You’ve been misquoting these inspiring phrases your whole life

Do all those inspirational quotes we see for #MotivationMonday or #WidsomWednesday really exist? And were they really said by the people we are so quick to believe said them? Yes and no.

You’ve been misquoting these inspiring phrases your whole life
[Photo: mcmorabad/iStock]

In the course of researching the history of emotional intelligence, I stumbled across an origin story that went all the way back to Plato. The classical Greek philosopher apparently wrote, “All learning has an emotional base.”


Except that he never said it, according to Christopher Golis, a coach specializing in emotional intelligence. Instead, Golis’s digging unearthed no attribution to Plato before 1997, “after which it’s copied promiscuously in various inspirational/psychological books–never with source identification–and then on to various quotation websites.”

It’s easy to see how misinformation like this can spread virally, so I couldn’t help but wonder, do all those inspirational quotes we see liberally hashtagged for #MotivationMonday or #WidsomWednesday really exist? And were they really said by the people we are so quick to believe said them?

The answer is yes and no.

Here are seven quotes meant to inspire that you’ve likely heard at some point–but you’ll be surprised to find out who actually said them.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

We can practically picture the peaceful Indian sage, smiling as he dispensed this bit of wisdom. However, Gandhi never said this. According to Brian Morton, the director of the graduate program in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College, Gandhi’s actual words were massaged into a pithy platitude for a 140-character tweet. What he actually said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him. We need not wait to see what others do.”


As Morton points out, Gandhi’s philosophy ran counter to the flavor of the quote, that “one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.” In other words, collaboration is key to change.

“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.”

This other choice Gandhi-ism was also not likely said by the man himself. Instead, a report in the Christian Science Monitor reveals another, very similar point made during a speech given by union activist Nicholas Klein in 1918: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.”

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

This one is probably particularly poignant for those suffering from impostor syndrome and is widely regarded as being issued from the lips of Nelson Mandela during a speech after he became president of South Africa.

But it really came from a passage in a self-help book called Return to Love by Marianne Williamson that was written in 1992. Mandela didn’t even give his inaugural address until two years later–and didn’t crib Williamson’s words. In fact, according to the African National Congress, he never used them in any other speech, so it’s not clear how he got credit for her words.

“Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is.”

This nugget has been used to inspire across industries from sports to business, courtesy of hockey champion Wayne Gretzky. But it was another Gretzky who actually said it–Wayne’s father. What’s more, as the elder Gretzky tells it, that advice doesn’t make any sense in a professional context. “That advice is strictly for little kids. It’s just simple basics, like the ABCs. You have to know the alphabet before you can write. And naturally, going to where the puck is going is something that pros take for granted–or they wouldn’t be playing professionally.”


“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

This one is a tale of multiple sources (but only one originator, of course). The quote as it is was said by Edward Kennedy during his eulogy for his brother Robert after he was assassinated in 1968. Edward took the line from his brother who delivered a similar phrase during one of his campaign speeches.

Though Robert Kennedy made it clear he was paraphrasing playwright George Bernard Shaw, the misattribution took hold. Shaw’s original line came from his play Back to Methuselah: “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?'”

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

Many people can likely attest to the hard work that goes into achieving a goal after having a lightbulb moment. And this quote may have taken the edge off the sweat equity, courtesy of the words of inventor Thomas Edison.

However, he didn’t say it. It was first delivered during a series of lectures by an 1890s academic named Kate Sanborn who was exploring the topic of genius. She posited that it was a mix of “inspiration” and “perspiration” without providing a percentage of how much of each one needed to achieve genius. Edison, her contemporary, may have seen the newspaper editorial that took Sanborn to task for stating such an attention-grabbing obvious thing. And it was Edison who then claimed, “2% is genius and 98% is hard work.” And what of inspiration in this equation? According to Edison, “Genius is not inspired. Inspiration is perspiration.” The newspapers of the day were all too eager to spread this quote as if it was his own.

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Forbes contributor Maseena Ziegler points out that this quote was misattributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but the person who really wrote it was Muriel Strode. In her 1903 poem “Wind-Wafted Wild Flowers” you’ll find “I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path, and I will leave a trail.”


Ziegler notes that an academic periodical reprinted Strode’s slightly revised quote (replacing just the I’s) with a credit to Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Not long after, it appeared as a sign at a school once again incorrectly credited–and from there you could say it took off,” she writes.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.