Whether You Believe You Can Do a Thing or Not, You Are Right

Henry Ford? Virgil? John Dryden? John Herbert Phillips? Del Howard? Harlowe B. Andrews? Norman Vincent Peale? Mary Kay Ash? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: An aphorism highlighting the power of positive thinking and warning about the danger of negative thinking has often been attributed to automotive titan Henry Ford. Here are four versions:

  1. Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.
  2. Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.
  3. If you think you can or think you can’t, either way you are right.
  4. If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.

Did Ford really craft this adage? The saying has also been linked to Mary Kay Ash who created a cosmetics empire and Norman Vincent Peale who emphasized positive thinking in his self-help and religious writings.

Quote Investigator: In September 1947 the influential mass-circulation magazine “The Reader’s Digest” published the following freestanding quotation. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1947 September, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 51, (Filler item), Quote Page 64, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.
— Henry Ford

This was the earliest strong match for the statement found by QI. Henry Ford died in April 1947; hence, the adage was ascribed to him a few months after his death. Unfortunately, “The Reader’s Digest” did not provide any precise information about the source; hence, there is some residual uncertainty. During the following years the expression coupled with the Ford ascription was reprinted in other periodicals and newspapers.

Ideational precursors were in circulation long before 1947, but the phrasing was less concise and elegant. The evolution of these expressions will be presented below.

Top researcher Barry Popik[ref] Website: The Big Apple, Article title: If you think you can, you can (Mary Kay Ash?), Date on website: September 24, 2007, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik on February 3, 2015) link[/ref] and the key reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” have both examined questions in this topic area, and this entry, in part, builds on their valuable explorations.[ref] 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 256, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Logically, the statement can split into two propositions:

1) If you believe you can do a thing, you can.
2) If you believe you cannot do a thing, you cannot.

The central idea of the first part was expressed in Latin by Virgil in “The Aeneid”.[ref] Year: 1697, Title: The works of Virgil containing his Pastorals, Georgics and Aeneis: adorn’d with a hundred sculptures / translated into English verse by Mr. Dryden. Publication Info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan, Digital Library Production Service. Print source: The works of Virgil containing his Pastorals, Georgics and Aeneis: adorn’d with a hundred sculptures / translated into English verse by Mr. John Dryden, 1631-1700. London: Printed for Jacob Tonson. Quote Page: 336. (Early English Books Online; Text Transcription) link [/ref] The 17th century poet John Dryden provided a memorable translation which lexicographer Samuel Johnson used as an epigraph in an issue of “The Rambler”.[ref] 1750 June 12 (Reprint 1809, The British Classics, Volume 15, Containing the First Volume of The Rambler), The Rambler, Editor: Samuel Johnson, Volume 1, Number 25, (Epigraph of Issue Number 25), Quote Page 142, Published by W. Suttaby, Stationers Court, Whittingham Printer, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Possunt quia posse videntur. VIRGIL.
For they can conquer who believe they can. DRYDEN.

A variety of other translations have been published; here is an instance printed in 1718:[ref] 1718, Virgil: The Aeneis of Virgil, Translated into Blank Verse by Joseph Trapp (Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford), Remarks upon the Fifth Book, Quote Page 427, Published in London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

They can, because they think they can.

In 1821 “The Christian Guardian and Church of England Magazine” printed the tale of an illiterate man who purchased a Bible for his literate wife. He then decided that he wished to learn to read himself. His minister encouraged him with an adage corresponding to the first of the two statements:[ref] 1821 December 17, The Christian Guardian and Church of England Magazine (Supplement), Volume 13, Number 13, Biography: Memoirs of the Rev. R. Mayow, Quote Page 480, (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

“‘Well,’ said I, ‘if you think you can, you can.'”

In 1905 a set of speeches delivered to High School students in Alabama by Superintendent John Herbert Phillips was published. A statement that expressed both propositions was included in a speech titled “Knowledge and Power”:[ref] 1905, Old Tales and Modern Ideals: A Series of Talks to High School Students by John Herbert Phillips (Superintendent of Public Schools, Birmingham, Alabama), Speech: VII: Knowledge and Power, Start Page 55, Quote Page 61, Published by Silver, Burdett and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Have faith in yourself; develop confidence in your own power, reliance upon your own resources. If you believe you can, you will; if you think you can’t, you will fail. There is much truth in the old Latin motto: “Possunt quia posse videntur.” They can, because they think they can.

