Ralph Waldo Emerson? Nike Advertisement? Janet Champ? Charlotte Moore? Wieden & Kennedy? Pam Finger?
Dear Quote Investigator: Some people fear that their genes or social circumstances will restrict their life options and push them inexorably toward a foreordained destiny. An inspirational message presents a radically different viewpoint:
The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.
This notion has been credited to transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I am skeptical of this attribution because I have never seen a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the advertising copy for a campaign launched by the footwear and apparel company Nike. A four-page spread appeared in the October 1991 issue of “Vogue” magazine. The ad text began with the following statement: 1
YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE YOUR MOTHER UNLESS SHE IS WHO YOU WANT TO BE.
The ad text also included the target quotation:
SO IF YOU INHERIT SOMETHING, INHERIT THEIR STRENGTH. IF YOU INHERIT SOMETHING, INHERIT THEIR RESILIENCE. BECAUSE THE ONLY PERSON YOU ARE DESTINED TO BECOME IS THE PERSON YOU DECIDE TO BE.
The same advertisement appeared in other periodicals such as the December 1991 issue of “Cosmopolitan” magazine. 2
In 1992 a brief piece in the “USA Weekend” newspaper section examined the question of who created the advertising campaign for Nike: 3
Women, of course. Janet Champ and Charlotte Moore of the Portland, Ore.-based ad firm Wieden & Kennedy created the print ads — which men probably don’t get. “The only intention” of the campaign, which has won national awards, “is to empower women to be whatever they want,” Moore says. “And to make them feel good about being female.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In December 1991 the “Austin American Statesman” of Texas published an article about advertisements, and the memorable Nike ad was mentioned: 4
And feminists generally embrace ads where women are portrayed in strong roles, or as men’s equals, such as an American Express ad where the women picks up the tab, and Nike’s new “dialogue” campaign (“You do not have to be your mother. . . . You are destined to become the person you decide to be”).
In 1992 “The Bismarck Tribune” of Bismarck, North Dakota printed a remark from the events coordinator of the local Chamber of Commerce. She used the saying without attribution: 5
Those who choose how they’ll react to something are assuming an attitude of self-responsibility, Meyers says. After all, the only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.
In 1995 “A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul” was published. It was the second installment in a very popular series, and its contents were primarily selected from reader submissions. A compressed version of a passage from the Nike ad appeared in the book under the name Pam Finger: 6
So if you inherit something, inherit their strength, their resilience. Because the only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.
In 2003 an instance of the saying was delivered in a speech at a graduation ceremony held in British Columbia, Canada: 7
“You are now destined to become the person you decide to be,” said school trustee Gordon Titsworth in his opening address. “We need your energy, your enthusiasm and your vision.”
By 2011 the saying had been reassigned to Ralph Waldo Emerson. The following is from an article in “The Burlington Free Press” of Vermont: 8
A chalkboard at Tuesday’s gathering featured a thought-for-the-day quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that read “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”
In 2013 the “Forbes” magazine website published a list of the “Top 100 Inspirational Quotes” which included this remark together with an attribution to Emerson: 9
The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be. –Ralph Waldo Emerson
In conclusion, this quotation appeared in a Nike advertising campaign in 1991. Nike employed the advertising firm of Wieden & Kennedy. The October 1992 citation indicates that Janet Champ and Charlotte Moore crafted the ad copy. Ralph Waldo Emerson received credit in 2011, but this citation was not substantive. Emerson died in 1882.
Image Notes: Painting “Crystal Ball” by John William Waterhouse circa 1902. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Mark Rosenblatt and Annette Butikofer whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1991 October, Vogue, Volume 181, Issue 10, (Nike Advertisement), Start Page 206, Quote Page 207, Condé Nast, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1991 December, Cosmopolitan, Volume 211, Issue 6, (Nike Advertisement), Start Page 120, Quote Page 121, Hearst Communications, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1992 October 17, The Republic, Section: USA Weekend, Who’s News by Lorrie Lynch, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Columbus, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1991 December 22, Austin American Statesman, Sexist ads a step back for women by Jeffry Scott, Quote Page D1, Austin, Texas. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1992 April 15, The Bismarck Tribune, The unspoken truths by Tammy Swift (Tribune Staff Writer), Quote Page C1, Column 5, Bismarck, North Dakota. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1995, A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul, Compiled by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, Be Yourself by Erik Oleson, Pam Finger and others, Start Page 28, Quote Page 29, Health Communications Inc., Deerfield Beach, Florida. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 2003 June 9, Trail Times, Crowe grad ceremony includes personal touch with remarks about each student by Kate Skye, Quote Page 1, Trail, British Columbia, Canada. (ProQuest) ↩
- 2011 August 3, The Burlington Free Press, Addiction treatment center opens by Sam Hemingway, Quote Page B1, Burlington, Vermont. (ProQuest) ↩
- Website: Forbes magazine, Article title: Top 100 Inspirational Quotes, Article Author: Kevin Kruse: Contributor, Author description: I write about wholehearted leadership and employee engagement, Date on website: May 28, 2013. (Accessed forbes.com on October 10, 2013) link ↩