Mark Twain? Ernest T. Campbell? Anita Canfield? William Barclay? William McCartney? Tim Elmore? David Wood? Dave Martin? Helen Burns? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The number of fake Mark Twain quotations grows significantly every year. I fear that a civilization of the distant future will credit Twain with authorship of every extant text. Here are two versions of a saying that has improbably been attributed to the man from Hannibal, Missouri:
1) The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.
2) There are two great days in a person’s life—the day we are born and the day we discover why.
Would you please help?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive support linking Mark Twain to the statement.
The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1970 pamphlet published by “The Riverside Church” of New York City. Minister Ernest T. Campbell delivered a sermon on January 25, 1970 that was recorded in the pamphlet. Campbell prefaced the saying with the locution “it has been said”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Our times call not for diction but for action. It has been said that the two most important days of a man’s life are the day on which he was born and the day on which he discovers why he was born. This is why we were born: To love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.
Based on current evidence the provenance is anonymous. This article presents a snapshot of what QI has found, and subsequent researchers may discover more information.
In 1906 a book called “Boulder Reveries” referred to the “two most important days in a man’s existence”. One was the day of birth, but the other was the day of death. Thus, the author, W. S. Blatchley, was making a different philosophical point: 2
Of the two most important days in a man’s existence, he remembers absolutely nothing. One is the day on which he is ushered onto earth—the other the day when he departs therefrom. His first articulate sound is a plaintive cry for food; his last is often a more plaintive appeal to God.
In 1924 “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Cincinnati, Ohio reported on a speech delivered to new law graduates that included a precursor highlighting three days: 3
James Albert Green made the address last night at the commencement exercises of the Cincinnati Young Men’s Christian Association Night Law School. In his address he declared that the three most important days of a man’s life are the days of his birth, wedding and graduation.
In 1961 the popular children’s book “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster was published. It contained a scene with an inquisitive “Senses Taker” whose name was a pun on “Census Taker”. The main character Milo was pestered with a lengthy series of questions, and two corresponded to the implicit inquires in the quotation: 4
“Oh, this won’t take a minute,” the man assured them. “I’m the official Senses Taker, and I must have some information before I can take your senses. Now, if you’ll just tell me when you were born, where you were born, why you were born, how old you are now; how old you were then, how old you’ll be in a little while, your mother’s name, your father’s name, your aunt’s name. . .
As noted previously, the minister Ernest T. Campbell included the saying in a sermon he delivered on January 25, 1970:
It has been said that the two most important days of a man’s life are the day on which he was born and the day on which he discovers why he was born.
A few years later, on November 18, 1973 Campbell employed a variant of the saying during another sermon he composed that was published by his church: 5
It has been said that the two most important days in a person’s life are the day on which she was born, and the day on which she discovers why she was born.
In 1985 a self-help book called “A Woman and Her Self-Esteem” by Anita Canfield included an instance of the expression: 6
Ask yourself a most profound question: “What are the two most important days in my life?” THE DAY YOU WERE BORN and THE DAY YOU REALIZE WHY YOU WERE BORN!
And why were you born? You were born to bless the lives of others. You were born to make a contribution.
In 1998 a collection of sermons titled “The Lord is Risen! He Is Risen Indeed!” included a variant using the phrase “two great days” instead of “two most important days”. The Scottish theologian and broadcaster William Barclay who died in 1978 was credited although a footnote indicated that the author had been unable to locate a source: 7
Scottish theologian William Barclay once wrote that “… there are two great days in a person’s life, ‘the day we are born and the day we discover why.'” 
[Footnote 5] “Source Unknown”.
In 1999 the expression was employed by a football coach named William McCartney who was also the founder of a religious organization: 8
Coach McCartney, the founder of Promise Keepers, wrapped the two-day event up. As always, his words struck a chord with the thousands of assembled men. “The two most important days in your life are the day you’re born, and the day you find out why you were born.”
By 2008 instances were circulating on twitter. Interestingly, the attribution shifted over time. Please note that QI is not criticizing anyone by reprinting these tweets. This saying has been difficult to trace. The following tweet credited someone named Tim Elmore: 9
Bill Lloyd @blloyd
“Two most important days in your life: The day you were born and the day you discover why.” Tim Elmore
9:49 PM – 31 Mar 2008
The saying was ascribed to David Wood in February 2009: 10
Susan Holsinger @SusanHolsinger
I love this thought. There are two most important days in your life. The day you were born and the day you discover WHY! by David Wood =)
12:04 PM – 20 Feb 2009
In 2010 the ascription shifted again to someone named Dave Martin: 11
Phil Cooke @PhilCooke
“The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why.” – Dave Martin
7:47 PM – 12 Jan 2010
A week later, Helen Burns was receiving credit: 12
Venisha Tjie @sashatjie
“Two most important days in your life are: 1. The day you were born. 2. The day you discovered why.” – Helen Burns.
