Category Archives: Robert W. Service

It Isn’t the Mountain Ahead That Wears You Out; It Is the Grain of Sand in Your Shoe

Muhammad Ali? Robert W. Service? Anonymous?

matterhorn02Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation about perseverance is attributed to the famed boxer Muhammad Ali:

It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.

While I was researching this phrase I came across another version that was attributed to the popular poet Robert W. Service who died in 1958:

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out — it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.

Could you provide clarification?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in 1916 in a trade publication for the insurance industry. The adage was printed with no accompanying text as a filler item, and no attribution was given: 1

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it is the grain of sand in your shoe.

In 1920 the expression was published in “The Journal of the New York State Teachers Association”. Once again, no attribution was given. Other sayings emphasizing steadfastness and determination were printed adjacent to the statement: 2

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it is the grain of sand in your shoe.

Back up your ideas with courage that will not back down, and there will be no way too long, no road too rough.

The reason most men and women do not accomplish more is that they do not attempt more.

By 1925 the saying had been extended with an explanatory sentence. This longer version was published in Forbes magazine together with the single word acknowledgment: “Service”. QI hypothesizes that this word referred to a magazine or newsletter called “Service” and not to the poet Robert W. Service. If Forbes wished to credit the “Bard of the Yukon” then his full name would have been listed: 3

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out—it’s the grain of sand in your shoe. Be master of your petty annoyances and conserve your energies for the big worth while things.—Service.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1916 May 18, The Western Underwriter, Section: Life, (Freestanding quote without attribution), Quote Page 10, Column 2, Published by the Western Underwriter Company, Cincinnati, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1920 February, The Journal of the New York State Teachers Association, Volume 7, Number 1, (Freestanding short passage), Quote Page 31, Column 2, Published by The New York State Teachers Association, Rochester, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1925 May 1, Forbes, Thoughts on Life and Business, Quote Page 104, Column 3, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)