The Opposite of Courage Is Not Cowardice; It Is Conformity

Rollo May? Earl Nightingale? Jim Hightower? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Uncommon or unconventional thoughts and behaviors can elicit hostility. To avoid estrangement many people consciously or unconsciously conform to societal expectations. Pursuing an individual path requires bravery and determination. Consider the following adage:

The opposite of courage isn’t cowardice; it’s conformity.

This notion has been attributed to psychologist Rollo May, motivational speaker Earl Nightingale, and political commentator Jim Hightower. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1953 book “Man’s Search for Himself” by Rollo May. The vocabulary and thought were present in the following passage, but the expression was not compact. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The opposite to courage is not cowardice: that, rather, is the lack of courage. To say a person is a coward has no more meaning than to say he is lazy: it simply tells us that some vital potentiality is unrealized or blocked. The opposite to courage, as one endeavors to understand the problem in our particular age, is automaton conformity.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1956 radio announcer Earl Nightingale made a recording to inspire company salespeople. The enthusiastic response led him to release a commercial version of his twenty-minute message as a spoken word record in 1957. The popular disc began with the following intriguing line:

I’d like to tell you about the strangest secret in the world.

Nightingale espoused a version of the “New Thought” philosophy. One should formulate goals and then repeatedly envision the goals being realized. This will facilitate the actual attainment of the goals. In addition, one should avoid envisioning defeat or conforming to an undistinguished path through life.

During his speech Nightingale delivered a concise version of the adage under examination while crediting Rollo May: 2

Rollo May, the distinguished psychiatrist, wrote a wonderful book called “Man’s Search for Himself”, and in this book he says: “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice; it is conformity.” And there you have the trouble today: It’s conformity, people acting like everyone else without knowing why, without knowing where they’re going.

This quotation does not appear in May’s book “Man’s Search for Himself”; however, it is clear the Nightingale constructed the statement he spoke by streamlining the book excerpt presented previously.

If the reader wishes to use a quotation directly from Rollo May. QI suggests using this version based on the book text with ellipses: 3

The opposite to courage is not cowardice. . . The opposite to courage . . . is automaton conformity.

In January 1960 “The Anniston Star” of Anniston, Alabama reported that the record was played during a meeting of the local Rotary Club. The newspaper printed a somewhat garbled version of the speech: 4

Men don’t think, the unnamed voice said. Only five out of any given one hundred men succeed. The opposite of courage in our society is conformity. By the age of 65, 95 per cent are broke because they conformed.

In September 1960 a newspaper in Coos Bay, Oregon presented a series of six columns based on “Man’s Search for Himself”. Interestingly, the column based on the book section containing the quotation did not include the word “conformity”: 5

The opposite of courage is not cowardice. To say that a person is a coward has no more meaning than to say that he is lazy. It simply tells us that some’ vital potentiality in him is unrealized.

Today people lack courage because of their fear of being isolated, alone. If one sinks back into the crowd, he does not risk these dangers.

In 1965 a newspaper in Eunice, Louisiana reported on a Rotary Club. meeting during which a local insurance executive spoke: 6

“The opposite of courage in our society,” he said, “is not cowardice, but conformity”.

If a man believes he will succeed, and so directs his thoughts and actions through life, he will be a success, he said.

In 1987 a newspaper columnist in Munster, Indiana praised Earl Nightingale and discussed his celebrated record: 7

Earl then refers to Rollo May’s quote from “Man’s Search for Himself” where he says, “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice…it is conformity.”

Conformity is a crippling condition that keeps people from succeeding like they should. He goes on to say, “Now, think of it. In America right now there are millions of people age 65 and older and most of them are broke.”

In 2002 Jim Hightower, a radio host and former Texas agricultural commissioner, employed the adage in his syndicated column. No attribution was specified: 8

The opposite of courage is not cowardice — its conformity. After all, even a dead fish can go with the flow.

In conclusion, Rollo May should receive credit for the words he wrote in his 1953 book “Man’s Search for Himself”. Earl Nightingale read May’s book and streamlined one of its paragraphs to yield a concise adage which he spoke during a recording released in 1957. Nightingale credited May, but he did not use a precisely accurate quotation. Others have used versions of the expression during the ensuing decades with and without attribution including Jim Hightower in 2002.

Image Notes: Picture of a line of lights bulbs with one bulb illuminated from ColiN00B at Pixabay.

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


  1. 1953, Man’s Search for Himself by Rollo May Ph.D., Chapter 7: Courage, The Virtue of Maturity, Quote Page 225, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1957, Disc Recording, Record Title: “Strange Secret” Creator and Narrator: Earl Nightingale, (Quotation occurs at 2 minutes 14 seconds of 19 minutes 21 seconds), Format: 33.3 RPM Long Play, Publisher: Nightingale-McHugh Company, 469 E. Ohio Street, Chicago, Illinois. (Internet Archive) link
  3. 1953, Man’s Search for Himself by Rollo May Ph.D., Chapter 7: Courage, The Virtue of Maturity, Quote Page 225, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1960 January 13, The Anniston Star, F. Robison Is Speaker At Rotary, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Anniston, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1960 September 16, The World, The Mature Parent: It Takes Courage To Go Up The Stairway To Selfhood by Dr. Rollo May, (Last of six articles by psychologist Dr. Rollo May They are taken from Dr. May’s book “Man’s Search for Himself”), Quote Page 7, Column 5, Coos Bay, Oregon. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1965 October 7, The Eunice News, Rotations endorse library tax issue, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Eunice, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1987 August 25, The Times, Success is doing what you planned by Jay Lewis (Times columnist), Quote Page A10, Column 1, Munster, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 2002 October 26, The Evening Sun, Protest: A very patriotic act by Jim Hightower, Quote Page A6, Column 4,Hanover, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)