Tag Archives: Mary Kay Ash

Whether You Believe You Can Do a Thing or Not, You Are Right

Henry Ford? Virgil? John Dryden? John Herbert Phillips? Del Howard? Harlowe B. Andrews? Norman Vincent Peale? Mary Kay Ash? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: An aphorism highlighting the power of positive thinking and warning about the danger of negative thinking has often been attributed to automotive titan Henry Ford. Here are four versions:

Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.
Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.
If you think you can or think you can’t, either way you are right.
If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.

Did Ford really craft this adage? The saying has also been linked to Mary Kay Ash who created a cosmetics empire and Norman Vincent Peale who emphasized positive thinking in his self-help and religious writings.

Quote Investigator: In September 1947 the influential mass-circulation magazine “The Reader’s Digest” published the following freestanding quotation. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.
— Henry Ford

This was the earliest strong match for the statement found by QI. Henry Ford died in April 1947; hence, the adage was ascribed to him a few months after his death. Unfortunately, “The Reader’s Digest” did not provide any precise information about the source; hence, there is some residual uncertainty. During the following years the expression coupled with the Ford ascription was reprinted in other periodicals and newspapers.

Ideational precursors were in circulation long before 1947, but the phrasing was less concise and elegant. The evolution of these expressions will be presented below.

Top researcher Barry Popik and the key reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” have both examined questions in this topic area, and this entry, in part, builds on their valuable explorations. 2 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1947 September, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 51, (Filler item), Quote Page 64, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  2. Website: The Big Apple, Article title: If you think you can, you can (Mary Kay Ash?), Date on website: September 24, 2007, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik on February 3, 2015) link
  3. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 256, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)