You Must Learn from the Mistakes of Others. You Will Never Live Long Enough to Make Them All Yourself

Hyman Rickover? Martin Vanbee? Eleanor Roosevelt? Harry Myers? Laurence J. Peter? Sam Levenson? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: These two simple adages have a long history:

  • Learn from your mistakes.
  • Learn from the mistakes of others.

Some wit crafted a hilarious addendum for the second adage:

  • You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.

This construction has been attributed to U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Rickover did employ this joke during a speech in 1983, but it was circulating decades earlier.

The first close match located by QI appeared in the 1932 book “Human Engineering” by Harry Myers and Mason M. Roberts. The words were credited to an unnamed person. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

Doctor, years ago I had a foreman who taught me a great deal. He was quite a philosopher. One day he said, “William, you must learn from the mistakes of others—you will never live long enough to make them all yourself.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

QI believes that the comical saying evolved over time. In 1837 “The Evening Post” of New York printed a precursor which the newspaper tentatively attributed to Benjamin Franklin. This partially matching instance did not mention longevity and contained a different joke: 2

It is a remark, I believe, of Franklin, “that wise men profit by the mistakes of others, while fools will not learn even from their own blunders.”

In 1901 several U.S. newspapers published a different precursor in the form of a dialog: 3

Harduppe—“We should profit by our mistakes.”
Borrowell—“I should much rather profit by the mistakes of other people.”

In 1902 “Topeka State Journal” of Topeka, Kansas printed a precursor that mentioned longevity: 4

Man learns from his own mistakes, but he never lives long enough to complete his education.

In 1905 The Falls City Tribune of Nebraska published a precursor that made a point similar to the target expression: 5

It is better to learn from the mistakes of others than to wait until you make them yourself.

In 1918 “The Record” of Greenville, Kentucky printed a thematically related quip: 6

We Americans learn from the mistakes of others to avoid them—and make our own mistakes.

In 1920 the journal “American Machinist” published a precursor that included the distinctive phrase “making them all yourself”: 7

Some people can’t see the use of studying or even reading history. Most of them have had very little to do with making history for it is an old truism that learning by the mistakes of others is a far simpler and less expensive process than making them all yourself.

At last, in 1932 the saying under analysis appeared in the book “Human Engineering” as mentioned at the beginning of this article: 8

Doctor, years ago I had a foreman who taught me a great deal. He was quite a philosopher. One day he said, “William, you must learn from the mistakes of others—you will never live long enough to make them all yourself.

In September 1932 the “St. Petersburg Times” of Florida printed a letter from a correspondent who acknowledged the book “Human Engineering” and included a rephrased version of the expression: 9

“We cannot live long enough to make all the mistakes ourselves, therefore we must profit by the mistakes of others.”

The joke continued to circulate in 1942 when an instance without attribution appeared in an advertisement within “The Sunday News and Tribune” of Jefferson City, Missouri: 10

Learn from the mistakes of others—you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.

In 1945 a book published by a U.S. automobile maker titled “Introduction to Industrial Supervision” included an instance: 11

Reading is really just a quick method of gaining experience. You must learn from the mistakes of others as you will never live long enough to make them all yourself. The proven excellent practices of others are made available through books to help make your work easier.

In 1947 an executive at a volunteer service organization employed the saying without attribution: 12

Alfred O. Halsey, Jr., Kiwanis vice president, offering this thought for the week: “Learn from the mistakes of others; you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself”

By 1951 the remark had been attached to Martin Vanbee in the pages of a Trenton, New Jersey newspaper: 13

“Learn from the mistakes of others — you can live long enough to make them all yourself.” — Martin Vanbee.

In 1982 “Peter’s Almanac” by Laurence J. Peter printed the following variant: 14

You had better learn from the mistakes of others—you don’t have enough time to make them all yourself.

In 1983 retired Admiral Hyman G. Rickover delivered a speech before the California Democratic Council, and he employed the saying: 15

He added, “A cause of many of our mistakes and problems is ignorance — an overwhelming national ignorance of the facts about the rest of the world.”

“It is necessary to learn from other’s mistakes,” he continued. “You will not live long enough to make them all yourself.”

