Theodore Roosevelt? Albert Einstein? Benjamin Franklin? Samuel Smiles? Josh Billings? Mr. Phelps? G. K. Chesterton? Robert Smith Surtees? Joseph Conrad? Will Rogers? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Mistakes are unavoidable in the life of an active and vital person. Several adages highlight this important theme:
1) A man who never makes a mistake will never make anything.
2) The person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.
3) A fellow who never makes a mistake must get tired of doing nothing.
Many famous names have been linked to sayings of this type including Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein. Would you please examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: This is a large and complex topic. Below is a summary that presents a list of expressions that fit into this family together with dates and attributions:
1832: He who never makes an effort, never risks a failure. (Anonymous)
1859: He who never made a mistake, never made a discovery. (Samuel Smiles)
1874: The man who never makes enny blunders seldum makes enny good hits. (Josh Billings)
1889: A man who never makes a mistake will never make anything. (Attributed: Mr. Phelps)
1896: It’s only those who do nothing that make no mistakes. (Joseph Conrad)
1900: The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything. (Solid Attribution: Theodore Roosevelt)
1901: Show me a man who has never made a mistake, and I will show you one who has never tried anything. (Anonymous)
1903: The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all—doing nothing. (Poor Richard Junior’s Philosophy)
1911: The fellow who never makes any failures, never makes any successes either. (Anonymous)
1927: Every man makes mistakes; they say a man who never makes mistakes never makes anything else. (G. K. Chesterton)
1936: The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all—doing nothing. (Flawed Attribution: Benjamin Franklin)
1969: The man who never makes a mistake must get plenty tired of doing nothing. (Anonymous)
1993: The man who never makes a mistake must get tired of doing nothing. (Weak Attribution: Will Rogers)
1995: A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new. (Weak Attribution: Albert Einstein.)
Here are selected citations in chronological order.
In 1832 “The New Sporting Magazine” of London published a remark within the ambit of this theme. The phrasing indicated that the writer was not claiming coinage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
It has been justly observed, that he who never makes an effort, never risks a failure, and, “In great attempts ’tis glorious to fail!”
In 1850 the saying about effort and failure appeared in one of the popular comical tales featuring the character Soapey Sponge by Robert Smith Surtees which were serialized in “The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist”: 2
“I don’t wish, sir, to dissuade you, sir, from the attempt, sir,” continued Mr. Bragg; “far from it, sir—for he, sir, who never makes an effort, sir, never risks a failure, sir, and in great attempts, sir, ’tis glorious to fail, sir;”
Samuel Smiles was an influential figure in the field of personal development literature. In 1859 he published “Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct” and included the following: 3
We learn wisdom from failure more than from success: we often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and he who never made a mistake, never made a discovery.
In the nineteenth century the fame of humorist Josh Billings was comparable to that of the luminary Mark Twain. Billings used dialectical spellings such as “enny” for “any” and “seldum” for “seldom”. The 1874 volume “Everybody’s Friend: Or Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor” contained this adage: 4
The man who never makes enny blunders seldum makes enny good hits.
In February 1889 the popular London humor magazine “Punch” described a farewell banquet for an American minister named Mr. Phelps during which the adage was spoken. QI does not know the first name of Mr. Phelps: 5
Telling epigram by Mr. Phelps, “A man who never makes a mistake will never make anything.” Mr. Phelps must have made plenty of mistakes, or he never would have made this epigram; for this is an epigram and no mistake!
In April 1889 a religious periodical called “The Unitarian Review” printed an instance of the saying credited to Phelps. The phrasing was slightly different: 6
He comforts himself, meanwhile, with Mr. Phelps’s late dictum, that “a man who never makes mistakes never makes anything.”
In 1891 a writer in “Punch” magazine mentioned the adage ascribed to Phelps and was reminded of a thematically related saying that appeared in the hunting novel by Surtees featuring Soapey Sponge: 7
“The man who never makes a mistake, never makes anything,” said Mr. Phelps, the American Minister, in the course of a farewell after-dinner speech. Happening to be re-reading Mr. Surtees’ inimitable Soapy Sponge, we find that Mr. Bragg, when applying for the situation of Huntsman to Mr. Puffington, remarked, “He, Sir, who never makes an effort, Sir, never risks a failure,” which is just the premiss to Mr. Phelps’s celebrated conclusion.
