Sunday, March 31, 2013

Mark Twain on Granularity?

If you search the Internet on writing, procrastination, note-taking, planning, or any related topic, you will sooner or later come across the following quote: "The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

I agree it's a nice quote. I guess it speaks to what people mean by "granularity" these days. But I was interested in knowing where and when Twain made the claim. So I tried to find its source. I failed. The earliest quotes are from the late 1990s. It really seems to have been helped along by David Allen's Getting Things Done of 2001 (who "quoted" the passage on p. 249). I am beginning to think that it is a spurious quote, uncritically passed on by author after author.[1] The earliest instance of the quotation on the Internet I can find is from Mark Fisher, Marc Allen, How to Think Like a Millionaire (1998), p. 23. See also Mark Allen, A Visionary Life: Conversations on Personal and Planetary Evolution (1998), p. 46.[2]

I could be wrong, of course. In any case, if anyone knows whether and, more importantly, where Twain said this, I would be grateful for telling me.


1. A Search with the parameters March 5, 1990 to March 5, 2001 turns up nothing earlier (which may just indicate the limits of the Internet).
2. What is interesting in that book is that the "quote" actually occurs within a dialogue, in which someone named "Bernie" talks about "long-term goals" and says "Mark Twain put it so simply and clearly," and then gives the quotation. Bernie seems to be Allen's figment of the imagination. And it is perhaps O.K. that such an imaginary figment produces an imaginary quote by Twain. What is not O.K. is that others have taken it for the real thing (if this is indeed what happened). He himself also does this in The Millionaire Course: A Visionary Plan for Creating the Life of Your Dreams of 2003. I hope I do not have to add how distasteful I find his "visions" of millions dancing in his head.

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