was printed in the Syracuse Herald of Syracuse, New York. It also appeared in other papers in 1914 such as: the Moberly Morning Monitor of Moberly, Missouri; 3 and the Grand Forks Herald of Grand Forks, North Dakota. 4

In 1916 Crane invoked the adage again in his column titled “Plain Talk for Plain People”, but the phrasing he employed was somewhat different. The expression used “most people” instead of “folks” and included the phrase “in this world”: 5

Do you remember what Lincoln said? It was this:
“I have noticed that most people in this world are about as happy as they have made up their minds to be.”

Note that Crane placed the statement between quotation marks, and he credited Abraham Lincoln, but he was not certain how it was originally phrased. Indeed, as shown below, Crane gave a third version in 1920. Lincoln died in 1865 about fifty years before the earliest instance of the quote known to QI.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 129, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1914 January 01, Syracuse Herald, New Year’s Resolutions by Dr. Frank Crane, Unnumbered Page (NewsArch Page 16), Column 4, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1914 January 4, Moberly Morning Monitor, New Year’s Resolutions by Dr. Frank Crane, Page 2, Column 4, Moberly, Missouri. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1914 January 15, Grand Forks Herald, Old-Fashioned Advice. Some Worth While Resolutions for the New Year, (Acknowledgement to Chicago News), Page 7, Column 6, Grand Forks, North Dakota. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1916 July 23, Boston Globe, Plain Talk for Plain People by Dr. Frank Crane, Page 44, Column 8, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)