It Is Not Real Work Unless You Would Rather Be Doing Something Else

James Matthew Barrie? Chub De Wolfe? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: When I am absorbed in performing a difficult and fascinating task I do not feel like I am working. James Matthew Barrie, the well-known creator of “Peter Pan”, addressed this phenomenon:

Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.

I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: This saying is difficult to trace because the original phrasing employed by J. M. Barrie was different. On May 3, 1922 Barrie delivered the Rectorial Address at St. Andrews University. He spoke about his time as a freelance journalist, and noted that his excitement and motivation were large enough that the experience did not seem like work. In the following passage he also referred to Robert Louis Stevenson’s success as a writer. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But now, on reflection, a dreadful sinking assails me, that this was not really work. The artistic callings—you remember how Stevenson thumped them—are merely doing what you are clamorous to be at; it is not real work unless you would rather be doing something else.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The text above is from a version of the address titled “Courage” published in 1922 by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York. A different transcription was published in the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California on May 28th, 1922. Instead of “thumped them” the phrase “showed them up” was employed. The quotation only differed by a contraction: “is not” became “isn’t”: 2

But now—on reflection—a dreadful sinking assails me that this was not really work. The artistic callings—you remember how Stevenson showed them up–are merely doing what you are clamorous to be at; it isn’t real work unless you would rather be doing something else.

Also in May 1922 the popular columnist Dr. Frank Crane discussed Barrie’s speech and reprinted the quotation: 3

“The artistic callings.” he said, “are merely doing what you are clamoring to be at; it isn’t real work unless you would rather be doing something else.” He alluded to “success which has become a somewhat odious onion nowadays, chiefly because we so often give the name to the wrong thing.”

By 1929 a rephrased version of the quotation was circulating. The “Wausau Daily Record-Herald” of Wausau, Wisconsin printed a short item titled “A Man’s Job” which began as follows: 4

Sir James M. Barrie is quoted as saying: “Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.”

A good definition, and an enlightening one. A man who likes his job, and the things it requires of him doesn’t feel the wear and tear of life as does a man who doesn’t like what he is doing, and thinks he could do something else more satisfactorily to himself.

This new version of the quotation also appeared in “The Daily Northwestern” of Oshkosh, Wisconsin which reprinted the piece from the “Wausau Daily Record-Herald” while acknowledging the paper. 5

The 1936 compilation “The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations” included an entry listing the altered quotation: 6

WORK.—Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.—Sir James M. Barrie.

In 1942 a newspaper in New Jersey reassigned the saying to a columnist based in Ohio: 7

Make Your Choice
Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.
–Chub De Wolfe.

In 1968 “The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life” also credited Chub De Wolfe. 8

In 1977 the influential collection “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter credited Barrie with the modern saying: 9

Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else. —James M. Barrie

Interestingly, in 1982 Laurence J. Peter placed the quotation in “Peter’s Almanac”, but this time he gave no ascription. 10

In conclusion, James M. Barrie should receive credit for the remark he made in a speech in 1922. By 1929 a rephrased version was circulating. Barrie lived to 1937, and it is conceivable that he rephrased the saying himself, but QI has found no substantive evidence to support that hypothesis; hence, QI prefers the 1922 version.

Image Notes: Portrait of J. M. Barrie from the Project Gutenberg eBook “Great Britain and Her Queen” by Anne E. Keeling. Illustration of reclining figure using a laptop computer from “mohamed1982eg” at Pixabay. Photo of the courtyard at the University of St Andrews circa 2007; author: Jared and Corin; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

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

Notes:

  1. 1922, Courage by J. M. Barrie (James Matthew Barrie), The Rectorial Address Delivered at St. Andrews University on May 3, 1922, Quote Page 23 and 24, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1922 May 28, San Francisco Chronicle, Courage Man’s Greatest Attribute: Sir James M. Barrie Says It Makes Play of Work, Brings Joy Out of Sadness and Success Out of Failure, Quote Page E1, Column 3, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1922 May 31, Decatur Herald, James M. Barrie, Right to Title of Greatest Living Genius by Dr. Frank Crane, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Decatur, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1929 December 28, Wausau Daily Record-Herald, A Man’s Job, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Wausau, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1929 December 31, The Daily Northwestern, A Man’s Job, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1936, The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations, Originally compiled by Tryon Edwards, Revised and Enlarged by C. N. Catrevas and Jonathan Edwards, Topic: Work, Quote Page 734, Column 2, Standard Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans) link
  7. 1942 January 21, Plainfield Courier-News, (Filler Item), Quote Page 8, Column 2, Plainfield, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1968, The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life by Forbes Magazine, Quote Page 390, Published by Forbes, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Work, Quote Page 506, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1982, Peter’s Almanac by Laurence J. Peter, Date: September 20, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)