George Bernard Shaw? Puck? Saxby’s Magazine? Elbert Hubbard? Confucius? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage is the perfect antidote to excessive negativity and obstructionism:
People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.
These words are often attributed to Asian sage Confucius and to the acclaimed playwright George Bernard Shaw; unfortunately, I have not been able to locate any solid data to back up this claim. Would you please trace this quotation?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive support for the ascriptions to Confucius and Shaw.
QI hypothesizes that the modern expression evolved from a comment about the rapidity of change and innovation at the turn of the century that was printed in the humor magazine “Puck” in December 1902. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1
Things move along so rapidly nowadays that people saying: “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.
Multiple newspapers and journals reprinted the remark in 1903. One instance appeared on March 7, 1903 in a periodical called “The Public” based in Chicago, Illinois. An acknowledgment to the humor magazine “Puck” was appended: 2
Things move along so rapidly nowadays that people saying: “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.—Puck.
On March 13, 1903 an instance was published in “The Evansville Courier” of Evansville, Indiana with an acknowledgement to “Saxby’s Magazine”. The statements above and below were both printed as filler items without additional contextual information: 3
Some philosopher takes time to remark that things move along so rapidly nowadays that people who say “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.—Saxby’s Magazine.
In April 1903 a journal for educators and parents called “Kindergarten Magazine” printed an instance that exactly matched the statement in “The Public”. The “Puck” acknowledgement was included: 4
During the ensuing decades the expression was reshaped. In 1914 a charismatic aphorism constructor named Elbert Hubbard printed a variant in his journal “The Philistine”, but he disclaimed authorship. By 1962 a pseudo Confucian version had been fabricated, and by 2004 a version attributed to George Bernard Shaw was circulating.
Additional citations in chronological order are given below.
- 1902 December 24, Puck, Volume 52, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Published at the Puck Building, New York, Copyright Keppler and Schwarzmann, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1903 March 7, The Public, Number 257, Editor Louis F. Post, (Filler item), Quote Page 766, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1903 March 16, The Evansville Courier (Evansville Courier and Press), (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 7, Evansville, Indiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1903 April, Kindergarten Magazine, Volume 15, Number 8, (Filler item), Quote Page 488, Kindergarten Magazine Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