The most misquoted quote…


Everywhere I go lately, I see one of the most widely quoted – or should I say paraphrased – sentiments, completely changed.  I was walking down the hall of the administration building at my daughter’s small liberal arts college this week, when there it was again, misquoted on a bulletin board promoting the quality of tomorrow’s leaders.  Then this morning, there it was on a tweet, misquoted in the same exact way.

I feel compelled to set the record straight and allow my dear readers to decide for themselves whether to continue misquoting one of the great American thinkers, or to follow the clues he left us in his actual words.

Henry David Thoreau left us Walden, an essay about his experience living the life he had imagined for two years, two months and two days, simply, in a tiny shack on Walden pond.  In it, he left a clue as to how we might behave in order to create the life we would love living.

What you often see, and I admit, I have a refrigerator magnet that says this, is something like this:  Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Sometime it is added:  Live the life you imagine.

And while that is some nice sounding advice, let’s look at what Henry David Thoreau really wrote.  (Warning:  There are a lot of “he’s” and “his,” which is not to say Thoreau thought this only applied to men.  In fact, there were women who took part in the conversations in the home of his friend and employer Ralph Waldo Emerson, which led Thoreau to his experiment.  Remember that in his day, “his” was the excepted possessive pronoun when either gender was implied.)

He said:

I have learned this, at least, from my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.

This is not the end of the clue, but it is enough to see the difference.

First and foremost, there is “if.”  We have a choice.  We may decide to advance confidently in the direction of our dream and endeavor to live the life we have imagined, OR NOT.  But if meeting with success not commonly expected sounds good to us, here’s a tip sheet for how to get there.

Secondly, there is “endeavors.”  To endeavor is to try.  He is not saying you must perfectly live the life you imagined.  He is saying advance confidently in it’s direction and TRY.  This may seem picky, but in my coaching practice I meet so many people who think if something is not perfect, it is not worth doing.  Understanding that endeavoring is all it takes to be working the process is huge.

More clues follow about how this might work in the following sentences of this one paragraph in Walden.  Enjoy the beauty of his language and the possibility of applying this to your own success…

He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.  In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.  If you have built your castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them.

LinThe most misquoted quote…