As You Climb the Ladder of Success, Be Sure It’s Leaning Against the Right Building

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.

Continue reading As You Climb the Ladder of Success, Be Sure It’s Leaning Against the Right Building


  1. 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)

Be Yourself. Everyone Else Is Already Taken

Oscar Wilde? Thomas Merton? Gilbert Perreira? Menards? America Ferrera? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have spent hours trying to determine whether Oscar Wilde wrote the following as commonly claimed:

Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.

I have not found a single good citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde made this remark. It is not listed in “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde”, an extensive collection compiled by quotation expert Ralph Keyes. 1

The earliest compelling thematic match known to QI appeared in the literary journal “The Hudson Review” in 1967. The influential spiritual thinker and mystic Thomas Merton published an essay titled “Day of a Stranger” which referred to “being yourself”: 2 3

In an age where there is much talk about “being yourself” I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anybody else. Rather it seems to me that when one is too intent on “being himself” he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow.

Merton humorously stated that there was “very little chance of my being anybody else”, whereas the quotation under examination offered a different comical rationale: “everyone else is already taken”, but the crux was similar. Interestingly, Merton cautioned against self-consciously trying to be oneself.

The “Day of a Stranger” essay was reprinted multiple times in anthologies, journals, and collections. It may have facilitated the later construction of the quotation. Many thanks to adept researcher Bodhipaksa who told QI about this citation.

The first strong match located by QI was disseminated via the Usenet discussion system in December 1999. The words were appended to the end of a message posted to a newsgroup used primarily by residents of the Netherlands. The statement was enclosed in quotation marks signaling that it was already in circulation; also, no attribution was specified: 4

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

Oscar Wilde did write several remarks about identity and appearance that were thematically related to this quotation, but the perspective was different.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Be Yourself. Everyone Else Is Already Taken


  1. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1967 Summer, The Hudson Review, Volume 20, Number 2, Day of a Stranger by Thomas Merton, Start Page 211, Quote Page 211, Hudson Review, Inc., New York. (JSTOR) link
  3. 1991, Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings by Thomas Merton, Edited by Lawrence Cunningham, Day of a Stranger, Start Page 214, Quote Page 215, Paulist Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  4. 1999 December 27, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: nl.markt.comp, dds.markt, nl.markt.overig, From: Erick T. Barkhuis, Subject: Re: comleet systeem, (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 31, 2016) link

Happiness Is Not a Matter of Intensity But of Balance, Order, Rhythm, and Harmony

Thomas Merton? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I’ve been wondering about the authenticity of a quote about happiness I came across some time ago. I’ve been unable to find a source so far.

Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.

It was supposedly said by Thomas Merton.

Quote Investigator: The attribution given is correct although the wording of the quotation is slightly different. The conjunction “and” is used three times in the original text. The words appeared in a collection of essays published in 1955 titled “No Man is an Island” in a chapter called “Being and Doing” [TMHI]:

We cannot be happy if we expect to live all the time at the highest peak of intensity. Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony.

Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm.

Here is some additional information.

Continue reading Happiness Is Not a Matter of Intensity But of Balance, Order, Rhythm, and Harmony