In 1896 the prominent literary figure Joseph Conrad published “An Outcast of the Islands” which contained an instance: 8
“Well! well! It’s only those who do nothing that make no mistakes, I suppose. But it’s hard. Hard.”
In 1897 a fraternal organization called “The Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo” printed a newsletter that contained a wistful poem on the theme. The first verse of the poem appears below: 9
A man who never makes mistakes never makes anything else. This is a thought which has afforded great consolation to the writer, who makes several hundred mistakes a day. Maybe there are others in the Order to whom the following poem, clipped from a Chicago daily, may appeal:
THE INFALLIBLE MAN
There was a man who never made
A blunder in his life;
He loved a girl, but was afraid
If she became his wife
That he or she might rue the day
That brought them bliss; and so
He put the happiness away
That wedded lovers know.
In 1900 “The American Monthly Review of Reviews” published a profile of Theodore Roosevelt who was elevated from the Vice-Presidency to the Presidency of the U.S. during the next year. The article was written by a long-time friend of Roosevelt’s named Jacob A. Riis who reported that the powerful politician employed the adage. QI believes this attribution is solid, but the expression was already in circulation and Roosevelt was not the coiner: 10
Roosevelt is no more infallible than the rest of us. Over and over again I have seen him pause when he had decided upon his line of action, and review it to see where there was a chance for mistake. Finding none, he would issue his order with the sober comment: “There, we have done the best we could. If there is any mistake we will make it right. The fear of it shall not deter us from doing our duty. The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.”
In July 1901 a version of the adage using the word “tried” appeared in multiple newspapers. In “The Dallas Morning News” it was printed as part of a group under the title “The Maxims of Judy”. In “The Philadelphia Inquirer” the title was “Maxims of Success: Principles of Good Conduct Which Bring Their Own Reward”: 11 12
Show me a man who has never made a mistake, and I will show you one who has never tried anything.
A remark similar to the one above has been attributed to Albert Einstein, but the earliest known linkage occurred in 1995, i.e., long after the death of Einstein. The detailed citation is listed further below.
Also in 1901 “The Outlook” serialized an autobiography of Jacob A. Riis, and the author again mentioned Theodore Roosevelt’s use of the maxim. The phrasing of this instance was slightly different: 13
Good land! what are we that we should think ourselves always right, or, lest we do wrong, sit idle all our lives waiting for light? The light comes as we work toward it. Roosevelt was right when he said that the only one who never makes mistakes is the one who never does anything.
In 1902 “The Cosmopolitan” serialized the biography of President Roosevelt by Riis, and the saying was once again linked to the politician: 14
I suppose Roosevelt has made mistakes in his day. I was so much more interested in things he did that were of real account that it never occurred to me to look for his mistakes. He is no more infallible than the rest of us. No doubt he made mistakes, but he learned from them. “The only man,” he used to say, “who makes no mistakes is the man who never does anything.”
In February 1902, a month after the article above was published, the periodical “Printers’ Ink” included the following filler item: 15
“THE only man who makes no mistakes is the man who never does anything.”—President Roosevelt.
In 1903 “The Pharmaceutical Era” published an instance of the maxim together with a remark attributed to the famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy: 16
Tolstoi says, ‘He who never does anything wrong, seldom, if ever, does anything right,’ and a man whom I know you particularly admire expresses the same thing when he says, ‘A man who never makes mistakes, never makes anything.’ All the wise men of all ages have called attention to the one trait in which all humanity is alike, namely the liability to make mistakes.
In 1903 “The Saturday Evening Post” published a collection of sayings under the title “Poor Richard Junior’s Philosophy”. This rubric later caused considerable confusion. The version of the adage given below should be credited to the magazine editors and not to Benjamin Franklin: 17
The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all—doing nothing.
“Poor Richard’s Almanack” was published by Benjamin Franklin in the 1700s, and Franklin included many proverbs and maxims in the popular series of references. Thus, the label “Poor Richard” has been closely associated with Franklin. However, the word “Junior” indicated that the maxims in “The Saturday Evening Post” were not from Franklin’s original texts. The editors were attempting to construct a new collection for contemporary readers.
In 1903 “The National Leaflet” periodical printed an instance similar to the one above as a filler item without attribution: 18
Whoever undertook to do anything in this world probably made mistakes, but no mistake so great as that of doing nothing.
