Teach Them to Yearn for the Vast and Endless Sea

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

build11Dear Quote Investigator: The French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was best known internationally as the author of “Le Petit Prince” (“The Little Prince”). Many self-help guides and books about management now contain a saying about motivation and organization that often has been attributed to Saint-Exupéry. Here are three versions:

If you wish to build a ship, do not divide the men into teams and send them to the forest to cut wood. Instead, teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

I have not been able to find a good citation, and I also have been unable to ascertain the original French text. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have not found a close match for this statement in the works of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. However, there was a very interesting thematic match in the 1948 book “Citadelle” (“The Wisdom of the Sands”). In section LXXV Saint-Exupéry wrote about an individual who wished to build a boat. He imparted to a group of people a love of sailing, and the group spontaneously split to perform appropriate subtasks: 1

Celui-là tissera des toiles, l’autre dans la forêt par l’éclair de sa hache couchera l’arbre. L’autre, encore, forgera des clous, et il en sera quelque part qui observeront les étoiles afin d’apprendre à gouverner. Et tous cependant ne seront qu’un. Créer le navire ce n’est point tisser les toiles, forger les clous, lire les astres, mais bien donner le goût de la mer qui est un, et à la lumière duquel il n’est plus rien qui soit contradictoire mais communauté dans l’amour.

Here is one possible rendering of this text into English:

One will weave the canvas; another will fell a tree by the light of his ax. Yet another will forge nails, and there will be others who observe the stars to learn how to navigate. And yet all will be as one. Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love.

QI conjectures that this section of “Citadelle” inspired the construction of the modern quotation although one or more intermediate steps may have occurred. It was possible that someone read the section and created a paraphrase or commentary. The modern quotation might be based on this posited intermediate text. Saint-Exupéry himself may have written a text that was closer to the modern quotation although it has not been located.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In November 1999 a participant using the handle Benjamin A. Okopnik posted a message to a newsgroup called alt.callahans within the Usenet discussion system. The message included an instance of the saying ascribed to Exupéry, Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.– Antoine de Saint Exupery

In 2000 a newspaper in Swan River, Manitoba printed a “Pastoral Message” that attributed an instance of the quotation to an unnamed religious leader from the distant past: 3

A Christian leader centuries ago wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

In 2004 a newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina printed an instance and gave credit to Saint-Exupéry: 4

QUOTES ABOUT TEAMWORK

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

In 2010 a compilation titled “1001 Smartest Things Teachers Ever Said” was published, and an instance of the saying was included: 5

If you wish to build a ship, do not give directions and technical advice to others. Rather, show them the wonder and adventure of the open ocean.
—George Edwin Goodfellow, 2008 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year

In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that the modern saying was derived from the passage written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the “Citadelle”. Perhaps someone constructed a paraphrase that was later reassigned directly to Saint-Exupéry. The first known instances of the English expression appeared relatively recently in the 1990s. Future researchers may discover some intermediate forms that reveal the evolution of the quotation.

Image Notes: “Building the Boat, Tréboul” by Christopher Wood via WikiArt.org website. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry à l’hôtel de Ville de Montréal via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Kevin Kelly and I. Barry Goldberg whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Kelly pointed to a blog post by Karl Dubost who identified the relevant passage within “Citadelle”. Many thanks to S. M. Colowick for suggesting the translation. All errors are the responsibility of QI.)

Notes:

  1. 1959, Title: Oeuvres, Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Work: Citadelle, Section: LXXV (75) Quote Page 687, Publisher: Gallimard, Paris, France. (Reprint of text first published in 1948) (Verified on paper)
  2. 1999 November 30, Usenet Discussion Message, Newsgroups: alt.callahans, From: ben-fu…@AnythingButGeocities.com (Benjamin A. Okopnik), Subject: Re: Quaking on the edge of a dream, (Google Groups; Accessed August 26, 2015) link
  3. 2000 September 12, The Swan Valley Star and Times, Pastoral Message by Rev. David R. Johnson (Valley Evangelical Covenant Church), Quote Page B2, Column 4, Swan River, Manitoba. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 2004 August 13, The State, Edition: Final, Section: Sports, Article: Athens 2004: Teamwork, Quote Page C3, Columbia, South Carolina. (NewsBank Access World News)
  5. 2010, 1001 Smartest Things Teachers Ever Said, Edited by Randy Howe, Quote Page 51, Lyons Press: An Imprint of Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut. (Google Books Preview)