A Pessimist Sees the Difficulty in Every Opportunity; an Optimist Sees the Opportunity in Every Difficulty

Winston Churchill? Bertram Carr? F. W. Cole? John D. Rockefeller? L. P. Jacks? Helen Keller? Anonymous?

Dear Quote investigator: Here are four versions of a popular saying about differing mental attitudes:

  1. The pessimist sees an obstacle in every opportunity; the optimist sees an opportunity in every obstacle.
  2. An optimist finds an opportunity in every difficulty; a pessimist finds a difficulty in every opportunity
  3. A pessimist is one who sees a disaster in every opportunity. An optimist sees opportunity in every disaster.
  4. An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity.

The statesman Winston Churchill is typically credited with this remark, but I have been unable to find a citation. Would you please help?

Quote investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Churchill made this statement. The historian Richard M. Langworth placed the saying in an appendix titled “Red Herrings: False Attributions” in his book “Churchill By Himself” which is the most comprehensive collection of Churchill quotations. 1

The earliest strong match located by QI was spoken in 1919 by Bertram Carr who was the Mayor of Carlisle, England. He was addressing “The Fifty-First Annual Co-operative Congress”, a gathering inspired by social reformers and the cooperative movement. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

The past history of an old walled city such as this leaves its legacy of ideas antiquated and out of date. These, as expressed in tangible form, are an embarrassment, and hinder the wheels of progress, but we view these, I hope, in the spirit of the optimist to whom every difficulty is an opportunity, and not as the pessimist, to whom every opportunity presents some difficulty.

The ascription to Carr is tentative because the saying may have already been circulating. Fragments appeared earlier, and the full statement was probably assembled from these pieces over time.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1895 “The Illustrated American” recounted an anecdote about John James Mago who received a punishment of one hundred lashes on his bare back for tardiness. The punishment was deemed excessive, and he was given monetary recompense. He used the money to become a successful and wealthy businessman. The preface to the tale included the following adage which was thematically distinct but germane: 3

One man’s calamity is another’s opportunity. This quotation from Wall street is an obvious truism. Yet sometimes one man’s calamity is his own opportunity.

In 1897 the “Hawaiian Gazette” credited business titan Jay Gould with an observation about optimists and pessimists that differed interestingly from the one under examination: 4

Jay Gould said that great commercial undertakings were usually begun by optimists, but were finished and made successful by pessimists. The optimists gave out when the unforseen difficulties appeared. The pessimists took hold when they understood and measured the difficulties.

In 1903 “The Guntersville Democrat” of Guntersville, Alabama printed a piece that included a description of “pessimist” that matched the expression being explored: 5

We confess that we have no time to argue with a pessimist. He who sees nothing beautiful in the work of God’s fingers, and who can interpose a difficulty in every opportunity, is no fit company for one who would achieve.

Also in 1903 a newsletter edited by an adherent of the Christian Science Church included a passage ascribed to A. P. Barton about maintaining a positive outlook: 6

Cease your suggestion of bad results. Suggest to yourself an opportunity in every difficulty. Do not allow feeling to get the mastery over you. Control your own physical states by the use of right auto-suggestions.

In 1915 “The Photoplay Author and Writer’s Monthly” published an article by W. S. Holmes who contrasted two attitudes: 7

Do you become discouraged easily, or do you bend to your advantage even the apparent ills of life? It is the difference between the pessimist and optimist: “The pessimist chews his quinine pills; the optimist, when chased up a tree by a bear, sits calmly and admires the view.” Be an optimist; make reverses and rejections redound to your advantage.

The article included a match for one-half of the saying under study:

Instead of repining he saw in the apparent difficulty an opportunity.

In 1918 the columnist Newton Newkirk of the “The Boston Post” in Massachusetts shared an uplifting remark: 8

WHAT THE SPHINX SAYS:
“Life will never grow dull so long as you joyously greet every obstacle as an opportunity.”

In 1919 the full saying was employed by Bertram Carr as noted previously:

. . . we view these, I hope, in the spirit of the optimist to whom every difficulty is an opportunity, and not as the pessimist, to whom every opportunity presents some difficulty.

In 1921 a newspaper in Pennsylvania presented a statement from a religious figure based in Cardiff, Wales: 9

“A pessimist,” says the Rev. F. W. Cole, president of the Cardiff Free Church Council, “is a man who takes every opportunity of seeing a difficulty, but the optimist is he who sees in every difficulty an opportunity.”

In 1922 a newspaper in Boyden, Iowa 10 and a newspaper in Lecompton, Kansas 11 printed a filler item without attribution that used the word “obstacle” instead of “difficulty”:

The pessimist sees an obstacle in every opportunity; the optimist sees an opportunity in every obstacle.

In 1923 a newspaper in Hiawatha, Kansas printed this version without attribution: 12

An optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty, a pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. Be an optimist.

In 1925 an article in “The Detroit Free Press” reported that 85-year-old oil industry magnate John D. Rockefeller played a round of golf and shared the following pearl of wisdom: 13

In one round, after a poor start on a difficult hole, he gave a definition of an optimist and a pessimist.

“A pessimist,” he said, “is one who sees a disaster in every opportunity. An optimist sees opportunity in every disaster.”

Thereupon, Mr. Rockefeller took out his midiron and made such a recovery that he was able to get on a 45 yard dog hole.

