The Purpose of Life Is To Be Defeated by Greater and Greater Things

Rainer Maria Rilke? Tim O’Reilly? Louise Bogan? Robert Bly? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A recent book by technology guru and computer book publisher Tim O’Reilly contained the following appeal: 1

Pursue something so important that even if you fail, the world is better off for you having tried.

O’Reilly illustrated this idea by referring to a resonant poem by Rainer Maria Rilke based on an episode from the Book of Genesis. Jacob wrestled with a transcendent angelic figure and was defeated, but he was also strengthened. O’Reilly offered the following compressed reading of the poem:

What we fight with is so small, and when we win, it makes us small. What we want is to be defeated, decisively, by successively greater things.

Would you please help me to find this piece by Rilke?

Quote Investigator: In 1901 the monthly journal “Deutsche Arbeit” (“German Labor”) published a work by Rainer Maria Rilke under the title “Gedicht” (“Poem”). The following was the final verse. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

Wen dieser Engel überwand,
Welcher so oft auf Kampf verzichtet,
Der geht gerecht und aufgerichtet
Und groß aus seiner harten Hand,
Die sich, wie formend, an ihn schmiegte.
Die Siege laden ihn nicht ein;
Sein Wachstum ist: Der Tiefbesiegte
Von immer Größerem zu sein.

The poem was translated by poet Robert Bly in 1981, and these were the last three lines: 3

Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Purpose of Life Is To Be Defeated by Greater and Greater Things


  1. 2017, WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us by Tim O’Reilly, Chapter 16: Work on Stuff That Matters, Quote Page 352 and 353, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)
  2. 1901 October, Deutsche Arbeit: Monatichrift sür das geistige Leben der Deutichen in Böhmen, (German Labor: Monthly for the Spiritual Life of the Germans in Bohemia), Volume 1, Gedicht (Poem) by Rainer Maria Rilke, Start Page 19, Quote Page 20, Verlag von Georg D. W. Callwey in München, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 2001, Who Lives Better Than We Do? Poems by Reggie Marra, Epigraph on title page, (Acknowledgement to “The Man Watching” of “Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke”, edited and translated by Robert Bly, 1981), From the Heart Press: An Imprint of Integral Journeys for Pilgrims, Poets, Fools and Saints, New Milford, Connecticut. (Google Books Preview)

You’re Not the Customer; You’re the Product

Richard Serra? Carlota Fay Schoolman? Steve Atkins? Tom Johnson? Claire Wolfe? Andrew Lewis? blue_beetle? Tim O’Reilly?

Dear Quote Investigator: For decades the most powerful mass medium has been television. The internet has dramatically shifted our access to information. Nowadays, society reflects upon itself by using internet search engines. Yet, both of these fundamental channels of communication, access, and synthesis are primarily supported by advertising. A pithy expression explicates the resultant skewed perspective:

You’re not the customer; you’re the product.

Would you please explore the history of this saying?

Quote Investigator: In 1973 the artists Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman broadcast a short video titled “Television Delivers People”. An anodyne soundtrack played while sentences in white text on a blue background slowly scrolled upward. The messages displayed thematically matched the saying under exploration. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Commercial television delivers 20 million people a minute.
In commercial broadcasting the viewer pays for the privilege of having himself sold.
It is the consumer who is consumed.
You are the product of t.v.
You are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer.
He consumes you.
The viewer is not responsible for programming——
You are the end product.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading You’re Not the Customer; You’re the Product


  1. YouTube Video, Title: Richard Serra “Television Delivers People” (1973), Authors of video: Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman, Uploaded on Feb 2, 2011, Uploaded by: KunstSpektrum, Copyright date within video: Mar 30, 1973, (Quotation starts at 0 minute 54 seconds of 6 minutes 55 seconds) (Video of scrolling text with canned soundtrack music; Text criticizes the corporate and advertiser control of television content), (Accessed on on May 13, 2017) link