Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You

Mary Schmich? Eleanor Roosevelt? Kurt Vonnegut? Baz Luhrmann? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Jane Addams? Mark Toby?

Dear Quote Investigator: To achieve personal growth it is sometimes necessary to move outside of a comfort zone. Unjustified fears can constrain exploration and positive development. Here is a saying I find valuable:

Do one thing every day that scares you.

The above advice is typically attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt who was First Lady for many years and a noted social activist. But I have been unable to find any justification for this ascription. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: An exact match for this quotation appeared within a June 1997 essay by Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She began her article with the statement: “Inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out”, and she continued by presenting a staccato sequence of items of advice aimed at young students. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.


Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.


Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Mary Schmich’s essay went viral and became a smash hit by August 1997, but the words were not credited to her. Instead, the work was retitled “Wear Sunscreen” and was incorrectly described as a graduation speech given by the well-known author Kurt Vonnegut at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 2

In 1999 the essay was transformed into a popular spoken-word song titled “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” by the prominent film director Baz Luhrmann who credited Schmich. The quotation was included in the lyrics. 3 4

The famous transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson employed a precursor to the saying in the nineteenth century. The conception of incrementally conquering fears as a pathway to growth evolved over many decades. The following five instances of expressions are examined in greater depth further below:

Always do what you are afraid to do. (1841) —Popularized by Ralph Waldo Emerson

To do what you are afraid to do is to guide your life by fear. How much better not to be afraid to do what you believe in doing! (circa 1881) —Jane Addams

You must do the thing you think you cannot do. (1960) —Eleanor Roosevelt

I’m supposed to do one thing every day that I want to do but I’m afraid to do. (1961) —Mark Toby

Do one thing every day that scares you. (1997) —Mary Schmich

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You


  1. 1997 June 1, Chicago Tribune, “Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young” by Mary Schmich, Page 4C, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  2. 1997 August 13, Washington Post, Section: Editorial, “The Speech That Wasn’t”, Quote Page A20:1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  3. YouTube video, Title: Baz Luhrmann – Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen, Uploaded on May 24, 2007, Uploaded by: steffyweffy777, (Quotation starts at 1 minute 20 seconds of 5 minutes 4 seconds), Lyrics based on essay by Mary Schmich, (Accessed on August 8, 2013) link
  4. 1999 March 31, Chicago Tribune, “From column to song: ‘Sunscreen’ spreads to Chicago” by Mark Caro [Tribune staff writer], Online Archive of Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois. (Accessed on August 8, 2013) link