You Can’t Have a Better Tomorrow If You Are Thinking About Yesterday All the Time

Charles F. Kettering? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Charles F. Kettering was a prominent inventor and the head of research at General Motors for more than twenty-five years. I believe he said that one couldn’t envision a better tomorrow if one was always thinking about yesterday. I am not sure of the precise phrasing he used. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1961 a collection of speeches by Kettering was published under the title “Prophet of Progress”. He spoke at a luncheon in his honor on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his development of the electric self-starter for automobiles. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

I have said I was pretty sure that man came from the crab family because we back into everything. We don’t go straight forward at all. I think it is time we turned around and faced the future with our backs to history. You can’t have a better tomorrow if you are thinking about yesterday all the time. If you want to back into history far enough to get some bearings, that is perfectly all right.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The appendix of “Prophet of Progress” contained a list “Fifty Maxims from the Speeches of Charles F. Kettering”. Here were three examples: 2

The opportunities of man are limited only by his imagination. But so few have imagination that there are ten thousand fiddlers to one composer.

What I believe is that, by proper effort, we can make the future almost anything we want to make it.

You can’t have a better tomorrow if you are thinking about yesterday all the time.

In 1969 the quotation appeared as a filler item in a newspaper in Windsor, Colorado although the words were not credited to Kettering: 3

You can’t have a better tomorrow if you are thinking about yesterday all the time.
–Ault Progress

In 1981 the “Minneapolis Tribune” of Minnesota printed the quotation with an ascription to the inventor: 4

You can’t have a better tomorrow if you are thinking about yesterday all the time.
Charles F. Kettering

In 2008 the expression was used as the solution of a syndicated word puzzle: 5

TODAY’S CRYPTOQUOTE: YOU CAN’T HAVE A BETTER TOMORROW IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT YESTERDAY ALL THE TIME. –CHARLES F. KETTERING

In conclusion, the quotation should be credited to Charles F. Kettering. QI has not seen any other plausible ascription.

Image Notes: Time magazine cover depicting Charles F. Kettering in 1933. Illustration showing a crystal ball used for fortune telling from Tumisu at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Corina Borsuk whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1961, Prophet of Progress: Selections from the Speeches of Charles F. Kettering, Edited by T. A. Boyd, Speech Title: Opportunities Unlimited, Start Page 15, Quote Page 16, E. P. Dutton and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1961, Prophet of Progress: Selections from the Speeches of Charles F. Kettering, Edited by T. A. Boyd, Section Title: Fifty Maxims from the Speeches of Charles F. Kettering, Start Page 237, E. P. Dutton and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1969 October 23, Windsor Beacon, Filler item titled “You could write a book”, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Windsor, Colorado. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1981 November 11, Minneapolis Tribune (Star Tribune), Filler item with the title “Think ahead”, Quote Page 10A, Column 5, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 2008 August 2, Asbury Park Press, Cryptoquote, Quote Page D4, Column 5, Asbury Park, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)