Life Is a Journey, Not a Destination

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Lynn H. Hough? Aerosmith? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: Ralph Waldo Emerson is often credited with the following:

Life is a journey, not a destination.

I’ve searched the database without luck and did a text search through over 1100 pages of his essays. I believe this is a misattribution. Any insight you have into the lineage of this quote would be much appreciated.

Reply from Quote Investigator: An exact match for the expression above has not been found in the oeuvre of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet, Emerson did write a thematically related remark:1

To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.

This sentence suggested a psychological vantage point in which the intermediate advances of the journey were representative of the completion of the journey. This is arguably a distinct statement from the questioner’s saying which is listed in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” without attachment to a specific person.2

The earliest close match located by QI appeared in 1920 in a periodical called “The Christian Advocate”. The phrase was used by the theologian Lynn H. Hough within his outline for a Sunday School Lesson discussing a letter from Simon Peter. Bold face has been added to the phrase here and some phrases below:3

He wanted his friends to realize that life is a journey and not a destination; that the heart must be set upon those matters of character which are eternal and not upon those matters of sensation which pass away.

Interesting precursors of the expression were in circulation in the previous century. In 1854 “The Sunday at Home: A Family Magazine for Sabbath Reading” printed a “Page for the Young” with the following advice:4

You should learn in early youth that your life is a journey, not a rest. You are travelling to the promised land, from the cradle to the grave.

In 1855 another religious text used a variant phrase and provided an explanation:5

All life is a journey, not a home; it is a road, not the country; and those transient enjoyments which you have in this life, lawful in their way,—those incidental and evanescent pleasures which you may sip,—are not home; they are little inns only upon the road-side of life, where you are refreshed for a moment, that you may take again the pilgrim-staff and journey on, seeking what is still before you—the rest that remaineth for the people of God.

A decade later the passage above was reprinted in a collection entitled “A Cyclopaedia of Illustrations of Moral and Religious Truths”; however, it was labeled ANON.6

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1920 “life is a journey and not a destination” was written in a book by the pastor Lynn H. Hough as discussed previously in this article.

In 1922 another variant of the saying was printed which emphasized an experiential theme instead of a religious one:7

But we stupid mortals, or most of us, are always in haste to reach somewhere else, forgetting that the zest is in the journey and not in the destination.

In 1926 the trope was applied to the domain of love within a verse using eccentric capitalization:8


In 1929 an essay by a high school student employed a version of the saying with the word “success”. The words were enclosed in quotation marks suggesting that the adage was already in circulation:9

You know, “success is not a destination, but a journey.”

Yet another variant of the expression was in circulation by 1930:10

Prof J. C. Archer of Yale University will speak on “Religion a Journey and Not a Destination” at the monthly “church night” gathering at Memorial church tomorrow night.

In 1935 a story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer presented a variant:11

“Helen, somebody has said that happiness is a journey—not a destination. You have it as you go along. You’ve been very happy with two different people.

In 1936 the book “I Knew Them in Prison” by Mary B. Harris invoked two versions12 of the adage at once:13

Reformation, like education, is a journey, not a destination.

In 1937 another instance of the maxim about education was printed in a California newspaper:14

Reporting on education, Mrs. S. G. Stooke said that education is a journey and not a destination, for we must keep developing.

In 1993 the rock band Aerosmith released the song Amazing as a single. The lyrics were written by Steven Tyler and Richie Supa, and they included an instance of the saying:15

Life’s a journey not a destination
And I just can’t tell just what tomorrow brings

In the 2006 movie “Peaceful Warrior” a character named Dan Millman was led on a three-hour trek to a remote location by his mentor, a character named ‘Socrates’ who embodied a wise man archetype. Millman was excited and happy during the trip because he expected to be shown something important and when he was shown a non-descript rock he was initially disappointed. But after reflection Millman said the following to Socrates:16

Dan Millman: The journey… the journey is what brings us happiness… not the destination

Many of the examples above conform to the following flexible phrasal template. The linguistic term snowclone is used for these collections of related phrases:

X is a journey, not a destination

In conclusion, current evidence indicates that the phrase under investigation is an anonymous modern proverb that entered circulation by 1920.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Jack Herring for his query on this topic. This question was constructed by QI based on his inquiry. Also, thanks to Dan Goncharoff for noting the relevant quotation due to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Update History: On September 2, 2012 the 1844 citation for Emerson was added together with the reference to the film Peaceful Warrior. On February 27, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated.

  1. 1845 (Copyright 1844), Essays: Second Series by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Second Edition, Essay: II Experience Start Page 49, Quote Page 65, James Munroe and Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link ↩︎
  2. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, (Phrase: Life is a journey, not a destination), Page 142, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  3. 1920 February 19, The Christian Advocate, The Sunday School Lesson, Conducted by Lynn H. Hough: First Quarter – Lesson IX –  February 29, 1920, Quote Page 266, Column 2, The Methodist Book Concern Publishers, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩︎
  4. 1854 December 7, The Sunday at Home: A Family Magazine for Sabbath Reading, Page for the Young: The Midnight Feast and Its Lesson, Quote Page 512, The Religious Tract Society, London. (HathiTrust) link  link ↩︎
  5. 1855, The End: Or, The Proximate Signs of the Close of This Dispensation by Rev. John Cumming, Quote Page 392, John Farquhar Shaw, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩︎
  6. 1865, A Cyclopaedia of Illustrations of Moral and Religious Truths, Edited by John Bate, Second Edition, Section: Life, Quote Page 535, Elliot Stock, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩︎
  7. 1922, Roads of Adventure by Ralph D. Paine, Quote Page 404, Houghton Mifflin company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link ↩︎
  8. 1926 August 27, Richmond Times Dispatch, (Freestanding verse titled: “You Said It, Marceline” On “Flights of Fancy.”), Page 6, Column 4, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank) ↩︎
  9. 1929 May 12, Times-Picayune, Convent School Wins News Prize by Wide Margin: Third Prize Winning Essay by Irene Wadlington, Quote Page 26, Column 1 and 2, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩︎
  10. 1930 February 12, Springfield Republican, Yale Professor to Give Address, Page 8, Column 4, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩︎
  11. 1935 January 25, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Shadows in Paradise by Inez Wallace, Page 8, Column 4, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩︎
  12. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Phrase: Education is a journey, not a destination, Page 66, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  13. 1936 May 27, Christian Science Monitor, ‘I Knew Them in Prison’: Through the Editor’s Window by Millicent Taylor, (Book Review of “I Knew Them in Prison” by Mary Harris; Quotation about education is reprinted in the review), Quote Page 14, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  14. 1937 December 8, San Diego Union, Civic Unit Warned of Dishonest Businesses, Page 7, Column 4, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩︎
  15. YouTube video, Amazing by Aerosmith, (Quote is sung at 2:04 of 6:50 minutes), Uploaded by AerosmithVEVO on Dec 24, 2009. (Accessed on August 31, 2012) link ↩︎
  16. YouTube video, Video excerpt from Peaceful Warrior (2006), Title: “‘It’s the journey, not the destination’ – Peaceful warrior”, (Quote spoken at 2:39 of 3:11 minutes), Uploaded by lordkostas on Jan 4, 2009. (Accessed on September, 2012) link ↩︎