Inspirational Quotes for Entrepreneurs: Trust Wisdom, Verify Sources

If anybody could use a little inspiration to help them feel motivated, entrepreneurs could. The emotional roller coaster entrepreneurs hop on often feels like Ferrari World’s Formula Rossa—at a blazing 150 MPH, the world’s fastest thrill ride. Besides, some authorities (e.g., the authors of this entrepreneurship textbook used at the Harvard Business School) believe that entrepreneurship calls for superhuman capabilities. And what’s more, these gladiators are fighting battles that most of them are going to lose; only about one in every ten startups eventually succeeds.

Like many of us, entrepreneurs tend to rely on famous quotes for inspiration, motivation, wisdom, and humor. But more than the business community in general, entrepreneurs seem particularly fond of sharing famous sayings in their presentations, sales writing, social media posts, and marketing.

That’s because entrepreneurs write persuasive material faster and more efficiently through using famous quotes. A powerful adage, aphorism, or proverb can quickly turn a lackluster presentation into a compelling one without many hours spent crafting original writing. Especially in Silicon Valley, with entrepreneurs under constant pressure from venture capital investors to meet tight deadlines, such writing efficiency plays a beneficial role.

But if entrepreneurs use quotes without first fact-checking their authenticity, they can risk criticism. Imagine a scenario where an entrepreneur had just delivered a presentation to a room full of investors at a venture capital firm. At the podium afterward, one of the investors approaches the entrepreneur:

“Hey Stan, I wanted to ask you about your PowerPoint slide with that Henry Ford quote. Do you recall the slide that I’m talking about?”

“Sure Susan, it’s the one where Ford said, ‘If I had listened to my customers, I would’ve given them faster horses.’ That’s the one you’re talking about, right?”

“Yeah Stan, that’s the slide. Henry Ford never said that, and I have a Harvard Business Review article to prove it. And most of the men and women who were sitting around this conference table read the HBR and knew Ford never said that. So I think that you and your team might consider paying a little more attention to detail if you expect better funding during Round Two.”

Stan fell prey to a disturbing trend which we’re calling “quote fraud.” The internet is full of articles and blog posts with titles like this fictional example: “The 1,000 Top Inspiring Quotes for Business Entrepreneurs.” However, in articles like these, many of the quotes are fake. When we fact-checked 70 adages collected from sources like these, we were unable to verify almost half—27 of these aphorisms or about 40 percent. Most were unverifiable for these reasons:

  • They were misattributed, that is, attributed to incorrect authors.
  • Their language had been altered in ways not consistent with the meanings the authors originally intended.
  • Verification from an authoritative source was not possible to locate.
  • The quotes were fraudulently concocted—entirely made up out of thin air.

The scope and breadth of some of these deceptions seem truly amazing. In cases of some of the most respected purported sources, like Ford and Winston Churchill, entire web pages and articles have been written to debunk fake quotes attributed to these personalities. And whole websites now focus on investigating the purported veracity of adages like these.

Some of these fraudulent quotes are so widely disseminated throughout the culture that hundreds or in some cases even thousands of products—bumper stickers, coffee mugs, posters, and T-shirts—incorporate them in their designs.

Our research even found glaring examples where non-attributed, outright deceptions have originated with specific books or magazine articles whose writers made up the fake quotes out of thin air.

Here’s a particularly egregious example of such a fake quote uncovered through crowdsourced research by Wikiquote’s readership. An adage widely attributed online to Michelangelo reads something like, “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”

Wikiquote flagged this quote in their Disputed category after finding two appearances without attributions:

  • Attributed without citation in Ken Robinson, The Element (2009), p. 260. Widely attributed to Michelangelo since the late 1990s, this adage has not been found before 1980 when it appeared without attribution in E.C. McKenzie, Mac’s Giant Book of Quips & Quotes.

Even major publishing brands a lot of people trust such as Forbes have recently published articles containing fake quotes purportedly spoken by authors like Churchill.

Entrepreneurs who rely on inspirational quotes like these would be wise to follow the advice given by one adage in particular: “Trust, but verify,” which is a Russian proverb. Because quote fraud appears to be so widespread, it’s prudent to always fact-check adages against authoritative sources like the Oxford Dictionary Of Quotations.

And for a good start, consider the list below. Our list contains examples of 56 inspiring quotes organized by theme that we believe to be authentic based on our research. Many of these adages encourage, motivate, and inspire; others provide wisdom and perspective. Tape these pages on bathroom mirrors, conference room whiteboards, refrigerators and dashboards, and share these quotes with colleagues, friends, and family.

Doing Great Work

  • “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.” —Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple and Pixar, in his Stanford University Commencement address, June 12, 2005
  • “There are lots of bad reasons to start a company. But there’s only one good, legitimate reason, and I think you know what it is: it’s to change the world.” —Phil Libin, Russian-born venture capitalist and former Evernote CEO

Doing What You Love…

  • “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.” —Maya Angelou, Pulitzer-nominated author and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • “One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves…You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you.” —Jeff Bezos, founder and the world’s wealthiest person with a net worth of $138 billion in January 2019
  • “Every single person I know who is successful at what they do is successful because they love doing it.” —Joe Penna, Brazilian musician and filmmaker
  • “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.” —Simon Sinek, author, motivational speaker and organizational consultant

