It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done

Nelson Mandela? Pliny the Elder? Daniel Wilson? Elbert Anderson Young? Robert H. Goddard? Robert Heinlein? Norton Juster? Paul Eldridge?

Dear Quote Investigator: Politicians, journalists, pundits, and self-help authors are fond of the following inspirational expression:

It always seems impossible, until it is done.

The words are usually attributed to the activist, statesman, and Nobel Prize winner Nelson Mandela, but I have not been able to find a good citation. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI has not yet found this statement in a book or speech by Nelson Mandela. The earliest attribution to Mandela located by QI appeared in an Australian newspaper in 2001. Hence, the saying was linked to him for at least a dozen years before his death in 2013. Details for this citation are given further below.

Sometimes an event or achievement appears to be impossible, and only the actual occurrence of the event is enough to dispel the misconception. A statement that matched this notion was included in the encyclopedic work called “Naturalis Historia” (Natural History) which was written by Pliny the Elder who died in AD 79. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

Indeed what is there that does not appear marvellous, when it comes to our knowledge for the first time? How many things, too, are looked upon as quite impossible, until they have been actually effected?

In 1862 the book “Prehistoric Man: Researches into the Origin of Civilisation in the Old and the New World” was published, and the author, Professor Daniel Wilson, commented on the remarkable insights available through the study of the geological record. Information could be reconstructed about the nature of Earth before the appearance of mankind. The author employed the saying in the form of a rhetorical question: 3

Yet all the while, the geological record lay there open before him, awaiting God’s appointed time. What so inconceivable as the recovery of the world’s history prior to man’s creation; but, indeed is not everything impossible until it is done? and the history of man himself, though so much less inconceivable, also an impossibility until it has been accomplished?

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done


  1. 1855, The Natural History of Pliny, Author: Pliny the Elder, Translator: John Bostock and H. T. Riley (Late Scholar of Clare Hall, Cambridge), Volume 2, Book 7, Chapter 1: Man, Quote Page 121, Published by Henry G. Bohn, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. Website: Perseus Digital Library, Editor-in-Chief of Digital Library: Gregory R. Crane of Tufts University, Book Title: Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book Authors: John Bostock and H.T. Riley, Section: Book VII, Man, His Birth, His Organization, and the Invention of the Arts, Chapter 1: Man, Website description: “Perseus is a practical experiment in which we explore possibilities and challenges of digital collections in a networked world”. (Accessed on January 5, 2016) link
  3. 1862, Prehistoric Man: Researches into the Origin of Civilisation in the Old and the New World by Daniel Wilson (Professor of History and English Literature in University College, Toronto), Volume 1 of 2, Chapter 4: The Primeval Transition: Instinct, Quote Page 87, Published by Macmillan and Company, Cambridge and London. (Google Books Full View) link