Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You

Mary Schmich? Eleanor Roosevelt? Kurt Vonnegut? Baz Luhrmann? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Jane Addams? Mark Toby?

Dear Quote Investigator: To achieve personal growth it is sometimes necessary to move outside of a comfort zone. Unjustified fears can constrain exploration and positive development. Here is a saying I find valuable:

Do one thing every day that scares you.

The above advice is typically attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt who was First Lady for many years and a noted social activist. But I have been unable to find any justification for this ascription. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: An exact match for this quotation appeared within a June 1997 essay by Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She began her article with the statement: “Inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out”, and she continued by presenting a staccato sequence of items of advice aimed at young students. Boldface has been added to excerpts below:[1]

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.


Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.


Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Mary Schmich’s essay went viral and became a smash hit by August 1997, but the words were not credited to her. Instead, the work was retitled “Wear Sunscreen” and was incorrectly described as a graduation speech given by the well-known author Kurt Vonnegut at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).[2]

In 1999 the essay was transformed into a popular spoken-word song titled “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” by the prominent film director Baz Luhrmann who credited Schmich. The quotation was included in the lyrics.[3][4]

The famous transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson employed a precursor to the saying in the nineteenth century. The conception of incrementally conquering fears as a pathway to growth evolved over many decades. The following five instances of expressions are examined in greater depth further below:

Always do what you are afraid to do. (1841) —Popularized by Ralph Waldo Emerson

To do what you are afraid to do is to guide your life by fear. How much better not to be afraid to do what you believe in doing! (circa 1881) —Jane Addams

You must do the thing you think you cannot do. (1960) —Eleanor Roosevelt

I’m supposed to do one thing every day that I want to do but I’m afraid to do. (1961) —Mark Toby

Do one thing every day that scares you. (1997) —Mary Schmich

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

In 1841 the essay “Heroism” by Emerson was published, and it recommended a simple maxim to readers for overcoming trepidation. No attribution was given for the injunction:[5]

Be true to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age. It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, “Always do what you are afraid to do.

Of course, some fears are justified and some actions that flout fears are foolish or self-destructive. If one is unnerved by the thought of jumping out of a tenth-floor window then the maxim incongruously suggests that the great leap would be desirable. Clearly, context must guide the application of this adage.

The reaction of the famous social reformer Jane Addams to the maxim popularized by Emerson was revealing. In modern times, the fame of Addams rests on her founding of Hull House in Chicago which helped and supported the disadvantaged. Those efforts of amelioration ultimately led to the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize to Addams in 1931.

Years earlier, when Addams was college-age she attended “Rockford Seminary” and became the editor in chief of the “Rockford Seminary Magazine”. She graduated in 1881 and was given a degree in 1882 from “Rockford College”, the new name of the transitioning organization. During her school years she kept a notebook in which she transcribed the maxim:[6]

In her first year Jane had set down in her notebook more legibly than any other entry the quotation, “Always do what you are afraid to do.” But three years later she remarks in an editorial article in the Magazine, “To do what you are afraid to do is to guide your life by fear. How much better not to be afraid to do what you believe in doing! Keep one main idea, and you will never be lost. ‘For the end of man is an action and not a thought, were that of the noblest.’”

In 1931 “Boys’ Life” magazine further disseminated the adage that Emerson transmitted. Indeed, the statement continues to circulate today and remains popular. “Boys’ Life” provided no attribution, but the words are commonly assigned directly to Emerson in modern times:[7]

Every day you are placed in some situation that definitely tests you. It requires courage to practice patiently in spite of discouragement until you have acquired proper form in swimming, life saving, or some other activity. Almost every step of progress that you make will be in the face of difficulty and discouragement. But don’t let it beat you! Always do what you are afraid to do.

In 1960 Eleanor Roosevelt published “You Learn by Living” with a chapter titled “Fear—the Great Enemy” in which she discussed the problems she experienced due to her excessively fearful temperament:[8]

Fear has always seemed to me to be the worst stumbling block which anyone has to face. It is the great crippler. Looking back, it strikes me that my childhood and my early youth were one long battle against fear.