…And the Money Will Follow

  • “Chase the vision, not the money; the money will end up following you.” —Tony Hsieh, CEO of Las Vegas online shoe and clothing retailer
  • “Economy does not lie in sparing money, but in spending it wisely.” —Thomas Henry Huxley, British evolutionary biologist
  • “What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” —Bob Dylan, singer/songwriter and Nobel laureate

Opportunity Knocks

  • “When one door of happiness closes, another opens, but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.” —Helen Keller, author, political activist, and first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree
  • “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” –Bertram Carr, Mayor of Carlisle, England
  • “Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” —John Archibald Wheeler, physicist
  • “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” —Anonymous
  • “Life is not always a matter of holding good cards but sometimes playing a poor hand well.” —Jack London, novelist, journalist, and social activist
  • “I don’t look to jump over 7-foot bars. I look around for 1-foot bars that I can step over.” —Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and the third-wealthiest person in the world with a net worth of $83.4 billion in January 2019

Focus and Determination

  • “The key to success is hard work. That’s why a lot of people would rather pick the lock.” —Comic strip “Little Liz,” 1958
  • “The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” —Bruce Lee, actor, director, and martial arts instructor
  • “Hustle beats talent when talent doesn’t hustle” —Ross Simmonds, digital strategist and entrepreneur
  • “Persistence overshadows even talent as the most valuable resource shaping the quality of life. Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives.” –Tony Robbins, entrepreneur, CEO coach, and peak-performance expert

Profiles in Courage

  • “Fearlessness is like a muscle. I know from my own life that the more I exercise it the more natural it becomes to not let my fears run me.” —Arianna Huffington, Greek-American founder and CEO of performance enhancement website Thrive Global, founder of the Huffington Post, and author of 15 books
  • “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” —Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
  • “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” —John Wayne, actor
  • “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” —Anais Nin, French-born author
  • “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.” —George Addair, Atlanta real estate developer
  • “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight — for a very long time — of the shore.” —André Gide, French author and winner of the 1947 Nobel Prize in Literature
  • “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” —Budweiser beer commercial in the 1930s
  • “In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience — the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men — each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage can define that ingredient — they can teach, they can offer hope, they provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.” ―John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States

Learning Experiences

  • “An entrepreneur tends to bite off a little more than he can chew hoping he’ll quickly learn how to chew it.” —Roy Ash, co-founder of Litton Industries
  • “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” —Various authors
  • “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” —Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and the world’s second-wealthiest person with a net worth of $96.3 billion in January 2019
  • “Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune. You must either modify your dreams or magnify your skills.” —Jim Rohn, entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker
  • “It’s simple arithmetic: Your income can grow only to the extent that you do.” —T. Harv Eker, author, entrepreneur, and motivational speaker
  • “Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.” —Tony Robbins

Customers and Innovation

  • “You can’t ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” —Steve Jobs
  • “An invention that is quickly accepted will turn out to be a rather trivial alteration of something that has already existed.” —Edwin Land, inventor and Polaroid founder

On Criticism

  • “A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.” —David Brinkley, Emmy award-winning network news anchor and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • “The only taste of success some people have is when they take a bite out of someone else.” —Zig Ziglar, author and motivational speaker
  • “Behold the turtle. It makes progress only when it sticks its neck out.” —James Bryant Conant, former president of Harvard University and U.S. ambassador

Keep Moving

  • “If you can’t fly then run. If you can’t run, then walk. And, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but by all means, keep moving.” —Martin Luther King, Jr., activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner
  • “People who succeed have momentum. The more they succeed, the more they want to succeed, and the more they find a way to succeed. —Tony Robbins

Bouncing Back

  • “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” —Michael Jordan, former professional athlete, as explained to writer Jamie Barrett
  • “If Plan A fails, remember that you have 25 letters left.” —Chris Guillebeau, author
  • “I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not trying.” —Jeff Bezos
  • “It doesn’t matter how many times you fail. It doesn’t matter how many times you almost get it right. No one is going to know or care about your failures, and neither should you. All you have to do is learn from them and those around you because all that matters in business is that you get it right once. Then everyone can tell you how lucky you are.” —Mark Cuban, businessman-investor, owner of the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks, co-owner of 2929 Entertainment and CEO of AXS TV
  • “One who fears the future, who fears failure, limits his activities. Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again. There is no disgrace in honest failure; there is disgrace in fearing to fail. What is past is useful only as it suggests ways and means for progress.” —Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, in his autobiography My Life and Work
  • “Most great people have attained their greatest success just one step beyond their greatest failure.” —Napoleon Hill, author, from his book Think and Grow Rich
  • “Don’t worry about failure; you only have to be right once.” —Drew Houston, billionaire Internet entrepreneur, and co-founder and CEO of Dropbox
  • “The only thing worse than starting something and failing…is not starting something.” —Seth Godin, author and former internet startup company executive
  • “It’s how you deal with failure that determines how you achieve success.” —David Feherty, professional golfer and broadcaster
  • “You must expect failure after failure after failure before you succeed.” —Edwin Land
  • “Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.” —Dale Carnegie, writer and self-improvement training developer
  • “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” —Babe Ruth, professional athlete

It’s All About the Relationships

  • “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” —Maya Angelou
  • “The quality of your life is the quality of your relationships.” —Tony Robbins
  • “Relationships are leverage. If you give value to someone else first, you have leverage.” —Gary Vaynerchuk, Belarusian-American entrepreneur, author, and internet personality
  • “If people like you, they’ll listen to you, but if they trust you, they’ll do business with you.” —Zig Ziglar, in a Facebook post from December 21, 2014
Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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