The 1989 compilation “Words of Wisdom” by journalist William Safire and Leonard Safir credited Rickover: 16

Become better informed. Learn from others’ mistakes. You could not live long enough to make them all yourself.
—Admiral Hyman Rickover

In 1995 a Michigan newspaper ascribed the saying to humorist Sam Levenson: 17

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY
“You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t possibly live long enough to make them all yourself.”
– SAM LEVENSON

In 2000 a newspaper in Albany, Oregon printed an unlikely linkage to quotation magnet Eleanor Roosevelt: 18

And, finally, in reading this list, I was reminded of the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

In 2012 Oliver Wendell Holmes implausibly received credit although the ascription did not distinguish between Holmes junior and senior both of whom achieved fame: 19

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Learn from the mistakes of others … You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself!” I think this is the essence of why you want to read and learn from the successes (and mistakes) of others.

In conclusion, QI believes that this saying evolved over time, and the originator remains anonymous. The remark appeared in the 1932 book “Human Engineering” by Harry Myers and Mason M. Roberts, and subsequently it was printed in newspapers. The linkage to other figures such as Hyman Rickover and Martin Vanbee occurred after the saying was in circulation. Future researchers may discover antedatings.

Image Notes: Picture of potential banana peel accident from stevepb at Pixabay. Illustration of sign saying “Oops!” from cripi at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Kat Caverly whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Caverly pointed out that several famous individuals had received credit for the saying.)

Notes:

  1. 1932, Human Engineering by Harry Myers and Mason M. Roberts, Quote Page 213, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Based on snippet match in Google Books; the citation is not yet verified; text visible in snippet; contemporaneous book review in “Tampa Bay Times” mentions the saying)
  2. 1837 November 25, The Evening Post, For the Evening Post; “My voice is still for war”, Quote Page 2, Column 2, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1901 October 5, Elmira Daily Gazette (Star-Gazette), Minor Locals, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Elmira, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1902 April 8, Topeka State Journal, Pointed Paragraphs (From the Chicago News), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Topeka, Kansas. (Chronicling America)
  5. 1905 November 24, The Falls City Tribune, With the Philosophers (York Times), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Falls City, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1918 January 24, The Record, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Greenville, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1920 May 27, American Machinist: A Practical Journal of Machine Construction, Volume 52, Number 22, What to Read for the man in a hurry suggested by the Managing Editor, Start Page 1167, Quote Page 1167, McGraw-Hill Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1932, Human Engineering by Harry Myers and Mason M. Roberts, Quote Page 213, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Based on snippet match in Google Books; the citation is not yet verified; text visible in snippet; contemporaneous book review in “Tampa Bay Times” mentions the saying)
  9. 1932 September 25, St. Petersburg Times, Times’ Forum, Some Highbrow Wisecracks (Letter to the editor from F. Palmer Church), Quote Page 4, Column 6, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1942 November 6, The Sunday News and Tribune, Ott’s Kitty Cat (Advertisement for a store at 115 W. High Street), Quote Page 5, Column 1, Jefferson City, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1945, Introduction to Industrial Supervision by John M. Amiss and Lloyd R. Walker, Section 9, Quote Page 121, Department of Industrial Education, Chrysler Corporation. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  12. 1947 July 4, Charleston News and Courier, Did You Happen to See, Quote Page 10, Column 4, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  13. 1951 July 27, Trenton Evening Times, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 14, Column 5, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  14. 1982, Peter’s Almanac by Laurence J. Peter, Date: January 26, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  15. 1983 April 11, Poughkeepsie Journal, Learn from mistakes by others —Rickover, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Poughkeepsie, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1989, Words of Wisdom: More Good Advice, Compiled and edited by William Safire and Leonard Safir, Section: Questions, Quote Page 317, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
  17. 1995 October 26, Times Herald, Thought for the Day, Quote Page 13A, Column 4, Port Huron, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  18. 2000 November 25, Albany Democrat-Herald, Think of life as a juggling act by Jim Rydingsword (Director of senior services for the Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments), Quote Page B6, Column 1, Albany, Oregon. (Newspapers_com)
  19. 2012 November 30, Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Navy Reads: Conversation with the Creator II by Bill Doughty (Interview with Professor John Jackson), Quote Page A6, Column 3, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)