We Are Too Prone to Judge Ourselves by Our Ideals and Other People by Their Acts

Dwight Morrow? Harold Nicolson? Harold Nicholson? William Nevins? Tryon Edwards? Edward Wigglesworth? Stephen R. Covey?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a pervasive problem in human psychology of a self-serving double-standard that can be stated as follows:

We judge ourselves by our ideals, but we judge others by their actions.

This remark has been attributed to the American diplomat Dwight Morrow and the British diplomat Harold Nicolson. Sometimes “Nicolson” is misspelled as “Nicholson”. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The compelling notion of two disparate standards has engaged a wide variety of speakers and writers for more than 170 years. The language of expression has evolved during this long period. For example, one version of the saying in 1892 contrasted the internal “intentions” of the self with the externally visible “actions” of others. An instance in 1997 contrasted the “motives” of the self with the external “behavior” of others. Here is a summary of the shifting vocabulary:

1836 motives / actions
1885 intentions / doings
1892 intentions / actions
1909 motives / acts
1915 intentions / performance
1930 ideals / acts
1932 ideals / deeds
1932 intentions / acts
1932 ideals / conduct
1997 motives / behavior

The Reverend William Nevins was a minister and religious writer who preached to congregations in the northeast United States. In 1836 a posthumous compilation of his writings was released that included the following adage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

In judging ourselves, we cannot be too severe; in judging others, we cannot be too candid. We should judge ourselves by our motives, but others by their actions.

The semantics of this early version of the saying differed from popular instances in modern times. The word “should” signaled the difference. The reader was supposed to embrace an attitude of self-criticism regarding his or her motivations, and the reader was supposed to be objective and forgiving when evaluating the actions of others.

The common instances in circulation today do not use the word “should”. Indeed, judging oneself based on “ideals” or “motivations” has been depicted as self-serving or self-centered.

Dwight Morrow did employ an instance of the saying during a speech reported in “The New York Times” in 1930. Harold Nicolson wrote a book about Morrow in 1935, and in that work he ascribed the saying to Morrow not himself. Detailed information is given further below.

Here is a chronological series of additional citations that trace the metamorphosis of the saying.

Continue reading We Are Too Prone to Judge Ourselves by Our Ideals and Other People by Their Acts


  1. 1836, Select Remains of the Rev. William Nevins with a Memoir, Quote Page 383, Published by John S. Taylor, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

There Are Two Kinds of People, Those Who Do the Work and Those Who Take the Credit

Indira Gandhi? Dwight Morrow? Harold Nicolson? Father Kemper? Motilal Nehru? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Indira Gandhi was the powerful Prime Minister of India for more than fifteen years. I have heard the following words which combine the serious and the comical attributed to her:

There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there.

When I checked Wikiquote the statement was listed in a section called “Unsourced”. Could you ascertain whether Indira Gandhi spoke these words?

Quote Investigator: There is good evidence that Indira Gandhi did mention a version of this advice, but she stated that she first heard it from her grandfather Motilal Nehru. The details are given further below.

Interestingly, the earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the 1935 biography of a businessman and diplomat named Dwight Morrow. His life history was written by a British diplomat named Harold Nicolson, and it presented guidance that Morrow gave to his son. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“The world,” he once wrote to his son, “is divided into people who do things and people who get the credit. Try, if you can, to belong to the first class. There’s far less competition.”

In May 1947 “The Rotarian” magazine reprinted the advice and credited Morrow: 2

The late Dwight Morrow must have had this in mind when he wrote to his son:
“The world is divided into people who do things and people who get the credit. Try, if you can, to belong to the former. There’s far less competition.”

The next earliest evidence located by QI was published in a Texas newspaper in December 1947. A Catholic priest named Father Kemper was exhorting his parishioners to participate in an election to choose the officers of a religious club. He credited the counsel to “some philosopher”: 3

Let’s see if the voice of the people is the supreme law! Or is it the small active minority who do things in a democracy? Some philosopher divided mankind into two divisions; those who accomplish things, and those who take the credit. His advice is to join the former group, since there is less competition.

In 1959 Indira Gandhi became President of the Indian National Congress political party. The Times of India newspaper published an article with a quotation in which Gandhi recounted the instruction she received from her grandfather: 4

Some years ago, she recalled what Pandit Motilal Nehru once told her: “There are two kinds of people, those who do the work, and those who take the credit. Belong to the first category, since not only do things get balanced, but there is much less competition.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are Two Kinds of People, Those Who Do the Work and Those Who Take the Credit


  1. 1975 (Copyright 1935), Dwight Morrow by Harold Nicolson, Quote Page 51 and 52, Series: Wall Street and the Security Markets, Published by Arno Press, New York. (Reprint of 1935 Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York edition)(Verified on paper)
  2. 1947 May, The Rotarian, Why ‘Successful’ Men Fail by Charles H. Durfee, (Guest Editorial), Quote Page 7, Column 3, Published by Rotary International. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1947 December 18, Kerrville Mountain Sun, “Catholic Church by Father Kemper: Election Tonight”, Section 2, Quote Page 4, Column 5 and 6, (NArch Page 12), Kerrville, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)(The word “advise” is used instead of “advice” in the original page image)
  4. 1959 February 8, The Times of India, “Congress President Sure To Spark New Love of Work: Indira Gandhi,” Quote Page 6, Mumbai, India. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers; verified visually by Fred Shapiro)(The name “Motilal” is not fully legible in the page image)