Benjamin Franklin? H. K. Williams? James H. Hope? E. B. Gregory? Dalton E. Brady? Robert H. Schuller? John Wooden? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Proper planning is fundamental to success. Benjamin Franklin has been credited with an admonitory aphorism. Here are three versions using “plan” and “prepare”:
- Failing to plan is planning to fail.
- The person who fails to plan, plans to fail.
- By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail.
The memorability of this statement is enhanced by the use of antimetabole: a clause is repeated with key words transposed. In this case, the suffixes are also swapped. Would you please trace this expression?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Benjamin Franklin employed this adage.
The first match known to QI appeared in the periodical “The Biblical World” in 1919. The Reverend H. K. Williams provided advice to people who were responsible for giving presentations to religious groups. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1
Be well prepared and brief in your remarks. There is positively no excuse for wasting another’s time by going to the meeting unprepared and rambling helplessly in your talk. Remember, if you fail to prepare you are preparing to fail.
This valuable citation is listed in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press. 2 QI hypothesizes that Williams was using an adage that was already in circulation although he may be credited with helping to popularize it. Future researchers will likely find earlier instances.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1929 James H. Hope who was the State Superintendent of Education for South Carolina delivered an annual report to the Governor which included an instance of the saying without attribution: 3
If we fail to prepare we prepare to fail.
In 1941 the United Press news service published an article about military preparedness containing a version of the adage spoken by E. B. Gregory who was the U.S. Quartermaster General: 4
“For us to fail to prepare,” he said, “is to prepare to fail.”
In 1942 an investment company called “Babson’s Reports” of Massachusetts employed a variant with “plan” instead of “prepare”: 5
Every portfolio, however sound at the start, is exposed to the actions and reactions of uncontrollable forces. To steer a financial course safely calls for systematic planning and careful supervision. Those who fail to plan are planning to fail.
In 1958 the compilation “Drifting Twigs” by Captain Dalton E. Brady included the following three items: 6
When others agree with us, we give them credit for having good sense.
To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail.
Shorten the path to success by lengthening the hours of preparation.
In 1964 the popular syndicated columnist Earl Wilson printed an anonymous instance: 7
“Nobody plans to fail. They just fail to plan.”—Anon.
In 1970 a filler item in “The Minneapolis Tribune” newspaper of Minnesota implausibly credited the U.S founding father Benjamin Franklin: 8
By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail.
In 1973 the popular American televangelist Robert H. Schuller included the aphorism in his self-help book “You Can Become the Person You Want To Be”: 9
Remember: Most people fail, not because they lack talent, money, or opportunity; they fail because they never really planned to succeed. Plan your future because you have to live there!
If You Fail to Plan, You Are Planning to Fail
In 1977 John Wooden who earned many national championships as a U.S. basketball coach used the expression during a speech: 10
“When you fail to prepare, you’re preparing to fail,” John Wooden told the audience at Texas Tech’s University Center Theatre Thursday night. Wooden’s record indicates that he rarely failed to prepare properly.
In conclusion, QI categorizes this saying as proverbial wisdom with an anonymous origin. Currently, the earliest known instance was written by Reverend H. K. Williams in 1919. The ascription to Benjamin Franklin who died in 1790 is unsupported. Robert H. Schuller, John Wooden, and many others used the saying after it was in circulation.
(Great thanks to Eric Castro and Brian VanHooker whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to “Goody Go Bags” who asked about the variant using “plan” instead of “prepare”.)
Update History: On July 9, 2018 the 1942 citation was added.
- 1919 January, The Biblical World, Volume 53, Number 1, Religious Education,(Excerpt from “The Group Plan” by Rev. H. K. Williams in the “Young People’s Service”, Start Page 80, Quote Page 81, Column 2, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 73, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1929, Sixty-First Annual Report of the State Superintendent of Education of the State of South Carolina (James H. Hope), Chapter 1: General Report, Section: Adult Education, Quote Page 35, Printed Under the Direction of the Joint Committee On Printing General Assembly of South Carolina. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1941 January 8, The Corpus Christi Times, U.S. Must Be Prepared To Do Some Blitzkrieging If Occasion Demands, Quartermaster General Warns Automotive Industry, Quote Page 5, Column 6, Corpus Christi, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1942 August 9, The Pittsburgh Press, Who Supervises Your Investments, (Babson’s Reports, Babson Park, Massachusetts), Section: Two, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1958, Drifting Twigs by Captain Dalton E. Brady, Quote Page 130, A Reflection Book: Comet Press Books, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1964 October 13, Delaware County Daily Times, Memo to Chonny Carson by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 21, Column 8, Chester, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1970 January 7, The Minneapolis Tribune (Star Tribune), Crash Course (Filler item), Quote Page 10, Column 2, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1973, You Can Become the Person You Want To Be by Robert H. Schuller, Quote Page 24, Hawthorn Books, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1977 January 21, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Wooden Preaches Preparation by Carter Cromwell (Avalanche-Journal Sports Staff), Quote Page D3, Column 1, Lubbock, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