In 1906 an instance with the word “tried” was credited to a character named “Barber Joe” in the periodical “The Summary”: 19
“A man, sir, who has never made a mistake is a man who has never tried to do anything, and goes through life satisfied to be alive,” said Barber Joe. “He never advances humanity or business, and lives a sing-song existence that makes him a sort of barnacle on the face of the earth.
In 1911 a variant was printed in a Topeka, Kansas newspaper with credit given to an unnamed dentist: 20
For I have noticed this: the fellow who never makes any failures, never makes any successes either.
In 1927 the popular English writer G. K. Chesterton included an instance in his novel “The Return of Don Quixote”, but he disclaimed coinage: 21
Every man makes mistakes; they say a man who never makes mistakes never makes anything else. But do you think a man might make a mistake and not make anything else? Do you think he could die having missed the chance to live?
By 1936 the version of the saying printed in the “The Saturday Evening Post” in 1903 had been incorrectly reassigned to Benjamin Franklin in a syndicated newspaper column: 22
Benjamin Franklin once said: “The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all—doing nothing.”
In 1954 the attribution to Franklin continued to circulate in a Greensboro, North Carolina newspaper: 23
“The man who does things,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “makes many mistakes but he never makes the biggest mistake of all—doing nothing.”
In 1969 a version with the word “tired” appeared in multiple newspapers as a filler item without attribution. For example, “The Mexia Daily News” of Texas printed it in November. Interestingly, by 1993 the “tired” version had been assigned to the well-known humorist Will Rogers who died in 1935: 24
The man who never makes a mistake must get plenty tired of doing nothing.
In 1970 a Sikeston, Missouri newspaper linked the “tired” adage to someone named Vernon Martin: 25
Vernon Martin says: “The man who never makes a mistake must get pretty tired of doing nothing.”
In 1993 a syndicated columnist named L.M. Boyd ascribed the saying with “tired” to funnyman Will Rogers: 26
“The man who never makes a mistake must get tired of doing nothing.” That’s another of Will Rogers’ lines.
In 1995 the “Syracuse Herald-Journal” printed a profile of a recent graduate of Syracuse University in New York. Her chosen motto was attributed to Albert Einstein, and this was the first linkage to Einstein seen by QI. This version used the word “tried”, and it was in circulation by 1901 without attribution: 27
Do you have a motto? “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” (Albert Einstein.)
In 1998 a South Dakota newspaper printed a different phrasing of the saying and attributed the words to Einstein: 28
‘Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.’
In conclusion, this family of maxims has been evolving for more than one-hundred and fifty years. Instances have been employed by several prominent individuals. Samuel Smiles placed a version in his influential 1859 self-help book. Josh Billings included his distinctive version in a compilation published in 1874.
Someone named Mr. Phelps spoke a version that was recorded in “Punch” magazine in 1889. Joseph Conrad included a version in an 1896 novel, but it was not a version that he coined.
Theodore Roosevelt employed the saying by 1900 as noted by his biographer Jacob A. Riis, but it was not a version that he crafted. Roosevelt popularized a saying that was already in circulation.
G. K. Chesterton employed an instance in a 1929 novel, but he did not coin it. In 1936 a version was incorrectly attributed to Benjamin Franklin. This error was probably induced directly or indirectly by a misinterpretation of the label “Poor Richard Junior”.
In 1993 an instance was attributed to Will Rogers. QI has found no substantive evidence for this linkage to a saying that appeared without attribution in 1969.
In 1995 an instance was ascribed to Albert Einstein. QI has found no substantive support for this linkage, and a similar remark was published in 1901 without attribution.
