Make (Up) No Little Plans

There’s something about the arrival of spring that brings with it a desire to throw out the clutter and the noise of the old and to start anew. I’m filled with a desire to get organized, build something lean and bold; something simple, smart, and effective.

I first came across this quote years ago, but only recently has it spoken to me in a way that feels inspiring:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.

It’s attributed to the architect Daniel H. Burnham, who is most famous for his 1909 plan for the City of Chicago. But “attributed to” and “a quote from” are not the same thing, and it turns out it’s really difficult to find a contemporary source for this quote in anything written or spoken publicly by Burnham himself. In fact, it’s almost easier to find blog posts and magazine stories pointing out this misattribution than it is to find where the quote actually did come from.

In an era when it’s easy to assume that the source of every famous quote is available at our fingertips, I was surprised at how enigmatic this particular quote seems to be, and yet also how often it has been used as a source of inspiration and even as a rationale for desicions.

As a college-educated person who learned the difference between primary and secondary source material a long time ago, I’ve always tried to take attribution seriously. Even when it’s just a blog post, I think it’s important to provide links to the orignal source of where a quote or image or idea is coming from if it’s not my own. So in that spirit, here is the closest I’ve come to figuring out the true origin of this quote, as summarized in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, edited by Suzy Platt, which attributes the quote as follows:

While Burnham expressed these thoughts in a paper he read before the Town Planning Conference, London, 1910, the exact words were reconstructed by Willis Polk, Burnham’s San Francisco partner. Polk used the paragraph on Christmas cards in 1912 after Burnham’s death in June of that year.—Henry H. Saylor, ”Make No Little Plans,” Journal of the American Institute of Architects, March 1957, pp. 95–99.

While I discovered it is possible to find a record of that historic 1910 Town Planning Conference which includes transcripts of remarks and papers shared by the guests, I was not able to get my hands on a copy from any local library, nor do I have the disposable outcome to order or even “rent” an e-book version of the full volume just so I could look for this quote.

Because ultimately, what does it matter? Our history and culture are chockablok with misattributed quotes and untruths we take for granted. What matters is what we take away from it ourselves, and what it may inspire us to do.

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger says as much in his 2009 piece in The New Yorker marking the centennial of Burnhams’s Chicago plan,

“Burnham is famous for the line ‘Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.’ There is little evidence that he really said this, but everything he did suggests that he believed it. If Theodore Roosevelt had been an architect, he would have been Daniel Burnham.”

I think that sums it up perfectly. In the end it doesn’t matter. This quote will live on regardless of who said it, and just like any good writing, if it speaks to you, than that means it’s worth appreciating line by line.

Make no little plans.
They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.
Make big plans;
aim high in hope and work, 
remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.
Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us.
Let your watchword be order
and your beacon beauty.

Think big.

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