There Are Three Types of People: Those Who Make Things Happen, Those Who Watch Things Happen, and Those Who Wonder What Happened

Nicholas Murray Butler? Tommy Lasorda? John Newbern? Laurence J. Peter? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a humorous three-fold categorization of people. The first group contains those who make things happen. Are you familiar with this saying? Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: In March 1931 Nicholas Murray Butler who was the President of Columbia University in New York delivered a speech on Charter Day at the University of California. Butler split the population into thee sets, but he noted that individuals could move from one set to another. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The vast population of this earth, and indeed nations themselves, may readily be divided into three groups. There are the few who make things happen, the many more who watch things happen, and the overwhelming majority who have no notion of what happens. Every human being is born into this third and largest group; it is for himself, his environment and his education to determine whether he shall rise to the second group or even to the first.

Some periodicals and reference works identified Butler as the coiner of this expression, and researcher Barry Popik identified the pertinent speech.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Butler’s pronouncement made a splash, but he was not always credited, and the phrasing was variable: For example, in June 1931 a newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida printed this: 2

Not long ago a prominent educator was reported as saying that there are just three kinds of people in the world: the few who make things happen; the slightly larger group who observe them happening; and the great majority, who never even know they are happening.

In July 1931 a newspaper in Dayton, Ohio credited Butler with a slightly different instance: 3

Nicholas Murray Butler divides mankind into three classes. First, there are those who make things happen; second, those who watch things happening; and third, the vast majority who have no notion what is happening.

In 1956 “New Guide for Toastmasters and Speakers” by Herbert V. Prochnow credited a periodical in South Dakota: 4

Opinion of the Public

People come in three classes: the few who make things happen, the many who watch things happen and the overwhelming majority who have no idea what happened. News, Woonsocket, S. D.

In 1958 the popular syndicated columnist Earl Wilson presented an anonymous instance; 5

Earl’s Pearls: Sign on a desk in the Pentagon: “This Job Is So Secret, I Don’t Know What I’m Doing” . . . People can be divided into three groups — those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened.

In 1979 Tommy Lasorda who was the successful manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team wrote a newspaper piece containing a version of the expression tailored to his sport: 6

There are three types of baseball players — those who make it happen, those who watch it happen and those who wonder what happens. Our players are the ones who make it happen and they’re the ones who will make it happen again in 1979.

Also in 1979 the compilation “1,001 Logical Laws” edited by John Peers ascribed the saying as follows: 7

John Newbern’s Law:

People can be divided into three groups: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened.

In 1982 “Peter’s Almanac” by Laurence J. Peter presented a version without attribution: 8

Peter’s People Types:
1. People who make things happen.
2. People who watch things happen.
3. People who don’t know what happened.

In 1985 the connection to Butler was recalled in the pages of “Forbes” magazine: 9

There are the few who make things happen; the many more who watch things happen and the overwhelming majority who have no notion of what happens.
NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER

In conclusion, Nicholas Murray Butler should receive credit for the words he spoke in 1931. The phrasing has evolved over time, and others have repeated versions of the saying; however, current evidence points to Butler as the originator.

Image Notes: Three different figures from 3dman_eu at Pixabay assembled by QI.

(Great thanks to Sean Murphy, Carl Österberg, and Tim Allison whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Murphy (www.skmurphy.com) reported that Kent Wright’s 1944 book “Nectar in a Nutshell” credited Butler. Österberg noted that a wide variety of people had received credit, e.g., Steve Backley, Mary Kay Ash, Jim Lovell, Robert T. Kiyosaki, Carroll Bryant, Casey Stengel, and John W. Newbern. Special thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering research.)

Notes:

  1. 1931 March 29, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, THESE UNITED STATES–“A Nation Without Leaders or Political Parties; An Office-Seeking Class in Control” by Nicholas Murray Butler, Quote Page 6, Column 2, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1931 June 2, The Fort Lauderdale News, With State Press: Three Kinds of Men, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1931 July 13, The Dayton Daily News, Trends of the Times, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Dayton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1956, New Guide for Toastmasters and Speakers by Herbert V. Prochnow, Quote Page 190, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive)
  5. 1958 May 8, The Raleigh Register, Earl’s Pearls, Quote Page 1, Column 8, Beckley, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1979 February 25, The Daily Times, Dodgers Alive And Well by Tom Lasorda, Quote Page B4, Column 1, Salisbury, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Quote Page 117, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1982, Peter’s Almanac by Laurence J. Peter, Date: January 23, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1985 January 28, Forbes, Thoughts on the Business of Life, Quote Page 132, Column 1, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)