In the Middle of Difficulty Lies Opportunity

Albert Einstein? John Archibald Wheeler? A. P. Barton? Bertram Carr? Mirjana R. Gearhart? H. Jackson Brown Jr.? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Everyone experiences challenges and difficulties. Happily, while surmounting these obstacles it is often possible to glimpse wonderful possibilities for the future. Here is a pertinent saying:

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

This phrase has often been attributed to the famous scientist Albert Einstein. Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The attribution to Einstein is spurious. The saying appears in a section titled “Misattributed to Einstein” in “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

The phrase can be traced back to John Archibald Wheeler, a prominent U.S. theoretical physicist whose research included work on general relativity and quantum information. Wheeler stated that he discussed physics with Albert Einstein “from time to time over a span of 21 years”. Wheeler published a piece about Einstein in “Newsweek” magazine in 1979. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

There were three additional rules of Einstein’s work that stand out for use in our science, our problems, and our times. First, out of clutter find simplicity. Second, from discord make harmony. Third, in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

The quotation under examination appeared as the third rule above, but these rules were written by Wheeler and not by Einstein. Wheeler was describing his reaction to Einstein’s’ efforts and accomplishments. Thus, this precise formulation may be attributed to Wheeler; however, the idea being communicated by the quotation has a long history.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1903 a newsletter edited by an adherent of the Christian Science Church included a passage ascribed to A. P. Barton about maintaining a positive outlook. A thematic match occurred in the second sentence: 3

Cease your suggestion of bad results. Suggest to yourself an opportunity in every difficulty.

in 1919 by Bertram Carr who was the Mayor of Carlisle, England employed the following phrase during a speech: “every difficulty is an opportunity”. This phrase thematically matched the phrase used by Wheeler. But Carr’s phrase was part of a more elaborate remark: 4

. . . in the spirit of the optimist to whom every difficulty is an opportunity, and not as the pessimist, to whom every opportunity presents some difficulty.

A separate Quote Investigator article about the saying immediately above is available here.

In 1942 “The Salt Lake Tribune” of Utah printed a match using the three words “difficulty”, “lies”, and “opportunity”: 5

President Cowles assumed his new duties in a “new and difficult age for higher education, he and his regents, faculty and students must realize that in difficulty, lies opportunity.”

In 1979 “Newsweek” published the piece by John Archibald Wheeler containing the quotation as shown previously.

Also, in 1979 the periodical “Cosmic Search” published an interview with Wheeler conducted by Mirjana R. Gearhart during which the physicist discussed his experiences with Einstein: 6

COSMIC SEARCH: Are there some tenets of his that stand out in your mind?

Wheeler: Yes, his work revolved around three rules which apply to all science, our problems, and times:

Out of clutter, find simplicity;
From discord make harmony; and finally
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

In 1980 John Lacy of “The Hartford Courant” in Connecticut printed a column containing a miscellaneous collection of rules, observations, axioms, and laws. He ascribed the three rules directly to Einstein and did not mention Wheeler: 7

Einstein’s Three Rules of Work. (1) Out of clutter find simplicity. (2) From discord make harmony. (3) In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

H. Jackson Brown Jr. is best known for the popular collection of sayings titled “Life’s Little Instruction Book”. Before that work appeared he published “A Father’s Book of Wisdom” in 1988 which included the following line: 8

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
—Albert Einstein

In conclusion, the notion underlying this quotation has a long history and should be considered anonymous. QI would tentatively credit the precise phrasing under examination to John Archibald Wheeler. The attribution to Einstein was probably based on a misreading of Wheeler’s words.

(Great thanks to the wonderful woman who cuts QI’s hair. Her inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Additional thanks to the authors of “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” (2012) which contains an entry for this saying with citations beginning in 1975 including the important “Newsweek” citation. Further thanks to others who have covered this topic, i.e., Alice Calaprice, Wikiquote, and Mardy Grothe.)

Image Notes: Illustration depicting a set of doors with one golden door representing opportunity from qimono at Pixabay. Image has been resized and cropped.

Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Misattributed to Einstein, Quote Page 480, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1979 March 12, Newsweek, Volume 93, Issue 11, The Outsider by John Archibald Wheeler, Start Page 67, Quote Page 67, Column 1, Newsweek, New York. (ProQuest)
  3. 1903 April, Washington News Letter, Volume 8, Number 7, (Filler Item ascribed to A. P. Barton) Quote Page 398, Oliver C. Sabin, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1919, The Fifty-First Annual Co-operative Congress, Held at the Market Hall, Carlisle, England, On 9th, 10th, and 11th June, 1919, The Congress Luncheon, Start Page 61, Quote Page 64, Published by the Co-operative Union Limited, Holyoake House, Hanover Street, Manchester, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1942 April 27, The Salt Lake Tribune, U. of U. Seats Dr. Cowles As President, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1979 Fall, Cosmic Search, Volume 1, Number 4, FORUM: John A. Wheeler: From the Big Bang to the Big Crunch, Cosmic-Quest Inc. (Website of North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO)) (Accessed at bigear.org on October 7, 2021) link
  7. 1980 September 24, The Hartford Courant, Playing Loose With the Laws by John Lacy, Quote Page A19, Column 3, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  8. 1988, A Father’s Book of Wisdom by H. Jackson Brown Jr., Topic: Opportunity, Quote Page 91, Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, Tennessee. (Verified with scans)