Well, it happened again. I discovered a misattribution in a quote I have been using. For an author, this is a big deal, especially if one has been complicit in perpetuating the error! This is the third time I discovered one of these in twenty years, having been complicit on the first occasion, revealer of the truth on the second, and fully complicit in the most recent case. A quick review.
In the early to mid-1990s I was Editor-in-Chief of The New Leaders, a print based newsletter that published interviews, articles and reported stories for business people who were interested in organizational transformation and conscious business leadership. A colleague and good friend sent me a great quote by the newly-elected President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, supposedly part of his inaugural address. It had been published in another journal, one that I admired greatly.
We published it without checking it out any further. Here’s the quote:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
Soon it was showing up everywhere – other periodicals, websites, and email signatures. Obviously, the world wanted to think Mandela had said this.
Shortly after we published the quote, popular U.S. author and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson wrote the periodical where we first saw the quote and claimed she had written it and that it could be found in her book, A Return to Love. There it was, published a few years earlier than Mandela’s speech.
The rumors went flying! Mandela supposedly had read her quote during his speech. So, that’s how the misattribution occurred! Clearly, people wanted this fabulous quote to be from Mandela’s lips, even if he was quoting someone.
I wrote a letter to Mandela in South Africa. I sent one copy by mail and entrusted another copy of the same letter to a friend who was going to South Africa and assured me he could get into the President’s office. I received two separate replies from Mandela’s office, each stating that “he never uttered those words.”
So it was all a mistake and no one seemed to know how the mix-up occurred. I suspect there are still people who believe Mandela did speak the words but the truth is he did not. In the next issue of The New Leaders we printed a correction and gave credit to Williamson.
I felt somewhat relieved at our relatively rapid response and personally took on the role of “revealer of the truth” about this quote which I still get to perform from time to time today, twenty years later.
In the second case of misattribution, about eleven or twelve years ago I received an email from a friend and loved the quote in the signature of the email. Here’s the quote:
"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive."
The name of the author – one “Harold Thurman Whitman” – was unfamiliar to me. We were in the early years of search engines (the pre-Google era) but I searched for more about this person. The only reference to him was the one quote. No other quotes, writings, books – nothing! However, there were many places where this quote was showing up, almost all of them being executive coaches’ websites.
After playing Sherlock Holmes for a few hours, I discovered the author of this quote – one that has become one of my very favorites – is Reverend Howard Thurman, a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr and one of the first importers of the Gandhi wisdom on nonviolence.
In this case, I was again the revealer of the truth, not complicit in the misattribution.
A curious thing: the fictional “Harold Thurman Whitman” is still cited on many quote websites and Google gives you over 7,000 references to him!
More recently, in writing an article for a futures journal, I included a quote which I had always believed to be by 19th century philosopher William James. It was one that I had used frequently in the past. Here it is:
"Man alone, of all the creatures on earth, can change his own patterns. Man alone is the architect of his destiny. The greatest revolution in our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives."
Given that this academic journal requires bibliographical notations, I needed to obtain the source for this quote and, lo and behold, after searching dozens of books I discovered this quote is one of the most frequent James misattributions.
According to Wikiquote, a portion of the quote was written by Spencer W. Kimball, twelfth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in his 1969 book Miracle of Forgiveness. But the bulk of the words seem to be fabrications from unknown sources. So clearly in this case I had been complicit in perpetuating the error.
What I am learning as a result of these three experiences is:
1. People like inspiring quotes and are quick to accept the written word as truth; after all, it wasn’t too long ago when a common belief was that, if it was in print it had to be true; and
2. Many people (including myself at times) are lazy and don’t bother to check their sources before forwarding or using a quote that reinforces their point-of-view.
Thanks for listening to this self-indulging soliloquy. I know there are writers amongst this blog’s audience so perhaps this may support your own professionalism. I know it has helped mine.
Now where is that humble pie?