Thomas Edison? Henry Dodd? Isaiah Hale? Paul Larmer? Lila Kroppmann? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following quote is credited to Thomas Edison:
Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
Do you know when he said this and to whom?
Quote Investigator: Both QI and top researcher Barry Popik explored this saying and this entry is based on results from both investigators. The first attribution to Edison known to QI appeared in 1962. Since Edison died in 1931 this is very weak evidence.
May 1921 was the date of the earliest citation for a closely matching expression known to QI. The words were printed in a newspaper in Indiana, and the adage was not credited to any specific person [LPTI]:
The reason most people do not recognize an opportunity when they meet it is because it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like Hard Work
An interesting precursor to this statement was in circulation by 1911. The precursor did not mention overalls but it did contain other key elements of the saying. No attribution was listed [ODHW]:
The successful man was out and on the job long before opportunity came a-knocking.
And this same opportunity, by the way, is ofttimes disguised as hard work
Another interesting precursor that was closer to the target quotation was in print by 1913. No specific name was given for attribution [ASAM]:
The reason a lot of people can’t find Opportunity is because old Op usually goes around disguised as Hard Work.
In May 1921 a version of the quotation under investigation using the word overalls was published as detailed previously in this post.
In June 1921 the same statement was printed in another newspaper in Indiana without attribution [BNAN], and in July 1922 it was printed without ascription in “The Beaver”, a magazine based in Winnipeg, Canada that was published by the Hudson’s Bay Company for their employees [TBWC].
In September 1922 the expression was printed in “The Rotarian” magazine published by Rotary International. Many sayings were grouped together in a section called “Take It From Me—” by quotation collector and coiner Coleman Cox. The adage was finally credited to a specific individual [RTHD]:
Henry Dodd says, “The reason most people do not recognize an opportunity when they meet it is because it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like Hard Work.”
In later years the expression was assigned to other people, e.g., Paul Larmer, Lila Kroppmann, and Thomas Edison. The details are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1926 Isaiah Hale, a safety superintendent of the Santa Fe railway, gave an after dinner speech at a Rotary Club in San Diego. The local newspaper gave the speech high praise and printed excerpts including the following [SDIH]:
Speaking of opportunity, the reason why so few men recognize opportunity when it comes is that it usually goes around wearing a very dirty pair of overalls and looking like hard work and the average man is not looking for it.
In 1940 the Christian Science Monitor published a version of the saying which was prefaced by an acknowledgement to another periodical [FPCS]:
The Fusion Point: The reason a lot of people do not recognize an opportunity when they meet it is because it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like Hard Work!
In June 1941 the Ryan Flying Reporter, a magazine published for the employees of the Ryan Aeronautical Company, printed an instance of the saying under the title “Food for Thought”. No attribution was listed [RFFT].
In October 1941 the columnist Arch Ward in the Chicago Tribune published a version of the maxim under the title “Thinkogram” and credited Paul Larmer [AWPL]:
The reason some don’t recognize opportunity when they see it is because it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like hard work.
In 1943 Arch Ward published the maxim again with a slightly different wording. But this time he credited someone named Lila Kroppmann [AWLK]:
The reason some people don’t recognize opportunity is that it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like hard work.
In 1962 Forbes magazine printed a version of the adage in a section called “Thoughts on the Business of Life”. This instance was the earliest found by QI that credited famed inventor Edison [FRTE]:
The reason a lot of people do not recognize opportunity is because it usually goes around wearing overalls looking like hard work.
— Thomas A. Edison.
In 1971 a speech by Ohio State Senator Donald (Buz) Lukens was reported in the News Journal newspaper. Lukens ascribed the saying to Edison [TEDL]:
He borrowed two quotations to capsulize his conclusions. He quoted from Plato “let him who would move the world first move himself” and from Edison “opportunity is missed by most people because it comes dressed in overalls looking like hard work.”
In 1992 the columnist Alice Steinbach recalled that her mother deployed the adage when she was a child [ASRG]:
Back then, we kids listened when Mom spouted philosophical stuff like: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
In 1996 the maxim was included in a book about trading stocks, commodities, and other assets. The words were ascribed to Edison [ITRK]:
One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Edison. He is reported to have said, “Recognizing opportunity is so difficult for most people because it goes around disguised in overalls, looking like hard work!”
In conclusion, the earliest instance of this saying has no attribution and based on current evidence the designation “anonymous” seems to be the safest. Perhaps in the future a solid ascription to Dodd or someone else will emerge. The saying was in circulation while Edison was still alive, but there is no substantive evidence that he used the adage.
(Thanks to Marno du Plessis whose query inspired the formulation of this question and motivated this exploration.)
Update History: On August 14, 2012 some precursor citations were added, e.g., the 1911 and 1913 cites.
[LPTI] 1921 May 18, Logansport Pharos Tribune, Pickups, Page 4, Column 3, Logansport, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
[ODHW] 1911 December 24, The State, Spice, Page 4, Column 7, Columbia, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
[ASAM] 1913 December 2, Anaconda Standard, Luke M’Luke Says [From the Cincinnati Enquirer], Page 6, Column 3, Anaconda, Montana. (NewspaperArchive)
[BNAN] 1921 June 16, The Burnettsville News, Local News, Page 1, Column 4, Burnettsville, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
[RTHD] 1922 September, The Rotarian, “Take It From Me—” by Coleman Cox, Start Page 125, Quote Page 126, Published by Rotary International, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link
[SDIH] 1926 February 12, The San Diego Union, Santa Fe Department Head Makes Plea For Safety Teaching Before Rotarians, Quote Page 5, Column 6, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)
[FPCS] 1940 December 28, Christian Science Monitor, Brevities, Quote Page 17, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
[RFFT] 1941 June 13, Ryan Flying Reporter, Quote Page 11, Column 2, Published by and for Employees of Ryan Aeronautical Company. (Internet Archive)
[AWLK] 1943 May 26, Chicago Daily Tribune, In the WAKE of the NEWS by Arch Ward, Quote Page 25, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
[FRTE] 1962 February 1, Forbes, Thoughts On The Business of Life, [Quote credited to Thomas A. Edison], Page 50, Column 1, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
[TEDL] 1971 February 20, News Journal, “Lukens Tells Republicans To Go after Young Voters” by Virginia Lee, Page 13, Mansfield, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
[ASRG] 1992 December 9, The Register-Guard, Mothers Cultivate Seeds Of Wisdom in Young Sprouts by Alice Steinbach, Quote Page 8D, Column 1, Eugene, Oregon. (Google News Archive)
[ITRK] 1996, The Intuitive Trader by Robert Koppel, Quote Page 92, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York. (Google Books Preview)