Tag Archives: Orison Swett Marden

Purpose and Persistence Are Required for Success: Unrewarded Genius Is Almost a Proverb

Calvin Coolidge? Theodore Thornton Munger? M. M. Callen? Orison Swett Marden? Edward H. Hart?

purpose22Dear Quote Investigator: Many books extolling self-improvement include a didactic passage that begins as follows:

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.

These words have been credited to U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, but I have not been able to find a good citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A closely matching text was attributed to Calvin Coolidge by 1929, but the passage did not originate with the former President. Instead, it evolved over a period of several decades. Interestingly, the original text located by QI emphasized the importance of “purpose” to success and did not mention “persistence”.

In 1881 the Reverend Theodore Thornton Munger of New England published a book of guidance for young people titled “On the Threshold”. The first chapter was called “Purpose”, and the author stated the following, Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A purpose is the eternal condition of success. Nothing will take its place. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men of talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is a proverb; the “mute, inglorious Milton” is not a poetic creation. The chance of events, the push of circumstances, will not. The natural unfolding of faculties will not. Education will not; the country is full of unsuccessful educated men; indeed, it is a problem of society what to do with the young men it is turning out of its colleges and professional schools. There is no road to success but through a clear, strong purpose.

A purpose underlies character, culture, position, attainment of whatever sort. Shakespeare says: “Some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them;” but the latter is external, and not to be accounted as success.

The boldface text above highlights some of the points of similarity and contrast with the modern text about persistence which has often been attributed to Coolidge.

The phrase “mute, inglorious Milton” was a reference to the popular poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray who was contemplating the graves of the largely-anonymous people who lived and died in the small villages of the English countryside. Gray imagined a person who might have rivalled the power and acclaim of the poet John Milton. Yet, the person was mute and did not achieve glory because chance and circumstance prevented the emergence of his or her greatness. Munger implicitly re-imagined the scenario by suggesting that a clear and strong purpose might have allowed the mute Milton and others to acquire success.

Munger’s words were remembered, and a shortened version of the passage above was further disseminated when it was included in an 1889 collection titled “A Homiletic and Illustrative Treasury of Religious Thought” which was published in a series of editions. 2

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1881 (Copyright 1880), On the Threshold by Theodore T. Munger (Theodore Thornton Munger), Chapter 1: Purpose, Quote Page 9, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1889, A Homiletic and Illustrative Treasury of Religious Thought by H. D. M. Spence, Joseph S. Exell, and Charles Neil, Volume 3, Second Edition, Quote Page 260, Section: Fixity and Tenacity of Purpose, Published by R. D. Dickinson, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Folks Are Usually About as Happy as They Make Up Their Minds To Be

Abraham Lincoln? Frank Crane? Orison Swett Marden? Dale Carnegie? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: On twitter recently there was an exchange about a deeply insightful quotation credited to Abraham Lincoln:

Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

I love this saying, and it helps me to reflect constructively on my own turbulent emotional life. Sometimes focusing on the positive enables one to feel happy instead of unhappy. Could you determine if Lincoln or someone else created this adage?

Quote Investigator: Expert Ralph Keyes examined a version of this saying in The Quote Verifier and expressed skepticism about the common ascription: 1

“People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
This popular Internet quotation is usually attributed to Lincoln. It doesn’t sound like him, however, and no evidence has been offered that he ever said or wrote this. It has appeared in unreliable collections of Lincolniana, and was attributed to Lincoln in the 1960 film Pollyanna.

The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in a newspaper article about New Year’s Resolutions on the first day of 1914 by the columnist Dr. Frank Crane: 2

Determine this year to be master of self; that you will control your thoughts, regulate your passions, and guide your own deeds; that you will not let events lead you by the nose.

Resolve to be happy. Remember Lincoln’s saying that “folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

Crane’s column about resolutions was printed in the Syracuse Herald of Syracuse, New York. It also appeared in other papers in 1914 such as: the Moberly Morning Monitor of Moberly, Missouri; 3 and the Grand Forks Herald of Grand Forks, North Dakota. 4

In 1916 Crane invoked the adage again in his column titled “Plain Talk for Plain People”, but the phrasing he employed was somewhat different. The expression used “most people” instead of “folks” and included the phrase “in this world”: 5

Do you remember what Lincoln said? It was this:
“I have noticed that most people in this world are about as happy as they have made up their minds to be.”

Note that Crane placed the statement between quotation marks, and he credited Abraham Lincoln, but he was not certain how it was originally phrased. Indeed, as shown below, Crane gave a third version in 1920. Lincoln died in 1865 about fifty years before the earliest instance of the quote known to QI.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 129, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1914 January 01, Syracuse Herald, New Year’s Resolutions by Dr. Frank Crane, Unnumbered Page (NewsArch Page 16), Column 4, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1914 January 4, Moberly Morning Monitor, New Year’s Resolutions by Dr. Frank Crane, Page 2, Column 4, Moberly, Missouri. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1914 January 15, Grand Forks Herald, Old-Fashioned Advice. Some Worth While Resolutions for the New Year, (Acknowledgement to Chicago News), Page 7, Column 6, Grand Forks, North Dakota. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1916 July 23, Boston Globe, Plain Talk for Plain People by Dr. Frank Crane, Page 44, Column 8, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)