Ask Yourself What Makes You Come Alive, and Go Do That, Because What the World Needs Is People Who Have Come Alive

Howard Thurman? Gil Bailie? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: If you are an altruistic or philanthropic person you face many choices. It is natural to ask, “What does the world need?” Yet, it is essential to maintain commitment and enthusiasm. Hence, you should ask yourself what makes you come alive. This will help you decide what to do. The world needs people who have come alive.

Apparently, the renowned religious figure Howard Thurman said something like this. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1995 teacher Gil Bailie published “Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads”. Bailie stated that he heard the quotation under examination from Howard Thurman. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Once, when I was seeking the advice of Howard Thurman and talking to him at some length about what needed to be done in the world, he interrupted me and said: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

The text above appeared in a section titled “In Gratitude” dated August 1994. Bailie indicated that he heard the remark from Thurman twenty years in the past, i.e., around 1974. Howard Thurman died in 1981.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1992 the “Los Angeles Times” of California published an essay by Mary Kay Blakely who wrote that she saw the quotation on a note in her friend’s house. The name “Thurman” was misspelled as “Thurmon”: 2

I copied the note tacked to the mirror in the downstairs bathroom that quoted Howard Thurmon, an African-American preacher in San Francisco: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

In 1993 an essayist in the “Asbury Park Press” of New Jersey wrote about receiving some comfort and direction from contemplating the quotation after the death of a friend. The essayist attributed the words to Thurman but misspelled his name as “Thurmon”. 3

In 1994 Gil Bailie wrote the quotation in a book section titled “In Gratitude”. Bailie said he heard the words from Howard Thurman around 1974 as noted previously in this article.

By 1995 the quotation had traversed the Atlantic Ocean. “The Drogheda Argus” newspaper of Louth, Ireland published a slightly altered instance without attribution: 4

One of the philosophies which inspires the Iomlanu Centre is: “Do not ask what the world needs, rather ask what makes you come alive, then go out and do it because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

In 2001 a newspaper in Richmond, Virginia printed a dozen quotations ascribed to Thurman. These were the first three: 5

What follows is a sampling of ideas expressed by Thurman – ideas reinforced or challenged by these difficult times, depending on your point of view.

“To Love is to make of one’s heart a swinging door.”

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

“Community cannot for long feed on itself; it can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond, their unknown and undiscovered brothers.”

In conclusion, Howard Thurman deserves credit for this quotation primarily based on the testimony of Gil Bailie. Thurman died in 1981 and Bailie penned his account in 1994, so there was a significant delay. Nevertheless, this evidence is substantive.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of woman with a welcoming stance on the beach at sunset. Image from JillWellington at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to John Henderson whose inquiry posted to the Wombats mailing list led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to S. M. Colowick and the volunteer Wikiquote editors for pointing to the book by Bailie. Additional thanks to Debra Andreadis for accessing the book by Bailie and verifying the quotation.)

Notes:

  1. 1997 (1995 Copyright), Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads by Gil Bailie, Section: In Gratitude by Gil Bailie, Date on Section: August 1994, Start Page xv, Quote Page xv, A Crossroad Book: The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1992 September 20, Los Angeles Times, Section: Los Angeles Times Magazine, Travels in the Post-Nuclear Age by Mary Kay Blakely, Start Page 25, Quote Page 26, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  3. 1993 June 16, Asbury Park Press, The Music Never Ends, Quote Page G9, Column 3, Asbury Park, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1995 October 27, The Drogheda Argus, Hazel Tree Cafe & Health Food Shop Open at Iomlanu Centre, Start Page 18, Quote Page 19, Column 3, Louth, Republic of Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive)
  5. 2001 October 31, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Retreat Will Raise Mystic’s Words To Be a Guide in a Time of Crisis by Michael Paul Williams, Quote Page H-4, Richmond, Virginia. (NewsBank Access World News)