In 1913 a newspaper in Winfield, Kansas printed an instance though the phrasing used the word “usually” and was more tentative than emphatic:[ref] 1913 September 1, The Evening Free Press (The Winfield Daily Free Press), Water for ‘The Great Plains’, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Winfield, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

If you believe you can’t do a thing you certainly can’t do it. If you believe you can do it you usually can.

In 1914 the dual adage appeared in the sports pages of “The Pittsburgh Press” in Pennsylvania. The words were spoken by a baseball manager named Del Howard:[ref] 1914 June 16, The Pittsburgh Press, It’s The Old Confidence That Wins by Hugh S. Fullerton, Quote Page 23, Column 4, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive)[/ref]

“It’s the old con-fee-di-ence that wins,” said Del Howard, now manager of the San Francisco Seals. “That’s all there is to baseball. If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t. It you keep thinking you can win the teams ahead of you will soon begin to believe it; and come back to you.”

In 1915 a trade magazine called “The Dry Goods Reporter” addressed the “Wise Clerk” and printed an instance of the two propositions:[ref] 1915 June 19, The Dry Goods Reporter, Volume 46, Number 25, You Are A Wise Clerk, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (HathiTrust Full View) link link [/ref]

What do you want to be? You must have a desire to be something if you are going to amount of anything.
If you think you can’t—you can’t.
If you think you can—you can.

In 1918 the editor of the religious periodical “The Christian Scientist” was critical of the dual adage, and characterized the saying as “New Thought propaganda”:[ref] 1918 June, The Christian Scientist, Volume 2, Number 10, Science and Pseudo-Science by Stephen H. Alison, Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Published by The Christian Scientist, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

The New Thought propaganda makes an appeal to many people for the reason that it humors their sense of self-will. “I want what I want when I want it.” “If you think you can, you can; if you think you can’t, you can’t.” “Health, wealth and prosperity.” “How to succeed.” “Peace, power and plenty.” Its gospel is the gospel of material efficiency, and getting along in the world, rather than an ascertainment of spiritual values.

In 1925 a newspaper in Marcellus, New York reported a story about the industrialist Henry Ford’s attitude toward failure. The words ascribed to Ford in 1925 did not match the adage, but thematically they were consonant:[ref] 1925 January 28, The Marcellus Observer, Stick to the Finish, (Acknowledgement to Exchange), Quote Page 1, Column 7, Marcellus, New York. (Old Fulton)[/ref]

One time when Henry Ford was asked if he didn’t stand to lose a great deal of money if certain things went wrong, he said one should not think about things going wrong. . .

“You must never, even for a second, let yourself think that you can fail,” said Mr. Ford. “Our first principal is that failure is impossible. You may not get what you’re trying to do right the first time or the second time or the tenth time or the 100th time, but if you shut out of your mind the possibility of being licked, then you are bound to win.”

In 1940 the saying continued to circulate. For example, a student publication at Sul Ross State Teachers College printed the following instance without attribution:[ref] 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)[/ref]

If you think you can, you will. If you think you can’t, you won’t.

Also, in 1940 the Associated Press news service reported that an instance had been written on a chalkboard in a locker room.[ref] 1940 November 21, The Muscatine Journal and News-Tribune, Iowa State Grid Team Keyed High for Husker Tilt (Associated Press), Quote Page 12, Column 1, Muscatine, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)[/ref] The invigorating message was displayed for the Iowa State football players who were participating in an annual rivalry with the University of Nebraska:[ref] 1940 November 21, Evening State Journal (Lincoln Evening Journal), An ‘Intense Desire’ (Associated Press), Quote Page 14, Column 2, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

The chalked sign on the team’s locker room blackboard which says, “If you think you can, you can; if you think you can’t, you’re right,” reflects something of the entire school’s attitude toward Nebraska.