In 1929 the book “Adventurous America: A Study of Contemporary Life and Thought” by Edwin Mims included a chapter epigraph that credited the popular educator and minister L. P. Jacks (Lawrence Pearsall Jacks) with the following: 14

An optimist is one who sees an opportunity in every difficulty. A pessimist is one who sees a difficulty in every opportunity.

An entry dated 1936 in “Helen Keller’s Journal” contained the following partial match: 15

This house is well named Sunnyside. Dr. Love never fails to turn to the sunny side, however dark the clouds in his spiritual sky may be. His cheerful courage inspires others to find an opportunity in every difficulty.

In 1938 Winston Churchill penned an essay that included a joke about optimists and pessimists, but it was not similar to the saying under examination: 16

We remember the sardonic war-time joke about the optimist and the pessimist. The optimist was the man who did not mind what happened, so long as it did not happen to him. The pessimist was the man who lived with the optimist.

In 1942 H. L. Mencken placed a version using “calamity” in “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”. He was unable to identify a source: 17

An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity.
Author unidentified

In 1968 “The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life” credited an instance to another person: 18

If we are to achieve a victorious standard of living today we must look for the opportunity in every difficulty instead of being paralyzed at the thought of the difficulty in every opportunity. — Walter E. Cole

In 1979 “The Book of Quotes” compiled by Barbara Rowes assigned the version with “calamity” to Churchill: 19

An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity.
—Winston Churchill

In 1999 “The Des Moines Register” of Iowa published a profile of a local business person that included a favorite quotation. Churchill received credit for the version with the word “difficulty”: 20

Quote: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”—Sir Winston Churchill.

In conclusion, this article presents snapshot of current research. QI tentatively ascribes the remark to Bertram Carr based on the 1919 citation. Future researcher may uncover earlier evidence. Winston Churchill should not be credited with this saying.

Image Notes: Thumbs up and thumbs down illustrations from ArtsyBee at Pixabay. Picture of Winston Churchill displaying ‘V’ sign from the collections of the Imperial War Museums accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Sam LoPresto whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. LoPresto also pointed out Langworth’s incredulity. Special thanks to researchers: Barry Popik and Richard M. Langworth who have also explored this topic.)

 

Notes:

  1. 2013 December 12 (Kindle Edition Date), Churchill By Himself (Winston Churchill’s In His Own Words Collection), Compiled and edited by Richard M. Langworth, Appendix I: Red Herrings: False Attributions, Entry: Pessimist and optimist. (Kindle Location 19806)
  2. 1919, The Fifty-First Annual Co-operative Congress, Held at the Market Hall, Carlisle, England, On 9th, 10th, and 11th June, 1919, The Congress Luncheon, Start Page 61, Quote Page 64, Published by the Co-operative Union Limited, Holyoake House, Hanover Street, Manchester, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1895 November 9, The Illustrated American, Current Comment, Start Page 590, Quote Page 592, Illustrated American Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1897 March 26, Hawaiian Gazette, The Pessimists, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii. (Chronicling America)
  5. 1903 January 29, The Guntersville Democrat, A Man’s Possession, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Guntersville, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1903 April, Washington News Letter, Volume 8, Number 7, (Filler Item ascribed to A. P. Barton) Quote Page 398, Oliver C. Sabin, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  7. 1915 June, The Photoplay Author and Writer’s Monthly, Volume 5, Number 6, Cheer by W. S. Holmes, Start Page 194, Quote Page 194, The Home Correspondence School, Springfield Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1918 November 14, The Boston Post, All Sorts by Newton Newkirk, What the Sphinx Says, Quote Page 14, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1921 November 15, The Druid (Formerly The Welsh-American), Tipyn O Bobpeth: Paragraphs of General Interest to Druid Readers, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1922 November 2, Boyden Reporter, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 1, Boyden, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1922 November 2, The Lecompton Community Spirit (Successor of The Lecompton Sun), (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 5, Lecompton, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1923 November 16, The Brown County World, Social and Personal, Quote Page 7, Column 4,Hiawatha, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1925 March 2, The Detroit Free Press, John D. at 85 Plays Splendid Golf Game, Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Column 6, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1929, Adventurous America: A Study of Contemporary Life and Thought by Edwin Mims, (Chapter 6 epigraph ascribed to L. P. Jacks), Quote Page 163, Charles Scribner’s sons, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  15. 1938, Helen Keller’s Journal 1936–1937 by Helen Keller, (Journal Date: December 10, 1936; Journal Location: The Manse, Bothwell), Quote Page 57 and 58, Doubleday, Doran & Company Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans via archive.org)
  16. 1939, Step By Step 1936-1939 by Winston S. Churchill, Essay: France and England, Date: December 1, 1938, Start Page 266, Quote Page 267 and 268, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans)
  17. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Optimist and Pessimist, Quote Page 876, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)
  18. 1968, The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life by Forbes Magazine, Quote Page 403, Published by Forbes, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  19. 1979, The Book of Quotes, Compiled by Barbara Rowes, Section: Politics, Quote Page 276, A Sunrise Book: E. P. Dutton, New York. (Verified on paper)
  20. 1999 September 13, The Des Moines Register, Do You Know: Jim Branner, Quote, Quote Page 13B, Column 4, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)