Failure Is Only the Opportunity More Intelligently To Begin Again

Henry Ford? Samuel Crowther? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The failure of a project is often disheartening, but some self-help and inspirational texts highlight a quotation that presents a positive interpretation to the setback:

Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.

This statement has been attributed to the assembly-line innovator and industrial titan Henry Ford, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: In 1922 Henry Ford in collaboration with Samuel Crowther released an autobiographical volume titled “My Life and Work”. In the introductory section Ford outlined four principles for his organization, and the saying appeared in the discussion of the first principle; however, the phrasing was different and somewhat clumsier. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The institution that we have erected is performing a service. That is the only reason I have for talking about it. The principles of that service are these:

1. An absence of fear of the future and of veneration for the past. One who fears the future, who fears failure, limits his activities. Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again. There is no disgrace in honest failure; there is disgrace in fearing to fail. What is past is useful only as it suggests ways and means for progress.

The principles were important to Ford, and he repeated them in the concluding section of the book. 2

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

“My Life and Work” by Ford and Crowther was serialized in “McClure’s” magazine, and the quotation appeared in the May 1922 edition which reprinted the introduction. 3 In addition, the quotation was included in the October 1922 edition which reprinted the final chapter of the book. 4

In December 1922 the London journal “Engineering Production” reviewed “My Life and Work” and reprinted a segment that included the quotation under examination. Interestingly, the reviewer re-ordered the words in the key statement. The new statement was similar the modern version: 5

(1) An absence of fear of the future or of veneration for the past. One who fears the future, who fears failure, limits his activities. Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently. There is no disgrace in honest failure; there is disgrace in fearing to fail. What is past is useful only as it suggests ways and means for progress.

Other successful people have expressed comparable sentiments. For example, the Oscar winning Hollywood star Bette Davis said the following during an interview with a biographer in the 1980s: 6

Even the opportunity to fail is worth something, especially if you get another opportunity to succeed, if the flop doesn’t mean you stop. You must realize that success is built on disappointment, and disappointment is inherent in all success.

In conclusion, Henry Ford did write a book with a co-author in 1922 that contained the quotation although the phrasing differed slightly from the modern common version. The words did reflect his viewpoint.

Image Notes: Henry Ford with Model T circa 1921. Train wreck at Montparnasse circa 1895. Both images are available via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Grothe is the author of several clever and entertaining quotation books such as “Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You”. His website is located here.)

Notes:

  1. 1922 Copyright, My Life and Work by Henry Ford in collaboration with Samuel Crowther, Section: Introduction, Quote Page 19 and 20, Garden City Publishing Company, Garden City, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1922 Copyright, My Life and Work by Henry Ford in collaboration with Samuel Crowther, Section: Introduction, Quote Page 273, Garden City Publishing Company, Garden City, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1922 May, McClure’s, Volume 54, Number 3, My Life and Work by Henry Ford in collaboration with Samuel Crowther, Start Page 11, Quote Page 16, McClure Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View)
  4. 1922 October, McClure’s, Volume 54, Number 8, My Life and Work by Henry Ford in collaboration with Samuel Crowther, Chapter 13 to Chapter 17, Start Page 51, Quote Page 63, McClure Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1922 December 21, Engineering Production, Volume 5, Number 116, The Engineer’s Bookshelf, (Book review of “My Life and Work” by Henry Ford in collaboration with Samuel Crowther), Quote Page 584, Published by Iliffe & Sons, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 2006, The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, a Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler, Quote Page 55, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)