Evan Esar? H. L. Mencken? Exchange? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The key to achieving equanimity and contentment in life is accurately assessing what is within your control and what is beyond your control. The following figurative adage is instructive:
You can’t do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth.
These words have been ascribed to quotation collector Evan Esar and acerbic pundit H. L. Mencken. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Evan Esar did include this saying in a collection he published in 1968, but it was already in circulation, and he did not craft it. H. L. Mencken did receive credit for the statement by the 1980s, but he died in 1956, and there is no substantive evidence that he coined it.
The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a California newspaper in 1924 which acknowledged the journal “Exchange”. The elaborate saying contained ten parts. The first nine parts were implicitly prefaced with the phrase “You cannot control”. Below are the first three parts together with the final part. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
YOU CANNOT CONTROL
The length of your life, but you can control its width and depth.
The contour of your countenance, but you can control its expression.
The other fellow’s opportunities, but you can grasp your own.
. . .
Why worry about things you can’t control? Get busy controlling the things that you can.—Exchange.
QI has not yet determined the issue of “Exchange” containing this saying. Nor has QI determined the identity of the creator. Thus, for now, the quotation remains anonymous.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1924 August 14, Visalia Morning Delta, Contemporaneous Opinions: You Cannot Control, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Visalia, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