Antoine de Saint-Exupéry? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was best known internationally as the author of “Le Petit Prince” (“The Little Prince”). Many self-help guides and books about management now contain a saying about motivation and organization that often has been attributed to Saint-Exupéry. Here are three versions:
If you wish to build a ship, do not divide the men into teams and send them to the forest to cut wood. Instead, teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
I have not been able to find a good citation, and I also have been unable to ascertain the original French text. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Researchers have not found a close match for this statement in the works of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. However, there was a very interesting thematic match in the 1948 book “Citadelle” (“The Wisdom of the Sands). In section LXXV Saint-Exupéry wrote about an individual who wished to build a boat. He imparted to a group of people a love of sailing, and the group spontaneously split to perform appropriate subtasks: 1
Celui-là tissera des toiles, l’autre dans la forêt par l’éclair de sa hache couchera l’arbre. L’autre, encore, forgera des clous, et il en sera quelque part qui observeront les étoiles afin d’apprendre à gouverner. Et tous cependant ne seront qu’un. Créer le navire ce n’est point tisser les toiles, forger les clous, lire les astres, mais bien donner le goût de la mer qui est un, et à la lumière duquel il n’est plus rien qui soit contradictoire mais communauté dans l’amour.
Here is one possible rendering of this text into English:
One will weave the canvas; another will fell a tree by the light of his ax. Yet another will forge nails, and there will be others who observe the stars to learn how to navigate. And yet all will be as one. Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love.
QI conjectures that this section of “Citadelle” inspired the construction of the modern quotation although one or more intermediate steps may have occurred. It was possible that someone read the section and created a paraphrase or commentary. The modern quotation might be based on this posited intermediate text. Saint-Exupéry himself may have written a text that was closer to the modern quotation although it has not been located.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1959, Title: Oeuvres, Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Work: Citadelle, Section: LXXV (75) Quote Page 687, Publisher: Gallimard, Paris, France. (Reprint of text first published in 1948) (Verified on paper) ↩