Image Notes: Portrait of Samuel Smiles by Sir George Reid given to the National Portrait Gallery in London. Portrait of Josh Billings (pseudonym of Henry Wheeler Shaw) in the Harvard Theatre Collection. Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent. Images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Marian T. Wirth who inquired about the saying often attributed to Albert Einstein. Also great thanks to Clay Harris who inquired about the saying ascribed to Theodore Roosevelt. Their messages led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1832 April, The New Sporting Magazine, Volume 2, Number 12, Character of Hunting Countries: Number IV: The Atherstone, Start Page 397, Quote Page 402, Baldwin and Cradock, Paternoster Row, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1850, The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist, Edited by W. Harrison Ainsworth, Soapey Sponge’s Sporting Tour: Chapter XXXV, Start Page 359, Quote Page 364, Chapman and Hall, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1859, Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct by Samuel Smiles, Chapter XI, Quote Page 275, Published by John Murray, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1874, Everybody’s Friend: Or Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor by Josh Billings (Henry W. Shaw), Section: Kindling Wood, Quote Page 259, American Publishing Company, Hartford Connecticut. (The apostrophe showing possession is located before the “s” in the original page image) (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1889 February 2, Punch, or the London Charivari, Phelps’s Farewell, Quote Page 59, Column 1, Published at the Office of Punch, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1889 April, The Unitarian Review, Volume 31, Number 4, Editor’s Note Book: A Glad Correction, Quote Page 360, Office of the Unitarian Review, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1891 November 21, Punch, or the London Charivari, Very Near, Quote Page 246, Column 2, Published at the Office of Punch, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1896, An Outcast of the Islands by Joseph Conrad, Quote Page 183, Published by T. Fisher Unwin, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1897 April, The Bulletin: A Monthly Journal Devoted to Hoo-Hoo, Volume 3, Notes and Comments, Start Page 4, Quote Page 5, Published Monthly by the Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo, Nashville, Tennessee. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1900 August, The American Monthly Review of Reviews, Volume 22, Number 2, Theodore Roosevelt by Jacob A. Riis, Start Page 181, Quote Page 184, Column 2, Published by The Review of Reviews Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1901 July 7, Dallas Morning News, The Maxims of Judy, Quote Page 17, Column 4, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1901 July 8, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Maxims of Success: Principles of Good Conduct Which Bring Their Own Reward, Quote Page 9, Column 1, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1901 September 7, The Outlook (New Outlook), Volume 69, Number 1,The Making of an American: An Autobiography by Jacob A. Riis, Chapter XIII.–Roosevelt Comes–Mulberry Street’s Golden Age, Start Page 35, Quote Page 35, Outlook Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1902 February, The Cosmopolitan, Volume 32, Number 4, The Story of Theodore Roosevelt’s Life: IV by Jacob A. Riis, Start Page 406, Quote Page 409, Column 2, Cosmopolitan Magazine Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1902 February 12, Printers’ Ink, Volume 38, Number 7, (Freestanding quotation), Quote Page 32, Column 1, Printers’ Ink Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1903 April 16, The Pharmaceutical Era, Volume 29, Number 16, Shop Talk: The C. P. Defends Man’s Inherent Right To Be Imperfect, Quote Page 395, Column 1, D. O. Haynes & Company. New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1903 May 9, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 175, Number 45, Poor Richard Junior’s Philosophy, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1903 July, The National Leaflet, Volume 9, Number 7, (Freestanding short item), Page 5 (Unnumbered), Published by the National Protective Society, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1906 July 21, The Summary, Volume 33, Number 75, Letter Box: Barber Joe and Lajoie, (Acknowledgment Atlanta Journal), Quote Page 7, Column 1 and 2, New York State Reformatory at Elmira. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1911 April 6, The Topeka Daily Capital, Society: Retribution, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Topeka, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2008 (Copyright 1927), The Return of Don Quixote by G. K. Chesterton, Quote Page 55, House of Stratus: Imprint of Stratus Books, Cornwall, UK. (First published in 1927)(Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1936 August 19, The Evening News, Listen, World! by Elsie Robinson (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 6, Column 5, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1954 January 14, Greensboro Record, Bread of Life by Rev. A. Purnell Bailey, Quote Page A10, Column 3, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1969 November 7, The Mexia Daily News, (Freestanding filler item), Quote Page 9, Mexia, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1970 July 25, The Daily Standard, (Freestanding filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Sikeston, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1993 January 29, The Victoria Advocate, Curiosity Shop: Byzantine Capital Crimes List by L.M. Boyd, Quote Page 5D, Column 5, Victoria, Texas. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1995 January 2, Syracuse Herald-Journal, Section: Metro Teaching and Learning, Profile of Kathleen Howard, Quote Page B3, Syracuse, New York. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1998 December 11, Aberdeen American News (Aberdeen Daily News), (Freestanding quotation at top of page), Quote Page 6, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank) ↩