2:44 AM – 20 Jan 2010
By 2011 the words has been assigned to the quotation superstar Mark Twain: 13
The most two important days in your life are the day your born and the day you find out why– Mark Twain.
6:44 PM – 13 Sep 2011
In 2012 “The Express Star” newspaper of Chickasha, Oklahoma reported on a set of tips offered by the author Rachel Albert: 14
Author Mark Twain once said that the two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why. If you fail to tell your kids why we are here, you have missed the opportunity to figure out what motivates them and gets them excited. This is the most important key to getting kids’ cooperation and empowering them to help the world.
In conclusion, currently this expression is anonymous. Ernest T. Campbell helped to popularize it, but he did not craft it. The attribution to William Barclay was weak because it occurred many years after his death. The ascription to Mark Twain was unsupported.
Image Notes: Picture of a babies feet from kelin at Pixabay. Image of calendar dates from tigerlily713 at Pixabay. Portrait of Mark Twain with a pipe from skeeze at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Tim, Victor Arias, Jill Já, and John Knecht whose inquiries and comments led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to top researcher Barry Popik for his pioneering efforts on this question. Many thanks to Bodhipaksa who runs the very valuable fakebuddhaquotes.com website which carefully evaluates quotations in the spiritual domain. Bodhipaksa told QI about a 1924 citation visible via snippets in Google Books which led QI to locate a different partially matching 1924 citation.)
Update History: On May 25, 2017 the 1924 citation was added.
- Pamphlet, Sermons from Riverside, Date of Sermon: January 25, 1970, Title of Sermon: “Give Ye Them to Eat”: Luke 9:10-17, Author of Sermon: Dr. Ernest T. Campbell, Quote Page 8, The Publications Office, The Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive, New York, N.Y., Call number: Ernest T. Campbell Manuscript Collection Box 2, No. 3, Book contributor: Princeton Theological Seminary Library. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link ↩
- 1906, Boulder Reveries by W. S. Blatchley (Willis Stanley Blatchley), Quote Page 70, The Nature Publishing Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1924 June 21, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Law Students Graduated, Quote Page 13, Column 4, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2011, The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Annotations by Leonard S. Marcus, Quote Page 226, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Original book published in 1961) (Verified on paper) ↩
- Pamphlet, Sermons from Riverside, Date of Sermon: November 18, 1973, Title of Sermon: “What’s the Story?”, Author of Sermon: Dr. Ernest T. Campbell, Quote Page 8, The Publications Office, The Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive, New York, N.Y., Call number: Ernest T. Campbell Manuscript Collection Box 4, No. 28, Book contributor: Princeton Theological Seminary Library. (Internet Archive at archive.org) ↩
- 1985, A Woman and Her Self-Esteem by Anita Canfield, Quote Page 43, Randall Book Co., Salt Lake City, Utah. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1998, The Lord is Risen! He Is Risen Indeed! He Really Is!: Gospel Sermons for Lent/Easter, Cycle A by Richard L. Sheffield, Quote Page 31, Footnote Page 33, CSS Publishing Company, Lima, Ohio. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1999 September 18, Lodi News-Sentinel, The Real (Estate) Story by Larry Underhill, (Advertisement for Statesman Realty) Quote Page R4, Column 5, Lodi, California. (Google News Archive) ↩
- Tweet, From: Bill Lloyd @blloyd, Time: 9:49 PM, Date: March 31, 2008, Text: “Two most important days in your life… (Accessed on twitter.com on June 22, 2016) link ↩
- Tweet, From: Susan Holsinger @SusanHolsinger, Time: 12:04 PM, Date: February 20, 2009, Text: I love this thought… (Accessed on twitter.com on June 22, 2016) link ↩
- Tweet, From: Phil Cooke @PhilCooke, Time: 7:47 PM, Date: January 12, 2010, Text: “The two most important days… (Accessed on twitter.com on June 22, 2016) link ↩
- Tweet, From: Venisha Tjie @sashatjie, Time: 2:44 AM, Date: January 20, 2010, Text: “Two most important days… (Accessed on twitter.com on June 22, 2016) link ↩
- Tweet, From: Banco @upscale_HYPE, Time: 6:44 PM, Date: September 13, 2011, Text: The most two important days… (Accessed on twitter.com on June 22, 2016) link ↩
- 2012 May 21, The Express Star, Section: Community Living, Article: Empower kids by giving them ‘Keys to Peace’ – Well-meaning parents often fail to teach vital values, author says, Byline: Express-Star, Chickasha, Oklahoma. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