You Did What You Knew How To Do, and When You Knew Better, You Did Better

Maya Angelou? Oprah Winfrey? Phil McGraw? Gary Zukav? Ernest Rogers? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: Life requires a complicated incremental process of learning. Agonizing mistakes are inevitable. Here are two versions of a heartfelt response to setbacks:

(1) You did what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.
(2) Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.

This saying has been attributed to prominent memoirist and poet Maya Angelou and to famous television producer and entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1995 Oprah Winfrey’s television program featured a guest who discussed her drug abuse problems. The frank confession from the guest inspired Winfrey to make her own revelation. Oprah stated that she had smoked crack cocaine when she was in her twenties. An article in “The Washington Post” about the television episode described Oprah’s remarks. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1995 January 13, The Washington Post, How Oprah’s Confession Tumbled Out by Patrice Gaines (Washington Post Staff Writer), Quote Page B1, Column 4, Washington D.C. (ProQuest) [/ref]

Winfrey spoke to the audience of the shame she felt about her “dark secret” and how her friend, poet Maya Angelou, had once said to her, “You did what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.”

Thus, Oprah Winfrey ascribed the memorably empathetic guidance to her friend and mentor Maya Angelou. There is a long history before 1995 for the general saying: if you know better, do better.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1910 a newspaper in Topeka, Kansas acknowledged another newspaper in Kansas while expressing disappointment that many people do not learn from knowledge and experience: The following excerpt implicitly referenced the injunction: if you know better, do better:[ref] 1910 August 15, The Topeka State Journal, From Other Dens: Globe Sights, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Topeka, Kansas. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

[From the Atchison Globe.]
You know better. Why don’t you do better? People seem to hate to use what little sense they have.

In 1958 columnist Ernest Rogers of “The Atlanta Journal” in Georgia employed a version of the adage:[ref] 1958 February 14, The Atlanta Journal, English Language Is at Mercy Of Songwriters and Politicians by Ernest Rogers, Quote Page 17, Column 4, Atlanta, Georgia. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Yeah, I know there is plenty of precedent in current song lyrics, political utterances and the like but if you know better you should do better and not drift along with the tide.

In 1981 the “Boston Herald American” printed a letter from Margaret Kimber of Lynn, Massachusetts who used a version of the saying:[ref] 1981 February 1, Boston Herald American, Section: Letters To The Editor, Letter title: Cooling-off needed, Letter from: Margaret Kimber of Lynn, Massachusetts, Quote Page A14, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

We can’t call Iran barbaric and then react in like fashion toward them. Remember if you know better, you do better.

In 1983 “The Greenville News” of South Carolina published a piece about Pastor Ethel M. Spearman of Today’s Faith Bible Church. Spearman used an instance of the saying:[ref] 1983 July 2, The Greenville News, Church, led by woman, expands by Frances Evans (Religion editor), Quote Page 6B, Column 3, Greenville, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

She put off furthering her education until her youngest child became of school age, she said.
“When you know better, you do better,” she said about striving for an education.

In 1989 Tennessee State Representative Lois DeBerry delivered a speech supporting sex education. DeBerry recounted the tale of a teenage mother who had been misled by the comments of her peers:[ref] 1989 April 1, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Teenagers need sex education, lawmaker tells audience at UT by Sibyl Jefferson (News-Sentinel Staff Writer), Quote Page A3, Column 3, Knoxville, Tennessee. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

After the girl became pregnant, DeBerry said, she found that most of those whom she’d heard talking had never been sexually active themselves.
“I’m convinced that when you know better, you do better,” DeBerry said.

In 1995 “Jet” magazine of Chicago, Illinois described the incident on Oprah Winfrey’s show:[ref] 1995 January 30, Jet, Oprah Reveals On Her Show She Smoked Crack Cocaine During Her 20s, Start Page 51, Quote Page 52, Johnson Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Calling it “one of the hardest things I’ve ever said,” talk show queen Oprah Winfrey revealed during a recent show that she had smoked crack cocaine while in her 20s. . . .

