Never Doubt That a Small Group of Thoughtful, Committed Citizens Can Change the World; Indeed, It’s the Only Thing That Ever Has

Margaret Mead? Donald Keys? Norman Vincent Peale? Patrick E. Haggerty? R. H. Edwin Espy? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular energizing statement about small groups changing the world is usually attributed to the influential cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Yet, I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have been unsuccessful in finding the quotation in Margaret Mead’s corpus. The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the 1982 book “Earth at Omega: Passage to Planetization”. The epigraph of chapter 6 was the following. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
— Margaret Mead

The author, Donald Keys, did not provide any details about the source of the statement. Margaret Mead had died a few years earlier in 1978.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Never Doubt That a Small Group of Thoughtful, Committed Citizens Can Change the World; Indeed, It’s the Only Thing That Ever Has


  1. 1982 Copyright, Earth at Omega: Passage to Planetization by Donald Keys, (Epigraph of Chapter VI: The Politics of Consciousness), Quote Page 79, Published by Branden Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Preview)

Once You Replace Negative Thoughts with Positive Ones, You’ll Start Having Positive Results

Willie Nelson? Dale Carnegie? Norman Vincent Peale? James K. Van Fleet? John C. Maxwell?

Dear Quote Investigator: Did country music star Willie Nelson say something about replacing negative thoughts with positive ones to achieve positive results?

Quote Investigator: In 2006 Willie Nelson with Turk Pipkin published “The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart”. Two epigraphs appeared at the beginning of the book: 1

When something positive occurs, it contains within it the seeds of negative and positive.
—The Tao Te Ching

Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.
—Willie Nelson

This general notion has a long history in self-help literature. For example, in 1948 the popular volume “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” by Dale Carnegie mentioned replacing negative thoughts: 2

Even if we don’t succeed, the mere attempt to turn our minus into a plus will cause us to look forward instead of backward; it will replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts; it will release creative energy and spur us to get so busy that we won’t have either the time or the inclination to mourn over what is past and forever gone

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading Once You Replace Negative Thoughts with Positive Ones, You’ll Start Having Positive Results


  1. 2006, The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart by Willie Nelson with Turk Pipkin, (Epigraph of book), Quote Page vii, Gotham Books, New York: A Division of Penguin Group. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1948, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie, Quote Page 134, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)

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:

  1. Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.
  2. Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.
  3. If you think you can or think you can’t, either way you are right.
  4. 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 2 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. 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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


  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)

The Eternal Stars Shine Out Again, So Soon As It Is Dark Enough

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Martin Luther King Jr.? Emily Faithfull? Amelia Edith Barr? Charles A. Beard? Thomas Carlyle? Norman Vincent Peale? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular metaphorical expression that encourages people to maintain hope and optimism during times of unhappiness and trouble. Here are three versions:

1) Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.
2) When the night is dark enough the stars shine out.
3) Not until it gets really dark do the beautiful stars appear.

Admittedly, there is considerable ambiguity when interpreting these sayings, and the most common meanings may have shifted over time.

The first version above is often attributed to the famous transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I searched a database of his complete works and was unable to find it. Would you please explore this adage?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the 1843 book “Past and Present” by the influential Scottish philosopher and social commentator Thomas Carlyle. He employed an instance of the metaphor while discussing squalor, strikes, and revolts. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

As dark misery settles down on us, and our refuges of lies fall in pieces one after one, the hearts of men, now at last serious, will turn to refuges of truth. The eternal stars shine out again, so soon as it is dark enough.

Different versions of the expression have been circulating for more than a century and a half, but the meaning has been malleable. In the instance above QI believes that Carlyle was suggesting important truths emerged during times of tribulation.

QI has found no substantive evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson used the expression. Some writers of moral instruction and romantic fiction did use instances in the 1800s.

The prominent historian Charles A. Beard employed the saying in lectures and articles by 1909, but he credited Thomas Carlyle. Indeed, when Beard was asked to summarize his extensive knowledge of the past he produced a condensation that consisted of four laws of history, and one law was based on Carlyle’s words. The other three are listed further below.

The civil rights champion Martin Luther King used an instance in a speech, but he credited Charles A. Beard. The popular religious writer Norman Vincent Peale also helped to popularize the saying.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Eternal Stars Shine Out Again, So Soon As It Is Dark Enough


  1. 1843, Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle, Book IV: Chapter VIII: The Didactic, Start Page 251, Quote Page 251, Published by Chapman & Hall, London. (Google Books Full View) link

What You Are Comes To You

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Norman Vincent Peale? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement is often attributed to the famous philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson:

What you are comes to you.

Some adherents of “New Thought” and “New Age” belief systems view this as a spiritual law. This saying reminded me of the quasi-mystical book “The Secret”. However, I have not found this sentence in Emerson’s essays. Could you examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI has not located this quotation in the works of Emerson, and QI hypothesizes that the ascription to Emerson emerged from a misreading of a passage by the best-selling writer Norman Vincent Peale who was a minister and proponent of “Positive Thinking”.

In Peale’s 1967 book “Enthusiasm Makes the Difference” he included a section about a psychological strategy he labeled the “‘As If’ Principle” which was summarized with the following quotation: 1

“If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.”

Peale recounted an anecdote in which an apathetic baseball player started to play as if he were enthusiastic. The athlete’s energy and vitality led to success and admiration, and these positive developments generated genuine enthusiasm.

