Recently I opened the Facebook page of a former student–a student of mine when I taught high school, 30 years ago. So this adolescent is now a middle-aged man. I’m always interested and pleased to see what interesting, complex people these high school seniors have become. But in this case, I found myself fixed on the quotation that he had given as his personal statement.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. –Mark Twain
This delivered shocks of both familiarity and oddness. I first saw this quotation seven years ago, in a bar in Heredia, Costa Rica, a bar with at least seven posters of Che Guevara stationed around the room. The message of the lines impressed me, and I’ve often brought them to mind when faced with a new challenge, one likely to make life unpleasant, at least in the immediate future.
So I had to congratulate this former student on taking up this robust approach to life. Admittedly, though I was surprised to see the quotation coming from Mark Twain. I had first seen it in Spanish, and I had recalled the language was far sharper, with “arrepentir” used in place of disappointed, carrying more the weight of regret or “repenting of.” I managed to find a Spanish version of the phrase online, at and listed as part of “Positive Thought” (Pensamiento Positivo) 295. [The other hits from this quick search turned up 20-year olds either pregnant else looking for men, and some “porno Mexicano.” So, that seems like another story.] Sergio, who is a “coach, formador, escritor” and “conferenciante,” among other accomplishments, attributed the following thought to…himself:
Dentro de 20 años de lo único que te vas a arrepentir es de aquello que no has hecho.
Well, this is not the same as the Twain quote, so no need to suspect any intellectual malfeasance there. And plenty of other web sources had the quote, completely in English, and tied directly to the author of Letters from the Earth. Goodreads has it, as does a slew of Tumblr pages. I discovered posters with these same words, and individual postings of the quote either with or without other sayings from Twain. No surprise there–I’d found it so irresistible that it remained in my memory, in Spanish, for years. So it made sense that many others would be drawn to the same healthy mindedness.
But, those very same positive sentiments made me doubt any such words came from the pen or the lectures of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Had any of the quoters ever read any other authentic work by Mark Twain? Huckleberry Finn, with its depiction of two miscreant outcasts—an abused orphan and an escaped slave. Pudd’nhead Wilson, with the plot turning on two babies switched at birth, making one a slave and one a slaveowner? Or even the dreary, moralizing novel he considered his masterpiece, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc—French heroine judicially murdered by English invaders? Pudd’nhead Wilson’s “calendar,” a series of pithy sayings meant to skewer Victorian uplifts, would have served as a likely source for the saying. But, instead, it displays Twain’s sardonic wit to full advantage. A couple of samples
There is a Moral Sense, and there is an Immoral Sense. History shows us that the Moral Sense enables us to perceive morality and how to avoid it, and that the Immoral Sense enables us to perceive immorality and how to enjoy it.
Let us be thankful for the fools. But for them the rest of us could not succeed.
As I made my rounds of the Internet in search of the quote, I also noticed that the words “Mark Twain” never preceded any further indication of provenance. This is not at all a product of the Web—after all, Wikipedia is a model or citation, and even when inadequate, Wikipedia’s sourcing is subject o review and revision. But, credible citations come with sources. Students of the world, are you listening? There is a reason you learn the MLA or Chicago Manual or APA!
Even apart from the power of positive thinking displayed in this quote, it also contained other signals that its author was not Mark Twain. “So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.” Odd metaphors for Twain. In Life on the Mississippi, he went into detail about the long apprenticeship of riverboat pilots, and their responsibility for the safety of their vessels. “Catch the trade winds in your sails.” ?? Did Samuel L Clemens ever go sailing? Ever? If he did, he spent far more time at sea on steamships, on scheduled cruises with established routes. Even stylistically, the quote just goes on too long. Twain always bore down hard on the need to leave out what is unnecessary. If a point is made well, further discussion only dulls it.
Finally, several pages into my Google search, I found the page of Mark Twain “quotations” that he never authored. Mental Floss has the saying from the poster, without the seafaring metaphors at the end, and gives as its nearest equivalent:
One cannot have everything the way he would like it. A man has no business to be depressed by a disappointment, anyway; he ought to make up his mind to get even.”