Thomas Jefferson? Coleman Cox? Stephen Leacock? Samuel Goldwyn? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a humorously insightful quotation about luck that is often credited to the American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson:
I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.
The class notes of a course taught by the renowned entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel featured this quote. Here is a more concise version of the saying:
The harder I work, the more luck I have.
Is this remark really connected to Jefferson?
Quote Investigator: The saying has been ascribed to Jefferson for a few decades. However, the valuable Thomas Jefferson Monticello website states that there is no evidence to support the attribution [TJGB]:
Neither this statement nor any variations thereof have ever been found in Thomas Jefferson’s writings.
The earliest close match for this aphorism known to QI is in a 1922 collection titled “Listen to This” by Coleman Cox who composed a large number of sayings [CCGB]:
I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.
This theme has been reflected in adages for quite a long time. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations lists the following proverb which it dates to the late 16th century [OXDL]:
Diligence is the mother of good luck.
A novel in 1857 “The Laird of Restalrig’s Daughter” presented a maxim about luck in a comical context. The following passage used alternate spellings to reflect dialect [JHGL]:
Good luck mainly depends on the thrying to get it, as Darby O’Reilly said when he made Thady O’Rhu’s will afther the creathur was dead, and left the whole dollop iv his fortune to himself, sure.
In 1870 the periodical “Contemporary Review” reprinted a small collection of “Notices to Correspondents” from the London Journal. These items were similar to the classified advertisements or Craigslist ads of today. A notice from a woman named Maggie May commented about luck [CRNC]:
People make their own luck in this world.
In 1879 the American Bee Journal printed the same basic adage about luck [BJML]:
I think that many of you will say, “You make your own luck.”
In 1890 an agricultural magazine “Western Garden and Poultry Journal” linked hard work with making your own luck [WGML]:
Poor luck is often given as an excuse for lack of energy. You make your own luck and must work hard and plan carefully if you would succeed.
This post continues with additional selected citations in chronological order.
Note that information from the website of top etymologist and quote-tracer Barry Popik helped QI to construct this short essay. A commenter using the name “Anna Berkes” at the website provided an important lead to the saying which was credited to Coleman Cox in 1923 in a magazine [ANBP] [CMCC].
In 1907 the periodical “Common Sense” offered this advice about luck [CSHW]:
Don’t always have the sign “lucky dog” before you. Dig in and make your own luck. The one who waits for luck to come and drag him to success will have a merry time of it.
In 1913 the “Harvard Advocate” printed a “gently satirical essay” in which a character said [NLHA]:
“There’s no such thing as luck. Play the game as hard as you can, and you’ll make your own luck.”
In 1919 the “Confectioners Journal” and the “The National Druggist” both printed the following precursor to the saying under investigation [CJGL] [NDGL]:
Of course I hope you will have good luck on your side, but also I hope you will not wait for luck. You can make your own luck by hard work and the use of common sense.
In 1922 Coleman Cox published a collection of adages titled “Listen to This” that included a witty remark about luck. The statement which Cox apparently crafted has clear precursors, but a twist makes it humorous [CCGB]:
I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.
In 1923 the Colorado School of Mines Magazine picked up the exact saying and credited the words to Cox [CMCC]:
I am a great believer in Luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.—Coleman Cox.
In 1924 the Sunday magazine section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer printed a syndicated story featuring a character named Skinner who enjoyed aphorisms [CPSK]:
‘The harder I work the more luck I have.’ ‘Blessed is the man who has found his job—and then gets busy.’ ‘Time is money; don’t spend it foolishly.’
“Yes, sir, Skinner likes that sort of bunk, but he hasn’t the time or the inclination to roll his own.
In 1928 a different collection of aphorisms by Cox was reviewed in The Boston Herald newspaper, and several items from the book were reprinted including the one about luck. The paper used the spelling “Colman” instead of “Coleman” [BHCC]:
Says Colman Cox: “It is always an empty head that swells.” Also, “A real boss is a man that is hard to tell from the fellows who are working for him.” Also, “I am a great believer in luck; the harder I work the more of it I seem to have.” There are close to 1000 little gems of which these are samples in “Straight Talks from Colman Cox,” published by Houghton Mifflin Co.
In 1933 the adage was printed in Boys’ Life magazine without attribution [BSGL]:
And isn’t this a fitting thought of the month, as we start our winter work?
“I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work the more of it I seem to have.”
