The Only Thing More Painful Than Learning from Experience Is Not Learning from Experience

Archibald MacLeish? Laurence J. Peter? Earl Wilson? Eleanor Hoyt? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The American poet Archibald MacLeish apparently said that learning from experience was painful, but the alternative of not learning was worse. A similar remark has been ascribed to quotation collector Laurence J. Peter. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1966 in the widely syndicated column of Earl Wilson who presented it as an anonymous “Remembered Quote”: 1

“The only thing more painful than learning from experience is not learning from experience.”
–Anon.

More than a decade later in 1978 Archibald MacLeish received credit, and in 1982 Laurence J. Peter included an instance in one of his books.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1904 an antecedent written by Eleanor Hoyt appeared in “Everybody’s Magazine”. The meaning was quite different, but it employed the phrase “only one thing more painful”, and the template was similar. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI. 2

To be misunderstood is always painful. Possibly there is only one thing more painful. That is to be understood.

In 1966 Earl Wilson shared an instance with his readers as mentioned previously. In 1968 Evan Esar included the saying without ascription in the compilation “20,000 Quips and Quotes”: 3

There’s only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.

In 1978 Archibald MacLeish received credit in a newspaper filler item. QI has not yet located the saying in MacLeish’s oeuvre: 4

There’s only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience. — Archibald MacLeish.

In 1982 Laurence J. Peter placed the saying in “Peter’s Almanac” where it was grouped with miscellaneous unattributed remarks within the entry for September 21. 5

A sense of humor makes the world a comedy—a sense of honor, a tragedy.

There is one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.

A fool and his money are soon parted—but were sure lucky to get together in the first place.

In 1991 a newspaper in Orlando, Florida reported that the expression without ascription was displayed on a sign adjacent to a church 6

Sign outside Cathedral Pines Assembly of God Church, Cheney Highway, Titusville: “There’s only one thing more painful than learning from experience. That’s not learning from experience.”

In 1999 the publisher of “Tampa Bay Magazine” in Florida printed an instance of the saying in his column: 7

The only thing that is normally more painful than learning from experience is not learning from it. Experience is compulsory education. You can be educated by reading the small print on contracts, but you get experience by not reading it.

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of research. Currently, the earliest citations yield an anonymous attribution. The saying was linked to Archibald MacLeish and Laurence J. Peter many years after it was in circulation.

Image Notes: Cropped publicity photo of columnist Earl Wilson circa 1949. Portrait of Archibald MacLeish from americaslibrary.gov. Both images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Reduced-size low-resolution picture of the book cover of “Peter’s Almanac” by Laurence J. Peter.

(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mardy’s latest wonderful book is “Metaphors Be With You: An A to Z Dictionary of History’s Greatest Metaphorical Quotations”. The online entry for “Experience” discusses this quotation.)

Notes:

  1. 1966 April 28, Reno Gazette-Journal, It Happened Last Night: Oscar-Winner Lee Marvin Has Bit of Bogart in His Style by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Reno, Nevada. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1904 September, Everybody’s Magazine, Volume 11, Number 3, A Little Sister to the East Side by Eleanor Hoyt, Start Page 324, Quote Page 324, The Ridgway-Thayer Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Quote Page 286, Topic: Experience, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1978 November 12, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Quotes (Filler item), Quote Page B7, Column 5, Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1982, Peter’s Almanac by Laurence J. Peter, Date: September 21, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1991 May 21, The Orlando Sentinel, Section: Brevard Extra, Column: Brevard at Large, Official Cleaning Up – Garbage, That Is by Allen Rose (The Sentinel Staff), Quote Page F1, Orlando, Florida. (NewsBank Access World News)
  7. 1999 July-August, Tampa Bay Magazine, Publisher Postulates: Experience by Aaron R. Fodiman, Quote Page 16, Column 1, Published by Tampa Bay Publications, Inc., Florida. (Google Books Full View) link