We, the willing
Led by the unknowing
Are doing the impossible
For the ungrateful
We have done so much
For so long
With so little
We are now qualified
To do anything
With nothing

(Contemporary versions start with "we, the unwilling", which makes less sense if you ask me.)

This folk quote has been attributed to all sorts of sources: Konstantin Jireček, Mother Theresa, French soldiers, etc. But in all cases, I cannot find an originating document (haven't tried academic databases).

The earliest attributions I can find are anonymous and date back to the mid-70s: 1975 (abbrevs), 1977. So who said this quote, or did Jireček and Mother Theresa really invoke it separately at different times? I imagine the Jireček quote, if real, would have been translated from Czech or another Slavic language, which might be why I can't find the original.

  • 12
    Remember, if we can't determine exactly who said it, then, by Internet Law, it becomes an Einstein quote. Aug 23, 2017 at 14:47
  • 8
    @PoloHoleSet - with proper attribution: "Remember, if we can't determine exactly who said it, then, by Internet Law, it becomes an Einstein quote." -- Abraham Lincoln Aug 25, 2017 at 6:35
  • 3
    @TomGoodfellow - Damn, now I wish I could edit comments on StackExchange. -- Ghandi Aug 25, 2017 at 13:39
  • What do people think it actually means? Doesn't it sound beatnik?
    – John Dee
    Sep 23, 2017 at 23:15
  • 1
    @PoloHoleSet - I dunno. "I never said half the things I said" seems perfectly sensible to me. Dec 26, 2017 at 19:15

1 Answer 1


Moderators deleted an answer that is based on another site: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/05/13/anything/ which traces the origin of this quote back to a 1942 quote by Hugh S. Johnson.

I would just like to add one earlier precursor to that site's good answer.

The 1872 Physical training pamphlets says:

Is it not wiser to first show the members of the School Board what systematic thorough work we can do with the time and room they willingly give us (we can do anything with nothing, if we make up our minds to do it)


I found an slightly earlier example of the full quote than what is given by quoteinvestigator.

The 4 April 1974 Stilwell Democrat-Journal says:

This sign appears on the wall of the office at local store: "We the willing led by the unknowing are doing the impossible for the ungrateful We have done so much for so long with so little we are now qualified to do anything with, nothing."


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