The above version included the phrase “you’re right” which moved it closer to the following version attributed to Ford which was printed in “The Reader’s Digest” in September 1947 as noted at the beginning of this article:[ref] 1947 September, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 51, (Filler item), Quote Page 64, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.
— Henry Ford

The quotation ascribed to Henry Ford was reprinted in other publications such as the “Harrisburg Telegraph” of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in November 1947[ref] 1947 November 5, Harrisburg Telegraph, (Filler item), Quote Page 10, Column 7, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)[/ref] and the “Farm Journal” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in May 1949.[ref] 1949 May, Farm Journal, (Filler item), Quote Page 164, Column 2, Published by Farm Journal Inc., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

In 1964 the popular syndicated religion columnist Norman Vincent Peale[ref] 1964 October 2, Deseret News, You Can If You Think You Can by Norman Vincent Peale (Syndicated Column), Quote Page A-18, Column 4, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Google News Archive)[/ref] presented an anecdote during which an instance of the adage was spoken to him by a wholesale grocer named Harlowe B. Andrews:[ref] 1964 October 3, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, You Can Do Much If You Think You Can by Norman Vincent Peale (Syndicated Column), Quote Page 6, Column 4, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

I had a problem one time about raising money for the church and I went to consult Brother Andrews about it. I told him I didn’t think I could raise that amount of money. He said, “If you think you can’t, you can’t; but if you think you can, you can. So, start thinking positively.”

In 1966 a compact version of the saying was attributed to someone named Caskie in a newspaper in Gaffney, South Carolina:[ref] 1966 August 3, The Gaffney Ledger, We Quote, Quote Page 1, Column 4, Gaffney, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

We Quote
If you think you can or can’t . . . you’re right.—Caskie.

In 1973 the popular televangelist and motivational speaker Robert H. Schuller attributed a differently worded version of the saying to Henry Ford:[ref] 1973, You Can Become the Person You Want To Be by Robert H. Schuller, Quote Page 40, Hawthorn Books, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Henry Ford said, “Think you can, think you can’t; either way you’ll be right.” Be careful of what you imagine yourself becoming.

In 1979 a syndicated column about the card game Bridge used another version as an epigraph credited to Ford:[ref] 1979 August 22, The Morning Union (Springfield Union), Bridge by Ira G. Corn (Aces Team Captain), (Article epigraph), Quote Page 41, Column 3, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

“If you think you can or can’t, you are right.”
—Henry Ford.

In 1985 a reporter for the Business Day section of “The New York Times” asked several business leaders to name the book that most influenced their careers. Mary Kay Ash, the founder of a major cosmetics company, pointed to a book by Norman Vincent Peale then she connected the saying to Peale:[ref] 1985 October 20, New York Times, Books & Business: Reading Their Way to the Top – Books That Made a Difference by Sandra Salmans, Quote Page A45, New York (ProQuest)[/ref]

Mary Kay Ash
Chairman of Mary Kay Cosmetics.
“The Power of Positive Thinking” by Norman Vincent Peale is still a classic. Especially in business, if you think you can, you can. And if you think you can’t, you’re right.

In conclusion, QI believes that a statement by Virgil in “The Aeneid” was an intriguing precursor that captured part of the meaning of the adage. The full adage evolved and was expressed in many different ways over the years.

The 1947 instance was the first known version ascribed to Henry Ford. The phrasing was more compact and stylish than its predecessors in QI’s opinion. The linkage to Ford was not completely certain because “The Reader’s Digest” did not precisely specify the provenance. On the other hand, QI has found no substantive competing ascription for the compactly phrased adage.

Norman Vincent Peale employed a version, but he credited Harlowe B. Andrews. Mary Kay Ash also used an instance, but she credited Norman Vincent Peale.

Image Notes: Image of the bust of the poet Virgil obtained via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped image of Henry Ford with Model T obtained via Wikimedia Commons. Both source images are in the public domain according to Wikimedia Commons annotations.

(Great thanks to Dorothy Zemach whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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