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.

Continue reading In the Middle of Difficulty Lies Opportunity

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)

A Pessimist Sees the Difficulty in Every Opportunity; an Optimist Sees the Opportunity in Every Difficulty

Winston Churchill? Bertram Carr? F. W. Cole? John D. Rockefeller? L. P. Jacks? Helen Keller? Anonymous?

Dear Quote investigator: Here are four versions of a popular saying about differing mental attitudes:

  1. The pessimist sees an obstacle in every opportunity; the optimist sees an opportunity in every obstacle.
  2. An optimist finds an opportunity in every difficulty; a pessimist finds a difficulty in every opportunity
  3. A pessimist is one who sees a disaster in every opportunity. An optimist sees opportunity in every disaster.
  4. An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity.

The statesman Winston Churchill is typically credited with this remark, but I have been unable to find a citation. Would you please help?

Quote investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Churchill made this statement. The historian Richard M. Langworth placed the saying in an appendix titled “Red Herrings: False Attributions” in his book “Churchill By Himself” which is the most comprehensive collection of Churchill quotations. 1

The earliest strong match located by QI was spoken in 1919 by Bertram Carr who was the Mayor of Carlisle, England. He was addressing “The Fifty-First Annual Co-operative Congress”, a gathering inspired by social reformers and the cooperative movement. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

The past history of an old walled city such as this leaves its legacy of ideas antiquated and out of date. These, as expressed in tangible form, are an embarrassment, and hinder the wheels of progress, but we view these, I hope, 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.

The ascription to Carr is tentative because the saying may have already been circulating. Fragments appeared earlier, and the full statement was probably assembled from these pieces over time.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Pessimist Sees the Difficulty in Every Opportunity; an Optimist Sees the Opportunity in Every Difficulty

Notes:

  1. 2013 December 12 (Kindle Edition Date), Churchill By Himself (Winston Churchill’s In His Own Words Collection), Compiled and edited by Richard M. Langworth, Appendix I: Red Herrings: False Attributions, Entry: Pessimist and optimist. (Kindle Location 19806)
  2. 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