The Secret of Getting Ahead Is Getting Started

Mark Twain? Agatha Christie? Sally Berger? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: To overcome procrastination one must initiate a task. Although this is straightforward advice it is an arcane approach according to the following adage:

The secret of getting ahead is getting started.

The famed humorist Mark Twain and the popular mystery writer Agatha Christie have both received credit for his formula. Yet, I have not found any solid citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1923 a partial match occurred within a newspaper advertisement for a bank in Coshocton, Ohio which was encouraging readers to open an account and start saving money. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Half the game of getting ahead is getting started. Join today, and have a lump sum, plus a pleased feeling, early next December.

The next week the same passage appeared in an advertisement for a bank in Massillon, Ohio. 2

In 1968 an exact match appeared in the compilation “20,000 Quips and Quotes” edited by Evan Esar. No attribution was specified: 3

The secret of getting ahead is getting started.

QI believes that the statement evolved over time and the earliest instances were anonymous. The attributions to Mark Twain and Agatha Christie occurred late and were not substantive.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1989 a newspaper in Indiana published a profile of a high school student that included a favorite quotation he had selected. No attribution was given: 4

Quote: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

In 1992 the “Treasury of Women’s Quotations” edited by Carolyn Warner credited the expression to a woman named Sally Berger: 5

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. Sally Berger

In August 1992 the “Richmond Times-Dispatch” of Virginia published a piece about a store that specialized in teachers’ supplies. The saying appeared on a sign without ascription: 6

This time of year, just before school reopens, teachers pour in the doors. They’re shopping for everything from stickers to brighten their bulletin boards to inspirational or witty sayings: “The Secret of Getting Ahead is Getting Started” or “Baby Philosophy: If Something Stinks, Change It.”

In 1997 an extended version of the quotation was ascribed to Mark Twain by a newspaper columnist in Newport News, Virginia: 7

Mark Twain put it another way: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

Also, in 1997 the same extended passage was credited to Twain in “How to Give a Damn Good Speech” by Philip R. Theibert. 8

In 2003 a newspaper in Liverpool, England credited Sally Berger: 9

It was the author and wit Sally Berger who said that ‘the secret of getting ahead is getting started’.

In 2004 a newspaper in Erie, Pennsylvania credited Berger and provided some biographical details of uncertain accuracy: 10

POSTSCRIPT: The secret of getting ahead is getting started. — Sally Berger (b. 1933), American businesswoman.

In 2005 a columnist in “The Cincinnati Post” of Ohio ascribed the remark to Agatha Christie: 11

Not only was Dame Christie creative and clever when it came to hiding who done it, she was also a smart old gal when it came to life. One of her best quotes (especially for procrastinators like me) was: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. The saying evolved over time, and it has no solid attribution at this time. The ascription to Mark Twain occurred many years after his death in 1910. The credit to Agatha Christie occurred decades after her death in 1976. The 1992 attribution to Sally Berger occurred years after the 1968 appearance and 1923 precursor. Future researchers may discover earlier citations which illuminate the situation.

Image Notes: Picture of Agatha Christie plaque at Torre Abbey via Wikimedia Commons. Author: Flanker: derived from Violetriga. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Finger pressing ‘Go’ button from 422737 at Pixabay. Portrait of Mark Twain circa 1907 by A. F. Bradley; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Robert Moore and George Mannes whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1923 December 9, The Coshocton Tribune, (Advertisement for Commercial National Bank of Coshocton, Ohio), Quote Page 3, Column 6, Coshocton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1923 December 15, The Evening Independent, (Advertisement for The First Savings & Loan Company in Massillon, Ohio), Quote Page 4, Column 4, Massillon, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Topic: Beginning, Quote Page 71, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1989 November 26, Post-Tribune, Edition: Lake, Section: Neighbors, Student Scene: Profile of Craig D. Sherrod, Quote Page H2, Indiana. (NewsBank Access World News)
  5. 1992, Treasury of Women’s Quotations, Edited by Carolyn Warner, Chapter 12: Enthusiasm, Quote Page 91, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1992 August 30, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Edition: City, Section: Area/State, Store Can Provide More Than Supplies by Gary Robertson (Times-Dispatch Staff Writer), Quote Page B-9, Richmond, Virginia. (NewsBank Access World News)
  7. 1997 September 29, Daily Press, Break down big jobs to help build your life by Felicia Mason, Quote Page B1, Column 1, Newport News, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1997, How To Give a Damn Good Speech by Philip R. Theibert, Part 5: 250 Great Quotations, Quote Page 144, Career Press, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  9. 2003 February 19, Daily Post, Banging on the ceiling by Glyn Mn Hughes, Liverpool, England. (NewsBank Access World News)
  10. 2004 January 18, Erie Times-News, Section: Lifestyles Columnists, Erie kids in ‘Sopranos’ wedding, Quote Page 1, Erie, Pennsylvania. (NewsBank Access World News)
  11. 2005 December 5, The Cincinnati Post, Edition: Final, Section: Living, Exploring the Treasures of Egypt by Jan Perry, Quote Page B5, Cincinnati, Ohio. (NewsBank Access World News)