A Clever Person Solves a Problem. A Wise Person Avoids It

Albert Einstein? Jerome Halprin? Abba Eban? Leonard Lyons? Sidney Greenberg? Paul Connett? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular quip highlights the distinction between the adjectives clever and wise:

A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.

This notion can also be expressed as follows:

A clever person gets out of a situation that a wise person would never get into.

The first statement is often attributed to Albert Einstein, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein wrote or spoke either of the statements above. Neither is listed in the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. Einstein died in 1955, and he received credit for the saying many years afterward in 1992. 1

This quip is difficult to trace because it can be phrased in many ways. The earliest match located by QI appeared on April 11, 1969 in the “Jewish Journal” of New Brunswick, New Jersey within a short editorial piece without a byline titled “Nobody Asked Me, But”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

Do you know the difference between a clever man and a wise man? A clever man gets out of situations that a wise man would never get into.

The editor listed on the masthead of the “Jewish Journal” was Jerome Halprin, so he might be credited with the joke, but QI believes the quip was probably already circulating with an anonymous origin.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

On April 12, 1969 syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons ascribed an instance of the humorous remark to diplomat Abba Eban: 3

Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban told some of his aides the difference between a clever man and a wise man: “A clever man attempts to get out of a situation which a wise man never got into in the first place …”

In July 1969 syndicated columnist Earl Wilson printed an instance without attribution: 4

REMEMBERED QUOTE: “A wise man never gets into a situation a clever man has to get out of.”

In 1978 Rabbi Sidney Greenberg published a column containing a version of the saying in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” of Pennsylvania: 5

It has been said that the difference between a clever man and a wise man is that the clever man knows how to get out of a predicament the wise man would never have gotten into in the first place.

In 1980 Rabbi Sidney Greenberg printed another version of the saying in his column: 6

Long ago a Jewish sage taught that he is wise who sees the consequences of his deed. A clever man tries to get out of a mess a wise man would not have gotten into.

In 1986 Professor Moshe F. Rubinstein of U.C.L.A. published “Tools for Thinking and Problem Solving”, and he included a version of the saying with “smart” instead of “clever”: 7

It has been said that a smart person manages to escape from unpleasant situations that a wise person would avoid in the first place. The wise person devotes more time to structuring problems by considering potential consequences before acting. This leads to better judgments, better foresight, and to behavior that increases the probability of desired outcomes, or decreases the probability of undesired outcomes.

In April 1992 a letter printed in a Bridgewater, New Jersey newspaper included the saying: 8

There is an old business saying about the difference between a wise man and a clever man that I think is appropriate here: “a wise man avoids getting into situations that it takes a clever man to get out of.” Our board is too long on clever and too short on wise.

In May 1992 Associate Professor Paul Connett of St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York attributed a version of the saying to Einstein. 9

Dr. Connett also urged chemical companies to put their best scientists to work on solving waste problems. Quoting Albert Einstein: “A clever person solves a problem; a wise person avoids it.”

In 1998 the saying with an ascription to Einstein appeared in a sidebar in the book “Process Patterns: Building Large-Scale Systems Using Object Technology” by Scott W. Ambler: 10

A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it. —Einstein.

In conclusion, this saying was in circulation by April 1969. It was linked to Jerome Halprin and Abba Eban, but QI believes that the true originator remains anonymous.

Image Notes: Public domain picture of a group of lightbulbs with one lightbulb illuminated. Image from qimono at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

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

Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: (Statement does not appear), Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1969 April 11, Jewish Journal, Nobody Asked Me, But, Quote Page 2, Column 1, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1969 April 12, Philadelphia Daily News, It’s Elementary My Dear Watson by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 10, Column 4, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1969 July 16, Tyler Morning Telegraph, It Happened Last Night by Earl Wilson, Section 2, Quote Page 4, Column 3 and 4, Tyler, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1978 September 15, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Rabbi Greenberg (by Sidney Greenberg), Quote Page 38C, Column 3, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1980 August 23, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The moral stop signs at the crossroads of life by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg (Special to The Inquirer), Quote Page 4A, Column 6, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1986, Tools for Thinking and Problem Solving by Moshe F. Rubinstein (University of California, Los Angeles), Chapter: Attitudes and Heuristic Guides, Section 2.4: Heuristics for Problem Representation, Quote Page 35, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1992 April 2, The Courier-News, Section: Letters, Candidate says she has no political agenda in B-R by Susan K. Rinaldi, Bridgewater, Quote Page A-12, Column 2, Bridgewater, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1992 May 14, Times Herald, ‘Just Say No’: Chemist blasts plan for Sarnia toxic chemical waste incinerator by Tom Verdin (Times Herald), Quote Page B1, Column 5, Port Huron, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1998, Process Patterns: Building Large-Scale Systems Using Object Technology by Scott W. Ambler, Chapter 9: The Program Stage, (Sidebar), Quote Page 361, Cambridge University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)