How Old Would You Be If You Didn’t Know How Old You Are?

Satchel Paige? Wayne W. Dyer? Clarence H. Wilson? Wallace R. Farrington? G. Herbert True? Ruth Gordon? Garson Kanin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is foolish to place restrictive limits on oneself solely based on age. Most activities can be pursued at any age. This viewpoint is encouraged by an inquiry designed for self-reflection. Here are three versions:

(1) How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?
(2) How old would you be if you didn’t know your age?
(3) If you didn’t know how old you were, how old would you be?

This saying has been attributed to famous baseball player Satchel Paige, popular motivational author Wayne W. Dyer, and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared within a 1927 sermon described in “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York. Reverend Clarence H. Wilson of the Flatbush Congregational Church encouraged his audience to adapt a youthful perspective. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

We make ourselves old by keeping tally of the years. How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are? Properly, a man is as old as he feels. . . . Birthdays are an annoyance and a delusion.

QI tentatively credits Clarence H. Wilson with this saying although there is a significant probability that the statement was already in circulation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1931 Wallace R. Farrington used the expression while delivering the commencement address at the University of Maine: 2

Years do not tell the story of age. How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?

We should pray without ceasing to be delivered from the man grown old beyond his years who knows it all, and is filled with the belief that the field of new discovery is so limited that the present day Individual hardly has half a chance.

In 1960 a newspaper in Bethany, Oklahoma reported on a speech given by former journalism professor Howard Thornton at a local Kiwanis Club meeting: 3

Mr. Thornton asked, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” The answer would be “As young or old as you act.”

In 1962 Dr. G. Herbert True, director of research and education for the National Labor Management Foundation of Chicago, employed the saying with a re-ordered phrasing while addressing a group in New Jersey: 4

“I urge those who say ‘I’m too old’ to ask themselves: ‘If you didn’t know how old you were, how old would you be?’”

In 1968 Richard R. Gariepy published a book about child learning and included another phrasing of the saying: 5

I frequently ask someone who is concerned about his age and is afraid to begin some new venture, “How old would you be if you didn’t know your age? If you had forgotten your birthdate and the records had been lost, how old would you be? You would be as old or as young as you feel, as old as your doubts and fears and as young as your hopes and desires.”

In 1977 actress Ruth Gordon testified before the U.S. House Select Committee on Aging and attributed the saying to a well-known athlete: 6

“As the great baseball player Satchel Paige once said, ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’”

In 1978 director Garson Kanin, the spouse of Ruth Gordon, published “It Takes a Long Time To Become Young”, and he also credited Paige with the saying: 7

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?
Satchel Paige

In 1980 “The Sky’s the Limit” by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer printed the expression without attribution: 8

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were? If you simply didn’t know your date of birth and you had no way of finding out, how old would you estimate yourself to be? . . .

You are as old as you decide you are, and any restrictions based upon age are pretty much self-imposed.

In 1987 “The Speaker’s Book of Quotations” included this entry: 9

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?
Ruth Gordon (1896-1984)
American actress, playwright

The 1993 compilation “My Soul Looks Back, ’Less I Forget” included the following entry: 10

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
Satchel Paige, in Kanin, It Takes Time To Become Young, 1978

In conclusion, the earliest match for this expression located by QI appeared in a 1927 sermon delivered by Reverend Clarence H. Wilson. Thus, QI tentatively considers Wilson to be the originator although future researchers may shift this attribution with a superior citation. Many others employed this saying during subsequent years, and the phrasing has varied. The couple Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin linked the quotation to Satchel Paige by 1977.

Image Notes: Public domain picture of painting titled “The Birthday Party” by John Singer Sargent circa 1887. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Stephen Goranson who inquired about this quotation and pointed to two 1978 citations. This led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1927 October 24, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Too Much Checking Up Of One’s Life Is Bad, View of Dr. Wilson, Quote Page 13, Column 3, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1931 June 9, The Bangor Daily News, “New Horizons In The Pacific”, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Bangor, Maine. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1960 January 21, The Tribune-Review, Bethany Kiwanians Hear Midwest City Man Discuss Real Estate, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Bethany, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1962 November 1, The Daily Home News, Management Is Told Ideas Are Key To Business Success by Alvin King, Quote Page 15, Column 3, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (ProQuest)
  5. 1968 (1967 Copyright), Your Child Is Dying To Learn by Richard R. Gariepy, Chapter: The Price the Parents Pay, Quote Page 184, Barre Publishers, Barre, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1977 June 7, The Akron Beacon Journal, Toughie by Bert Berliner (Associated Press), Quote Page D13, Column 5,Akron, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1978, It Takes a Long Time To Become Young by Garson Kanin, Quote Page 47, Doubleday & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1980, The Sky’s the Limit by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, Chapter 8: Cultivating a Sense of Purpose and Meaning, Quote Page 299, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1987, The Speaker’s Book of Quotations by Henry O. Dormann, Section: Age, Quote Page 5, Fawcett Columbine, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1993, My Soul Looks Back, ‘Less I Forget: A Collection of Quotations by People of Color, Edited by Dorothy Winbush Riley, Topic: Age, Quote Page 10, Column 1, HarperCollins Publishers. New York. (Verified on paper)