In 1938 a book titled “Fifty Years a Country Doctor” indicated that the aphorism was still being propagated with an attribution to Cox [FDCC]:
As for making a living in the country, the young doctor need have little fear. There is always plenty of work to do if he has the ability and is willing to do it. Coleman Cox says, “I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work the more luck I seem to have.”
The saying is sometimes assigned to more prominent individuals. For example, in 1955 a version was ascribed to the popular Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock in a Louisiana newspaper [SLLW]:
Stephen Leacock once observed: “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”
The saying has also been attached to the movie producer Samuel Goldwyn. In 1976 “Goldwyn: A Biography of the Man Behind the Myth” linked the words to the mogul, but the book did not say that he crafted the phrase [SGLH]:
Sam had enormous faith in his own future. But to insure that it be a rosy one, he let his life be guided by the old credo: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.
In 1977 the influential quotation compiler Laurence J. Peter ascribed the adage to the luminary Jefferson in “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” [PQTJ]:
I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it. —Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
In conclusion, based on current evidence QI believes that Coleman Cox crafted this adage by 1922. Precursor statements that expressed a similar theme were already being propagated in the years before 1922. But Cox presented a memorably humorous saying.
(Many thanks to Dan Gackle who pointed out the class notes and whose inquiry led to the formulation of this question by QI and the initiation of this trace.)
Update history: On July 24, 2012 the 1870 citation was added.
[TJGB] Thomas Jefferson Monticello website, Webpage title: “I am a great believer in luck…(Quotation)”, Charlottesville, Virginia. (Accessed monticello.org on July 21, 2012) link
[OXDL] Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Section: Proverbs, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed July 21, 2012)
[JHGL] 1857, The Laird of Restalrig’s Daughter: A Legend of the Siege of Leith by John Harrison, Page 262, J. Menzies, Edinburgh. (Google Books full view) link
[CRNC] 1870 June, The Contemporary Review, Volume 14, Our Very Cheap Literature by Alexander Strahan, [Advertisement from London Journal: Maggie May], Quote Page 445, Strahan & Co., Publishers, London. (Google Books full view) link
[BJML] 1879 August, American Bee Journal, Volume 15, Popular Illusions by R. M. R., Start Page 363, Quote Page 364, Thomas G. Newman and Son Publisher, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link
[WGML] 1890 December, Western Garden and Poultry Journal, Volume 1, Number 4, Seasonable Sayings, Page 56, Column 1, Western Garden Publishing Co., Des Moines, Iowa. (Google Books full view) link
[ANBP] Barry Popik website, Entry: “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it”, [Commenter “Anna Berkes” provided an important lead to a January 1923 issue of the Colorado School of Mines Magazine. This led to the 1922 book “Listen to This” by Coleman Cox] link
[CMCC] 1923 January, Colorado School of Mines Magazine, Volume 12, Number 9, [Freestanding quote], Page 29, Alumni Association of the Colorado School of Mines, Golden Colorado, Colorado. (Google Books full view) link
[CSHW] 1907 October, Common Sense, Volumes 7, [One saying of many listed on a page], Page 6, Column 1, Common Sense Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link
[NLHA] 1913 September 26, The Harvard Advocate, Volume 96, Number 1, On Playing the Game: An Essay in the Biography of Economics, Start Page 6, Quote Page 6, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
[CJGL] 1919 August, Confectioners Journal, Volume 45, [One saying in a list of sayings], Quote Page 134, Column 2, Confectioners Journal Publishing Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (HathiTrust) link link
[CPSK] 1924 September 28, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cleveland Plain Dealer Magazine Section, Cappy Ricks Talks About Poets by Peter B. Kyne, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
[BHCC] 1928 July 21, Boston Herald, Views and News of Recent Books: Books and Authors by John Clair Minot, Page 6, Column 4 and 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
[BSGL] 1933 November, Boys’ Life , Hiking With Green Bar Bill, Start Page 22, Quote Page 45, Published by the Boy scouts of America, New York. (Google Books full view)
[FDCC] 1938, Fifty Years a Country Doctor by William N. Macartney, M. D., Quote Page 106, E. P. Dutton and Company, Inc., New York. (HathiTrust)
[SLLW] 1955 February 08, State Times Advocate, Pull Up A Chair by Neal O’Hara, Page 4-A, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
[SGLH] 1976, Goldwyn: A Biography of the Man Behind the Myth by Arthur Marx, Quote Page 19, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
[PQTJ] 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Page 505, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)