Stephen R. Covey? Thomas Merton? Allen Raine? Anne Adaliza Evans? Mae Maloo? H. Jackson Brown? Sarah Frances Brown? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The metaphorical notion of climbing a ladder of success was in use by writers in the nineteenth century. Here is an intriguing cautionary twist about faulty objectives:
When you get to the top of the ladder you may find it is propped against the wrong wall.
This thought has been credited to the educator and best-selling author Stephen R. Covey and to the theologian and activist Thomas Merton. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: Tracing this expression has been difficult because of its variability. The earliest evidence found by QI appeared in “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York in 1915. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
“You may get to the very top of the ladder, and then find it has not been leaning against the right wall.”—Allen Raine.
This quotation did not explicitly mention a “ladder of success”, but the allusion was clear. “Allen Raine” was the pseudonym of a popular Welsh novelist named Anne Adaliza Evans, but QI is not certain whether the newspaper intended to attribute the quote to her or to some other Allen Raine.
The citation above reveals that neither Thomas Merton who was born in 1915 nor Stephen R. Covey who was born in 1932 originated this extended metaphor. In fact, QI has not yet found any substantive evidence linking the notion to Merton. On the other hand, Covey did employ it.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1915 December 30, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Section: Picture and Sporting, (Filler item in a box), Quote Page 4, Column 6, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