As she matured Roosevelt consciously attempted to reduce her fears by successfully accomplishing tasks that caused her apprehension:[9][10]

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.

You are able to say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.”

The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it. If you fail anywhere along the line it will take away your confidence. You must make yourself succeed every time. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Passages such as the one above may help to explain why the quotation under investigation is often assigned to Roosevelt. Her words were thematically congruent, and the advice she offered was comparable.

In 1961 the popular novel “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” by Mark Toby was published. This work originated a successful cross-media franchise. A romantic comedy film based on the book was released in 1963 under the same title. A television series was broadcast from 1969 to 1972, and episodes continued to be aired as reruns for many years.

The author Toby crafted a fictional self-improvement organization called “Henrietta Rockefeller’s Poise School” which offered a course in personal growth. One appealing character named Dollye Daly closely followed the eight rules specified by the course. The first rule stated “Become Outgoing” and Daly explained this guidance:[11]

I’m supposed to do one thing every day that I want to do but I’m afraid to do.

She opened her handbag and poked around inside in that dedicated way common to all women–head lowered and chin thrust out. “Here. It’s part of my course,” she said, holding up a paper. “In self-development.”

This was the earliest instance in this family of sayings located by QI that included the temporal qualifier “every day”. This version was particularly interesting because it included the sensible proviso that the action should be something “I want to do”. An excerpt from the fictional course booklet was read aloud by the character Daly:

She read: “Look yourself squarely in the eye and ask: What am I afraid to do today? PUT YOUR HAT ON YOUR HEAD AND GO OUT AND DO IT!” She smoothed her flaming hair self-consciously. “I did try it with a hat, but it didn’t make it work any better so I skip the hat part. I’m not used to wearing hats just for show, like here in New York.”

In June 1997 the Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich published a column titled “Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young”. As noted previously in this article, Schmich included the following nugget of advice:[12]

Do one thing every day that scares you.

The guidance given in Toby’s 1961 book (and the resultant movie) has not been forgotten. In 2004, “Success Express for Teens: 50 Activities That Will Change Your Life” by Roger Leslie presented the following recommended activity. The author explained that he was inspired by the remarks of the character Dollye Daly in the movie “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”:[13]

Activity #26
Do something you’re afraid to do but really want to, or know you must do, to attain your goal.

In 2008 a book in a popular series for teens and tweens, “The Princess Diaries, Volume IX: Princess Mia”, included the quotation and credited the words to Eleanor Roosevelt. In the following excerpt a psychologist character named Arthur T. Knutz conversed with the main character:[14]

“You know, Eleanor Roosevelt, a lady few would argue didn’t have a good head on her shoulders,” Dr. Knutz remarked, “once said, ‘Do one thing every day that scares you.’”
I shook my head. “That makes no sense whatsoever. Why would anybody willingly do things that scare them?”
“Because it’s the only way,” Dr. Knutz said, “they’ll grow as an individual.”

In 2012 Mary Schmich writing in the Chicago Tribune commented on the widespread misattribution of her quotation to Roosevelt:[15]

I’ll admit that I’m interested in accurate quotes in part because I’ve had words mangled in the online quote factory.

For example, a line from one of my 1997 columns — “Do one thing every day that scares you” — is now widely attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, though I have yet to see any evidence that she ever said it and I don’t believe she did. She said some things about fear, but not that thing.

In conclusion, QI believes that Mary Schmich should be credited with the precise quotation: “Do one thing every day that scares you”. A family of thematically related sayings has a long history that can be traced back to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841. Before Schmich in 1997 the author Mark Toby in 1961 created a similar exhortation: “I’m supposed to do one thing every day that I want to do but I’m afraid to do.”

Update: On November 3, 2013 the 1960 citation for “You Learn by Living” was added to the 1983 citation because QI was able to gain access to the earlier 1960 edition.

(Great thanks to Dave Hill who asked about this saying, and its ascription to Eleanor Roosevelt. Hill runs the website “WIST: Wish I’d Said That!” which presents a valuable collection of quotations and citations. Special thanks to Emily who employed the maxim popularized by Emerson. Abundant thanks to my always helpful local librarians in Florida.)


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