“There is nothing greater than the spirit within you to overcome. You and God can conquer this. You can conquer it,” she affirmed as the audience broke into applause.

After sharing her “great shame” with her mentor, poet-author-actress Maya Angelou, Winfrey said she was bolstered by her comforting response. “I shared this with Maya Angelou…and you know what she said to me? It really turned my life around and I say this to you, ‘You did then what you knew how to do and when you knew better you did better.’ And I’ll never forget that.”

In 1997 “The Uncommon Wisdom of Oprah Winfrey: A Portrait in Her Own Words” edited by Bill Adler included an entry for the quotation. The book reprinted an excerpt that matched the text in “Jet”.[ref] 1997, The Uncommon Wisdom of Oprah Winfrey: A Portrait in Her Own Words by Oprah Winfrey, Edited by Bill Adler, Chapter: Friends and Mentors, Topic: Maya Angelou, Quote Page 132, A Birch Lane Press Book, Published by Carol Publishing Group, Secaucus, New Jersey. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

The same excerpt also appeared in the 1998 compilation “Oprah Winfrey Speaks: Insight from the World’s Most Influential Voice” by Oprah Winfrey and Janet Lowe.[ref] 1998, Oprah Winfrey Speaks: Insight from the World’s Most Influential Voice by Oprah Winfrey and Janet Lowe, Chapter: On Truth and Courage, Quote Page 132, John Wiley & Sons, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

In 1999 television personality and psychologist Phil McGraw published “Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters”. He attributed the quotation directly to Maya Angelou without mentioning the intermediary Oprah Winfrey:[ref] 1999 Copyright, Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters by Phillip C. McGraw, Chapter 3: You Create Your Own Experience, Quote Page 51, Hyperion, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Recall Maya Angelou’s comment on past behaviors: “You did what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.” That is where I want you to be in your self-assessment at this point. Whatever you’ve done in the past, you did what you knew how to do: You did it, you are accountable for it, you are responsible for it. I hope that as we work together through this book, you will know better and you will do better. Either way, you are and will be accountable.

In 2005 “The Ottawa Citizen” published a piece about Oprah Winfrey which included a paragraph in which Winfrey described her failed attempt to lose weight by following an extreme regimen several years earlier. Oprah credited Angelou with a different phrasing of the saying:[ref] 2005 November 19, The Ottawa Citizen, Section: Style Weekly, The world according to Oprah by Joanne Chianello, Quote Page 13, Column 2, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

What I didn’t know was that my metabolism was shot. Two weeks after I returned to real food, I was up 10 pounds. Since I wasn’t exercising, there was nothing my body could do but regain the weight. As my friend Maya Angelou often tells me, “When you know better, you do better.”

In 2013 a columnist of “The Bastrop Advertiser” in Bastrop, Texas credited Angelou with the following phrasing:[ref] 2013 June 6, The Bastrop Advertiser, DBA get together – good food, good friends and good fun by Debbie Moore, Quote Page A8, Column 6, Bastrop, Texas. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Remember: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou

In 2014 Oprah Winfrey published the book “What I Know For Sure” which contained the following:[ref] 2014, What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey, Chapter: Power, Quote Page 191, Flatiron Books: Hearst Communications, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

“When you know better, you do better.”
—Maya Angelou

Also, in 2014 U.S. spiritual teacher Gary Zukav published “The Seat of the Soul: 25th Anniversary Edition”. Angelou wrote the preface to this edition of the book, and Zukav stated that Angelou was his friend. He credited her with the saying:[ref] 2014, The Seat of the Soul: 25th Anniversary Edition by Gary Zukav, Section: Study Guide, Chapter 6, Exercise: Every Emotion Is a Message, Quote Page 276, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

My friend Maya Angelou says, “When you know better, you do better.”

In conclusion, the saying “If you know better you should do better” was circulating by 1958, and variants occurred earlier. Oprah Winfrey credited Maya Angelou with the following longer remark in 1995: “You did what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better”.

Image Notes: Illustration of arrows representing choices from ar130405 at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

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

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