Tag Archives: Kurt Vonnegut

Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You

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

janeaddams03Dear 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.

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  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 youtube.com 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 chicagotribune.com on August 8, 2013) link

Jump Off the Cliff and Build Your Wings on the Way Down

Ray Bradbury? Franco Mancassola? Kurt Vonnegut? Annie Dillard? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

wingsbradbury03Dear Quote Investigator: The influential publisher Tim O’Reilly recently tweeted a great quotation about entrepreneurship that was used in a commencement address given by DJ Patil, a Data Scientist at a venture capital company. Here is an excerpt from the speech given at the University of Maryland: 1 2

As my good friend Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of LinkedIn, says: Entrepreneurship is jumping off a cliff and assembling a plane on the way down.

Some of the Twitter responses pointed to a saying from the science fiction master Ray Bradbury about building wings after jumping off a cliff. Could you determine what Bradbury actually said?

Quote Investigator: Bradbury used this vivid metaphor to illustrate boldness and audacity several times. In November 1979 he reviewed a book about the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., and he gave very high praise to the book and the museum: 3

It looks like a dream book. Then you suddenly remember it’s all real. Then the long march from the rim of the cave to the edge of the cliff where we flung ourselves off and built our wings on the way down quickens to focus. It’s all here, in a building, in a book.

In October 1986 Bradbury spoke at a one-day symposium on ‘Future Style’ held on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, and his words were reported in the Los Angeles Times: 4

In his keynote address, author Ray Bradbury declared that if enough people followed their hearts, they could realize their optimistic vision of humanity’s future. Bradbury exhorted his enthusiastic listeners to “jump off the cliff and learn how to make wings on the way down.”

Ascriptions to other authors such as Kurt Vonnegut and Annie Dillard only appeared years later and were not well substantiated. Indeed, Dillard contacted QI directly to state that she never wrote the quotation, and she never spoke it. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 2012 June 13, Greylock Partners website, Failure is our ONLY option, [Commencement Speech for the class 2012 in the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, at the University of Maryland], Speech by DJ Patil: Data Scientist at Greylock Partners, Speech date: May 20, 2012. (Accessed at greylockvc.com on June 17, 2012) link
  2. 2012 June 6, Wired UK website, Ideas Bank: Failure is our only option, Guest Author: DJ Patil, [Excerpts from Commencement Speech for the class 2012 in the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, at the University of Maryland], Speech by DJ Patil: Data Scientist at Greylock Partners, Speech date: May 20, 2012. (Accessed at wired.co.uk on June 17, 2012) link
  3. 1979 November 18, Los Angeles Times, Section: The Book Review, Hymn to humanity from the cathedral of high technology by Ray Bradbury, (Review of “National Air and Space Museum”, text by C.D.B. Bryan), Page K1, Column 3, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  4. 1986 October 21, Los Angeles Times, ‘Future Style’ Slickly Peers Wrong Way by Charles Solomon, Page OC_E2, Column 5, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

I Can Think of No More Stirring Symbol of Man’s Humanity to Man than a Fire Engine

Kurt Vonnegut? Winston Niles Rumfoord? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A good friend of mine is a volunteer firefighter, and he asked me about a quote credited to Kurt Vonnegut:

I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine

This statement can be found on many websites and it is almost always attached to Vonnegut, but I have not found any citation identifying when it was written or spoken. Past experience has made me very skeptical about unsupported attributions to Vonnegut.

I still remember a humorous speech titled “Wear Sunscreen” that was distributed widely on the internet under Vonnegut’s name [IFVN]. But the real author was a Chicago Tribune columnist named Mary Schmich [MSWS].

Did Vonnegut really praise fire engines?

Quote Investigator: The quotation above was spoken by a character named Winston Niles Rumfoord in Kurt Vonnegut’s early science fiction novel “The Sirens of Titan” published in 1959. In the story the primary protagonist Malachi Constant was returning to Earth after a series of ordeals, and he was greeted by Rumfoord as follows [KVST]:

“Welcome, Space Wanderer,” blatted Rumfoord’s oleomargarine tenor from the Gabriel horns on the wall. “How meet it is that you should come to us on the bright red pumper of a volunteer fire department. I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine. Tell me, Space Wanderer, do you see anything here—anything that makes you think you may have been here before?”

Rumfoord was a complex and sometimes cruel figure with extraordinary powers in the political and quasi-religious realms who was partially based on Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of course, the pronouncements of a character in a novel do not always reflect the beliefs of the author. Indeed, sometimes the pronouncements do not even accurately represent the attitudes of the character. But there is evidence that Vonnegut was appreciative of fire engines and firefighters.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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