Worth Doing

Anything worth doing well is worth overdoing.
Anders Sandberg

I cite this quote exactly as I actually saw it online in a record of a Slate interview.  I also document the quote, below, although I acknowledge that it’s not exactly proof. Still, check out the last line in this “snip” (snipping being something I’m now overdoing with the new-to-me tool for capturing partial screenshots simply and elegantly).

I was tickled, because it gave me an idea for a post on the “Anything worth doing . . .” theme, comparing and contrasting different sayings. After all, isn’t G.K. Chesterton famous for this quote?

Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

Yes, he is famous for that quote (Google returns “about 555,000 hits”), but he didn’t say it (as far as I know). What he wrote was this, in part, as copied by me from the referenced book:

The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves–the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.
– Orthodoxy, Chapter IV (1908)

I’ve bolded the probably guilty bit: the bit that likely provoked the phrasing that has come to us . . .

Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

As an editor myself, I admire the succinctness of the sum-up, if not its fidelity to the meaning. Chesterton wasn’t praising amateurs (at least, not here); he was making the case for democracy: a case we need to be mindful of, in our age of increasing belief in experts and their own increasing belief in themselves.

But there’s lots of scope for variation when trying to reduce a typically wide-ranging Chestertonian paragraph to something pithy. As one amusing academic rant has it . . .

‘Blow your own damn nose’ would be a pretty good paraphrase
and might even work as a refrigerator magnet.

Meh. Funny, but also lacking a certain something. Updating the language a tad, allowing for the differences in the times, and phrasing it as advice/direction (which the original decidedly was not), I’d say/write that something like this comes closer to capturing Chesterton’s point in context . . .

Even if you think you do them badly,
do these things yourself:
Find your own partner, bring up your own kids,
blow your own nose, and govern your own community.
These things are important, and you can trust me on this:
No one can successfully do them for you.

As for Anders Sandberg, the guy who started this whole thing, he was being interviewed on a paper he’d written in answer to a what-if question . . .

What if the entire Earth was instantaneously replaced
with an equal volume of closely packed,
but uncompressed blueberries?

You can download the PDF of the paper here. And even if you don’t care to wade through the whole six pages (Warning: There are equations.), ya gotta love the degree of specification: “closely packed but uncompressed” blueberries. I expect it’s a riff on that old adage . . .

Anything worth doing is worth doing
with closely packed blueberries.

It’s hard to argue with that. I wonder who said it first.

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6 Responses to Worth Doing

  1. barbara carlson says:

    “For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism.” Anon.

  2. Anders Sandberg’s paper on Blueberry Earth is exactly the sort of spoof that would have tickled my father. He would have checked the formulae gleefully with his slide rule at the ready. I was waiting for his mythical human to engineer this unnatural disaster into a jam factory for sales throughout the solar system, but Sandberg gravitates to pure theory over applied science. A delicious concoction, nonetheless!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – My father would have had the math to check the equations, I expect, but not the whimsy to appreciate the silliness. It reminded me a bit of Douglas Adams who delighted in being seriously silly.

  3. Judith Umbach says:

    I didn’t know there was a site where I could ask the questions I wonder about. What a resource! As long as I am not repudiated for asking silly questions.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – IKR? I’m still getting over being able to ask Google natural-language questions. I don’t know whether they’re sticklers for significance (in their minds) but it looks like they have some vetting process.

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