Elbert Hubbard? H.C. Peters? Leonard Bernstein?
Dear Quote Investigator: Dreaming about accomplishing a vaguely defined magnificent task at some unknown future date is unhelpful. True progress is made by formulating a plan and adopting a clear deadline. This notion has been attributed to U.S. publisher Elbert Hubbard and U.S. composer Leonard Bernstein. Would you please explore this topic.
Quote Investigator: Aphorist Elbert Hubbard edited and published a journal called “The Fra” for an artisan community in East Aurora, New York. The September 1911 issue featured the following epigraph. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
TWO NECESSITIES IN DOING A GREAT AND IMPORTANT WORK: A DEFINITE PLAN AND LIMITED TIME
The journal issue included a short article by H.C. Peters that elaborated on this adage: 2
If I were trying to condense in a few words the best plan for efficient action, I would say: Have a definite thing to do and a limited time to do it. About fifty per cent of the people engaged in business never reach the point where they set their minds on doing some one definite thing . . .
It is left for the men who decide on a definite thing to do within a limited time, to keep the wheels of progress moving.
Apparently, H.C. Peters developed the core idea, and Elbert Hubbard crafted and popularized a concise statement. Alternatively, Hubbard constructed the adage, and he next asked Peters to write on the subject.
The saying evolved over time, and it was reassigned to Leonard Bernstein by 2002. Yet, Bernstein died in 1990; hence, the current evidence supporting this attribution is rather weak.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
On September 23, 1911 a Canadian company used the saying within an advertisement in “The Ottawa Citizen”. No attribution was given: 3
8 O’Clock Specials
There are Two Necessities in doing
a Great and Important Work
A Definite Plan and a Limited Time
Suffragist Alice Hubbard who was the wife of Elbert Hubbard edited a 1912 book called “An American Bible” about prominent Americans such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Elbert Hubbard. Below were three of the sayings attributed to Elbert: 4
Two necessities in doing a great and important work: A definite plan and limited time
We are brothers to all who have trod the earth: brothers and heirs to dust and shade: mayhap to immortality
The best service a book can render you is, not to impart truth, but to make you think it out for yourself
In 1921 the editor of a Windsor, Ontario, Canada newspaper employed a slightly rephrased version of the saying without attribution: 5
Two necessities required in doing a great and important work are “a definite plan” and “a limited time.”
In 1923 a newspaper in Heber City, Utah printed a collection of sayings under the title “Extracts from Literature” by Elbert Hubbard. The following three items were included: 6
“It is a fine thing to have ability, but the ability to discover ability in others is the true test.”
“The man who can lose himself in his work is the man who will succeed best.”
“Two necessities in doing a great and important work: A definite plan and limited time.”
In 1940 the saying continued to circulate when a Tucson, Arizona newspaper published the following slightly rephrased instance without ascription: 7
In order to do a great and important work two things are necessary: a definite plan and limited time.
In 1951 a newspaper in Opp, Alabama printed a filler item with interesting alterations. The phrase “limited time” became “not quite enough time”. Also, “definite plan” became “plan”. No attribution was given: 8
To do a great and important work, two things are necessary—a plan and not quite enough time.
In 1958 “Teacher’s Treasury of Stories for Every Occasion” published an instance with “definite plan” and “not quite enough time”: 9
To do a great and important work, two things are necessary—a definite plan, and not quite enough time.
In 1968 a compendium of quips and quotes assembled by Evan Esar included a variant with “definite idea” instead of “definite plan”. Also, the word “great” was omitted. No ascription was listed: 10
To accomplish something important, two things are necessary: a definite idea, and not quite enough time.
In 1977 the collection “Quote Unquote” compiled by Lloyd Cory printed a variant with the word “urgent”: 11
In order to do an urgent and important work, two things are necessary: a definite plan and not quite enough time. (GRIT)
The 1987 collection “Pearls of Wisdom” contained an instance with the word “tasks”: 12
To do great and important tasks, two things are necessary: a plan and not quite enough time.
In 2002 the saying was attributed to Leonard Bernstein within a syndicated feature called “Date Book”: 13
TODAY’S QUOTE: “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” — Leonard Bernstein
In 2006 “Treasury of Wit & Wisdom” from Reader’s Digest included an entry that exactly matched the saying and attribution in the 2002 citation. 14
In conclusion, in 1911 Elbert Hubbard crafted and popularized a concise statement about accomplishing great work. H.C. Peters may have been responsible for the central idea. The phrasing of the adage evolved over many decades. The attribution to Leonard Bernstein occurred after his death and is not well-supported.
Image Notes: Header of the September 1911 issue of the journal “Fra” showing the adage.
(Great thanks to an anonymous individual who read an interview with video game executive Randy Pitchford who attributed the saying to Leonard Bernstein. The resultant inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Barry Popik for his helpful research on this topic. Popik located a 1953 citation for the saying and a 2011 attribution to Bernstein.)
- 1911 September, The Fra, Volume 7, Number 6, (Epigraph on title page), Quote Page 161, Elbert Hubbard and The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1911 September, The Fra, Volume 7, Number 6, (Untitled Article) by H. C. Peters, Start Page xxxvi (36), Quote Page xxxvi (36), Elbert Hubbard and The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1911 September 23, The Ottawa Citizen, Aerea & Company, Ottawa, Limited, 8 O’Clock Specials, (Advertisement), Quote Page 3, Column 4, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1912 (Copyright 1911), An American Bible, Edited by Alice Hubbard, Section: Elbert Hubbard, Quote Page 323, The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1921 February 18, The Border Cities Star, Makes Plea for Harbor Development by Editor of Border Cities Star, Quote Page 17, Column 1, Windsor, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1923 January 19, The Wasatch Wave, “Extracts from Literature” by Elbert Hubbard, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Heber City, Utah. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1940 August 18, The Arizona Daily Star, BITS: A Little o’ This and a Little o’ That, Section: Home, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Tucson, Arizona. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1951 November 8, The Opp News, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Opp, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1958, Teacher’s Treasury of Stories for Every Occasion, Compiled by M. Dale Baughman, Topic: Time, Quote Page 323, Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Topic: Achievement, Quote Page 5 and 6, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1977, Quote Unquote, Compiled by Lloyd Cory, Topic: Work, Quote Page 373, Published by Victor Books: A Division of SP Publications, Wheaton, Illinois. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1987 Copyright, Pearls of Wisdom: A Harvest of Quotations from All Ages, Compiled by Jerome Agel and Walter D. Glanze, Quote Page 33, Perennial Library: Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 2002 August 24, The Capital Times, (Date Book) Datelines: Today’s Quote, Quote Page 3B, Column 2, Madison, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2006, Treasury of Wit & Wisdom: 4,000 of the Funniest, Cleverest, Most Insightful Things Ever Said, Compiled by Jeff Bredenberg, Topic: Goals and Mind-Set, Quote Page 149, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