People Who Say It Cannot Be Done Should Not Interrupt Those Who Are Doing It

George Bernard Shaw? Puck? Saxby’s Magazine? Elbert Hubbard? Confucius? Anonymous?

wright07Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage is the perfect antidote to excessive negativity and obstructionism:

People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.

These words are often attributed to the acclaimed playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw; unfortunately, I have not been able to locate any solid data to back up this claim. Would you please trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive support for the Shaw ascription.

QI hypothesizes that the modern expression evolved from a comment about the rapidity of change and innovation at the turn of the century that was printed in multiple newspapers and journals in 1903. One instance appeared on March 7, 1903 in a periodical called “The Public” based in Chicago, Illinois. An acknowledgment to the humor magazine “Puck” was appended. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Things move along so rapidly nowadays that people saying: “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.—Puck.

On March 13, 1903 an instance was published in “The Evansville Courier” of Evansville, Indiana with an acknowledgement to “Saxby’s Magazine”. The statements above and below were both printed as filler items without additional contextual information: 2

Some philosopher takes time to remark that things move along so rapidly nowadays that people who say “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.—Saxby’s Magazine.

In April 1903 a journal for educators and parents called “Kindergarten Magazine” printed an instance that exactly matched the statement in “The Public”. The “Puck” acknowledgement was included: 3

During the ensuing decades the expression was reshaped. In 1914 a charismatic aphorism constructor named Elbert Hubbard printed a variant in his journal “The Philistine”, but he disclaimed authorship. By 1962 a pseudo Confucian version had been fabricated, and by 2004 a version attributed to George Bernard Shaw was circulating. Detailed citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1911 the “Aberdeen Daily American” newspaper of Aberdeen, South Dakota referred to the saying without attribution: 4

Anyway, people who say a thing can’t be done are interrupted by someone else doing it. So do not be one to say “I can’t.”

In May 1914 Elbert Hubbard published an article discussing world explorers in the journal he edited called “The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest”. The following variant of the saying differed from many instances because the possibility of accomplishing the challenging task was not denied. Instead, plans were being formulated before an interruption occurred: 5

Some one has said that we are moving so fast that when plans are being made to perform some great feat, these plans are broken into by a youth who enters and says, “I have done it.”

The locution “Some one has said” used above signaled that Hubbard was not taking credit for the remark. Nevertheless, instances were often attributed to him. For example, in 1915 an advertisement printed in “The Democrat-Forum” newspaper of Maryville, Missouri credited Hubbard: 6

The world is moving so fast now-a-days that the man who says it cannot be done is generally interrupted by someone else doing it.—Elbert Hubbard.

In 1924 “The Washington Post” printed a concise version of the adage without attribution: 7

This calls to mind that famous American saying that “The man who says it can’t be done is constantly being interrupted by somebody doing it.”

In 1940 the students at Sul Ross State Teachers College published a miscellaneous set of sayings that included the following instance without ascription: 8

The man who begins to say it can’t be done is often interrupted by somebody else doing it.

The linkage to Hubbard was not forgotten. In 1949 the industrious compiler Evan Esar included the following remark credited to Hubbard in “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”: 9

The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.

In 1962 a periodical about adult education titled “Adult Leadership” printed an expression using the template “Confucius say: Man who. . .”. This format has often been used for jokes and witticisms unconnected to the genuine sayings of Confucius. This instance used the phrase “should not interrupt” which appeared in the modern saying under investigation: 10

THOUGHTS WHILE SHAVING:
Confucius say: Man who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt man doing it. . . How’s that for a good adult education motto? Aren’t there several times that motto can be used?

In 1974 a letter from proponents of solar energy was included in the published record of a U.S. Senate Hearing. The adage was ascribed to Confucius: 11

Corporate leaders and many scientists say, “According to the present ‘state of the art,’ Solar Energy is highly impractical at this time.”

Confucius say, “Man who says it cannot be done should not interrupt man doing it.”

In 1977 “The Marietta Daily Journal” of Marietta, Georgia labeled the remark an “old Chinese proverb”: 12

There is an old Chinese proverb that says, “Man who say it cannot be done should not interrupt man doing it.”

In 1996 a humorous version contrasted the actions of a man and a woman: 13

A copy of a Chinese proverb hangs on the door: “Man who says it cannot be done should not interrupt woman doing it.”

By 2004 an instance had been reassigned to the famous Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw in a history book about the Smithsonian: 14

Shaw was also a master at crystallizing great thoughts through pointed expressions such as:

“Youth is wasted on the young.”

“When a man says money can do anything, that settles it. He hasn’t got any.”

“People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

In conclusion, the earliest version of this saying known to QI appeared in 1903. Acknowledgments for “Puck” and “Saxby’s Magazine” were included in the initial instances, and QI is uncertain which periodical had priority.

A version of the saying with the phrase “should not interrupt” was in circulation by 1962. It was presented as a piece of ersatz Confucian wisdom. The true author of this reformulation is uncertain. The later linkage to George Bernard Shaw is spurious.

Image Notes: Picture of flying pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright with the Wright Flyer in 1903 obtained via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Thanks to researcher Barry Popik for his exploration of this topic. Thanks also to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote. Great thanks to Nicholas Rezmerski whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1903 March 7, The Public, Number 257, Editor Louis F. Post, (Filler item), Quote Page 766, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1903 March 16, The Evansville Courier (Evansville Courier and Press), (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 7, Evansville, Indiana. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1903 April, Kindergarten Magazine, Volume 15, Number 8, (Filler item), Quote Page 488, Kindergarten Magazine Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1911 September 29, Aberdeen Daily American, Oct. 23 and Nov. 11 Important Dates, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1914 May, The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest, Volume 38, Number 6, Heart-to-Heart Talks with Philistines by the Pastor of His Flock (Article by Elbert Hubbard), Start Page 161, Quote Page 178, Published by The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1915 April 3, The Democrat-Forum (Maryville Daily Democrat Forum), (Advertisement by the newspaper requesting businesses to buy advertisement in the newspaper), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Maryville, Missouri. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1924 November 26, The Washington Post, The Story of Bill Haag, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  8. 1940 July 24, Alpine Sul Ross Skyline, (Published by the Students of Sul Ross State Teachers College), (Set of miscellaneous adages), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Alpine, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  9. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Elbert Hubbard, Quote Page 101, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  10. 1962 March, Adult Leadership, Volume 10, Number 9, The Trading Post, Compiled by Walter Gray Jr. (Director Community Workshop, Oklahoma City Libraries, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Quote Page 282, Column 3, Published by Adult Education Association of the U.S.A., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm)
  11. 1974, U.S. Senate Hearing, Ninety-Third Congress, Second Session, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Oversight–Mandatory Petroleum Allocation Programs, Date: February 15, 1974, Start Page 277, (Material submitted by Mrs. Janet Wilson and Mrs. James H. Angel; Statement of Citizens for Land and Water Use, Cleveland Metropolitan Area), Quote Page 287, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (The original text used the misspelling “Confucious” instead of “Confucius”)(HathiTrust Full View) link
  12. 1977 October 16, Marietta Daily Journal, Success Comes in ‘Cans’ by Nelson Price, Quote Page 4A, Column 3 and 4, Marietta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  13. 1996 March 25, St. Petersburg Times, Section: Citrus Times, State counselors seek justice for the child by Kelly Ryan, Quote Page 1, St. Petersburg, Florida. (NewsBank Access World News)
  14. 2004, Echoes from the Smithsonian: America’s History Brought to Life by John McCollister, Quote Page 113, Spotlight Press: SP L.L.C., Champaign, Illinois. (Google Books Preview)