Peale ended the section with a discussion of Ralph Waldo Emerson that included the quotation under investigation. But Peale did not claim that the short phrase “What you are comes to you” was from Emerson. In fact, the phrase was Peale’s and not Emerson’s. Peale was presenting his own summary analysis of Emerson’s perspective:

You too can activate yourself into enthusiasm by use of the “As if” principle. What you are comes to you. This remarkable principle is thus stated by Emerson, “A man is a method, a progressive arrangement; a selecting principle, gathering his like unto him wherever he goes.” So act as you want to be and you will be as you act.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What You Are Comes To You


  1. 1967, Enthusiasm Makes the Difference by Norman Vincent Peale, Page 20-22, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans of 1971 fourth printing)

If I Shoot at the Sun, I May Hit a Star

P. T. Barnum? Britney Spears? George Herbert? Jane Russell? W. Clement Stone? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Norman Vincent Peale? Les Brown? John McEnroe?

Dear Quote Investigator: There exists a collection of sayings that uses celestial bodies to illustrate advice about setting goals. Here are three examples:

  1. If I shoot at the sun, I may hit a star.
  2. If we aim at the moon—we may hit a star!
  3. Shoot for the moon. If you miss it, you will still land among the stars.

The moon and sun are impressive objects in the sky while the stars are less luminous and therefore not as visually striking. Hence, I think that these adages mean the following: If you set a very difficult goal for yourself then even if you are only partially successful you will find that the result is still superb.

Modern astronomical knowledge makes the sayings more difficult to interpret. Stars (other than the sun) are much farther away from the Earth than the sun or the moon. Hence, hitting a star is actually much more difficult than hitting the sun or moon. Indeed, there is another set of aphorisms that switches the role of the moon and the stars:

  1. If you don’t aim for the stars, you’re not going to get to the moon.
  2. I’ll shoot for the stars, and I’ll settle for the moon.

These types of sayings have been credited to P. T. Barnum, Norman Vincent Peale, and others. Could you examine this class of quotations?

Quote Investigator: An important precursor to this collection of sayings was written by the poet and Anglican priest George Herbert who died in 1633. In the poem “The Church-Porch” a verse exhorted the reader to be humble but also to “aimeth at the sky”. Herbert contended that one would achieve more by targeting the sky instead of adopting the easier task of aiming at a tree: 1

Pitch thy behaviour low, thy projects high;
So shalt thou humble and magnanimous be:
Sink not in spirit; who aimeth at the sky,
Shoots higher much, than he that means a tree.
A grain of glory mix’d with humbleness
Cures both a Fever, and Lethargickness.

The advice that one should aim at the moon to achieve something great has been proffered for many years. In 1846 an instance of this type of guidance suggested that one may not hit the moon but still “hit a high mark”. The following words were credited to George Herbert, and QI hypothesizes that this expression evolved from Herbert’s verse given above: 2

…still George Herbert’s advice on a higher matter is applicable to this, that we had better shoot at the moon if we want to hit a high mark.

In 1859 an expression of this kind was already labeled an “old saying”. In the following excerpt the result of shooting at the moon was not as impressive as landing among the stars; nevertheless, it was portrayed as desirable: 3

You remember the old saying, Beatrice, “Shoot at the moon and you will hit the top of the highest tree.” If you could not be a genius you may, nevertheless, have made greater progress by the effort to be one.

In 1865 a statement mentioned shooting at the stars instead of the moon. The conceptual pattern of the aphorism was the same. The result of pursuing an exalted goal was the achievement of a less impressive but useful goal: 4

Probably the ingenious author goes on the principle that if you shoot at the stars you may hit a tree. If you cram your novel with Cabinet Ministers and Latin and Greek and Lafitte, you may get the public to listen to your substantial but prosaic grievance, that an inmate of Whitecross Street prison may not receive visitors on a Sunday.

In 1876 another astronomical object was presented as an unreachable but valuable aspirational target: the sun: 5

Again, he would say, “shoot an arrow at the sun every morning.” “But we can’t hit it,” was the answer. “You will hit higher than if you aimed lower,” he would reply.

In 1879 the name of George Herbert was invoked again. This time the saying credited to him concerned the moon and a tree: 6

This was an ideal scheme, but nothing great is ever accomplished by the man who has not a high ideal: and George Herbert’s words were never forgotten by the bishop, “that it is good to shoot at the moon even though you only hit a tree.”

Finally, in 1891 an expression matching a version given by the questioner was printed in a collection of quotations and short writings that had been “Compiled by Ladies of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California”. The words were ascribed to the famous American showman Phineas T. Barnum: 7

If I shoot at the sun, I may hit a star.
—P. T. Barnum

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If I Shoot at the Sun, I May Hit a Star


  1. 1709, “The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations” by George Herbert, [The Thirteenth Edition Corrected; First Edition was published in 1633], The Church-Porch, Start Page 1, Quote Page 12, Printed for John Wyat, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1846 December, The English Review, Englishwomen of the 17th and 19th Centuries, Start Page 285, Quote Page 330, Francis & John Rivington, London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1859, “Beatrice; or, Six Years of Childhood and Youth” by Mrs. S. Valentine [Laura Valentine], Quote Page 127, William Tegg & Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1865 September 30, The Saturday Review, Volume 20, Who is the Heir? [Book Review], Start Page 429, Quote Page 430, Column 1, Published at the Saturday Review Office, London. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1876 September 8, Kalamazoo Weekly Gazette, “Picnicing Pioneers. The Fifth Annual Re-Union a Success Socially and Numerically” Quote Page 2, Column 6, Kalamazoo, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1879, “Memoir of the Life and Episcopate of George Augustus Selwyn, D.D.” by Rev. H. W. Tucker [Henry William Tucker], Volume 2 of 2, Quote Page 256, William Wells Gardner, London. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1891, More Borrowings, Compiled by Ladies of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California, Quote Page 24, [Copyright 1891 by Sarah S. B. Yule and Mary S, Keene], C. A. Murdock & Co., Printers, San Francisco, California. (Google Books full view) link