Henry Ford? Jessie Potter? Dayle K. Maloney? Cathy Bolger? Susan Jeffers? Jackie “Moms” Mabley? Tony Robbins? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Why do people repeat foolish, ineffective, or self-destructive behaviors? Self-help books contain an adage about the consequences of thoughtless repetition. Here are three versions:
1) If you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.
2) If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
3) If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you will keep getting what you’ve always gotten.
This saying has been credited to the automotive tycoon Henry Ford and the motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Would you please explore its provenance?
Quote Investigator: The important reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press has an entry for this expression. Interestingly, researchers have only been able to trace it back to the 1980s. 1
The earliest instance located by QI appeared in “The Milwaukee Sentinel” of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1981. The speaker was an educator and counselor on family relationships and human sexuality named Jessie Potter who worked for a non-profit organization she founded. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.” That was the advice of Jessie Potter, the featured speaker at Friday’s opening of the seventh annual Woman to Woman conference.
The director of the National Institute for Human Relationships in Oak Lawn, Ill., Ms. Potter drew on anecdotes and frank comments about sex and love in asserting that change is needed in the American way of growing up, falling in love, raising a family and growing old.
The phrasing of the adage is highly variable; hence, it has been difficult to trace. The linkage to Henry Ford who died in 1947 appears to be spurious. Jessie Potter helped to popularize the saying, and she may have coined it, but uncertainty remains.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1983 a variant statement using the pair of words “think, thought” instead of “do, done” was printed in a classified advertisement in Colorado Springs, Colorado: 3
If you continue to think like you’ve always thought, you’ll continue to get what you’ve always got. “Is it Enough?”
In August 1984 the same variant appeared in an advertisement for a three-hour seminar about the “Secrets of Selling” led by Dayle K. Maloney: 4
IF YOU CONTINUE TO THINK LIKE YOU’VE ALWAYS THOUGHT, YOU’LL CONTINUE TO GET WHAT YOU’VE ALWAYS GOT. . . IS IT ENOUGH? IF NOT, COME TO THIS SEMINAR!
“Secrets of Selling” 3-Hour Seminar
In December 1984 a newspaper in Springfield, Illinois wrote about personality clashes that can occur during holidays. A counselor named Cathy Bolger employed the adage when she offered advice: 5
After hearing the dislikes, Bolger shared a favorite quote of hers: “Do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”
So unless you change your behavior, you’ll get the same result this year as in the past, the counselor said.
In 1986 an instance was included in a self-help book titled “One Minute Messages: Principles in Practice from the School of Hard Knocks” by Dan Clark with Michael Gale. This version used the word “keep”: 6
If you keep doing what you did, you’ll keep getting what you got. That is a tricky little phrase I should probably repeat. If you keep doing what you did, you’ll keep getting what you got. Think about what that means. We should learn from our experiences what we should and shouldn’t do.
In March 1987 a newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island described a facility to help people with alcohol and drug dependencies. The saying was displayed on a wall: 7
One wall is a bulletin board, with notices of meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups and events and some AA literature. On another wall someone has pencilled a sign: “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.”
In June 1987 a newspaper in Anniston, Alabama began an article about schools with an anonymous instance of the saying: 8
“If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’ve been getting.”
— Author unknown
In 1988 a motivational book called “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” by Susan Jeffers included the saying although the author ascribed the words to a student: 9
As Janet, one of my students, so aptly put it, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” This thought certainly served to get her moving!
In 1993 the book “Acts of Faith: Daily Meditations for People of Color” by Iyanla Vanzant attributed the saying to the prominent comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley who died in 1975: 10
If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.
— Jackie “Moms” Mabley
Also in 1993 the syndicated column of Ann Lander’s printed the adage as a “Gem of the Day”: 11
Gem of the Day: If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you will keep getting what you’ve always gotten.
In 2010 a writer in the “La Crosse Tribune” of La Crosse, Wisconsin wondered about the origin of the saying and was skeptical about the ascription to the well-known motivational speaker Tony Robbins: 12
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Google claims that’s a quote from Tony Robbins, but I thought it pre-dated him.
In 2011 an article about Scottish football in the UK publication “Daily Star” included a quotation that tentatively ascribed the saying to Henry Ford: 13
“But there’s an old saying that if you always do what you’ve always done then you will always get what you always got.
I think it was Henry Ford that said it.”
In conclusion, Jessie Potter used this expression in the earliest known citation in 1981. Currently, she is the leading candidate for authorship, and she helped to popularize the saying, but the date was surprisingly late. Jackie “Moms” Mabley is also a candidate. Perhaps she spoke an instance during one of her comedy albums? Researchers may uncover an antedating of 1981 in the future. The ascriptions to Henry Ford and Tony Robbins are unsupported.
Image Notes: Cartwheel figure and marching figures from Peggy_Marco at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Carrie Morgan and Pam Stucky whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 57, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1981 October 24, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Search For Quality Called Key To Life by Tom Ahern, Quote Page 5, Column 5, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1983 August 7, Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, GT Merchandise Mart, (Classified advertisement), Quote Page J2, Column 3, Colorado Springs, Colorado. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1984 August 26, The Sunday Republican (Springfield Union), (Advertisement for “Secrets of Selling” 3-Hour Seminar, Seminar Leader: Dayle K. Maloney, Advertisers Address: Eau Claire, Wisconsin), Quote Page B9, Column 1, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1984 December 16, The State Journal-Register, How to avoid setting yourself up for the holiday blues by Jane Sutter (Copley News Service), Quote Page 17, Column 1, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1986 Copyright, One Minute Messages: Principles in Practice from the School of Hard Knocks by Dan Clark with Michael Gale, Chapter: Don’t Repeat Your Mistakes, Quote Page 137, Sunrise Publishing. (Verified with scans of third printing in 1992) ↩
- 1987 March 7, Providence Journal, Article: A second chance is what really matters at the Bottom Line, Byline: Les Boyd, Quote Page A-05, Providence, Rhode Island. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1987 June 1, The Anniston Star, Schools need our help, too by Judy Johnson (Star Education Editor), Quote Page 7A, Column 1, Anniston, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1988 (Copyright 1987), Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers Ph.D., Chapter 8: How Whole Is Your “Whole Life”?, Quote Page 149, A Fawcett Columbine Book from Ballantine Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1993, Acts of Faith: Daily Meditations For People of Color by Iyanla Vanzant, Quotation for March 27, A Fireside Book: Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1993 April 1, The Daily Sentinel (Daily Sitka Sentinel), Ann Landers, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Sitka, Alaska. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2010 October 2, La Crosse Tribune, Article: Looking to build a better fest, Byline: Curt Trnka, Quote Page 1, La Crosse, Wisconsin. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2011 June 8, Daily Star, Article: Dragged into the Modern World, Byline: Iain Macfarlane, United Kingdom. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