If at first you don’t succeed – Meaning and Origin

Sometimes in life, we might feel like giving up. As tempting as this can be. We must do all that we can to avoid it. Because when you give up too quickly, you’ll never know what you are really capable of.

When someone is trying to encourage you to keep on going and not give up, they might tell you, “If at first you don’t succeed, try try and try again”.

This phrase means that if you keep on failing, just keep on trying until you manage to do it. No matter how rubbish you are.

Today, I want to look at where this phrase comes from and why it’s so effective.

Origin of “If at first you don’t succeed”

The phrase was first used in a book called “Teacher’s Manual” written by Thomas H. Palmer. The original point of it was to encourage children to do their homework. At home, many kids won’t be able to focus, but they need to keep on trying.

The full quote is “Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again”.

The phrase became popular by Edward Hickson’s “Moral Song”. Since then, it’s been said by almost every teacher I know.

Thomas H Palmer

Who exactly was Thomas H Palmer? Most people will never have heard of him, and even during his time, he wouldn’t have been an A-List celebrity.

But he was an incredibly influential educator who knew a lot about how to nurture a child so that they can grow up to be the best person they can be. His book “Teacher’s Manual” was a guide for teachers on how they can connect to their students, and provide them with the kind of environment they need to flourish.

Back then, his teaching style was seen as rather unorthodox. But today, most will view it as fairly normal.

Moral Song

“Moral Song” was one of many songs in the book “The singing master”. Written by Edward Hickson, the aim of this book was to compile songs that all had a positive message for people to take to heart.

This book is what put the phrase “try try and try again” in a fun and upbeat context which made it stick out in your head more.

Because of Hickson, the phrase went from being something that only teachers and intellectuals knew about, to being something that everyone knew. And good, because it’s good advice.

When you can use “If at first you don’t succeed”

In your life, there will be plenty of times that you can use this phrase. The most common place you’ll find it is when you’re starting a new job.

When you first start out in a job, chances are, you won’t be perfect. At this stage, many will feel like giving up. But you mustn’t. If you want to get better at your job, you need to keep on trying.

In dating, you may get rejected many times. But no matter how much you get rejected, you can’t give up, because love could be just around the corner.


Very few words in the English language originated from the tiny island that I live on. Most of our words came about from other languages, and have evolved several times.

In Old English, “Succeed” was “Seucceden” and it didn’t mean what it does today, it just meant to endure. Before coming to our shores, it was “Succeder” in French, which meant to flow on. Before that, it meant to come after when it was “Succedere” in Latin.

It wasn’t until the 15th century that it came to mean to come out well. This is the definition that is used today.

Inspirational Quotes

Some people love inspirational quotes and will spend our time scrolling through social media looking at them. But others will look at them as pointless.

I understand why people don’t get the point in them. But the reality is that often the difference between doing and not doing is self-belief. If we want to achieve something, the first step is usually thinking we can.

These kinds of quotes help us when we’re feeling low, and they enable us to look to the future when we aren’t struggling anymore. Words have extraordinary powers, don’t underestimate them.

The issue

There will be some who might take issue with this phrase, and other phrases that mean “don’t give up”.

There are so many hours in each day and only so many days in our lives. If we lived forever, sure, it would be worth getting good at everything. But most of us have a limited amount of time, and we need to be selective about where we focus our energy.

Sometimes, we need to pick our battles, and not spend too much time on the things that don’t matter. Wasting time getting good at pointless stuff means we have less time to focus on what matters.

Alternatives to “If at first you don’t succeed”

There are loads of phrases that mean “Don’t give up”. But here are three of my favourites.

“Don’t practice until you can get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong”. To be truly good at something means that it’s harder for you to get it wrong than it is to get it right.

“Winners never quit. And quitters never win”. Many of us won’t do anything for fear of losing. But if we quit all the time, we’ll never win anything.

“He who says he can, and he who says he can’t are usually both correct”. Saying you can is the first step to actually being able to.


“If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again”.

Initially coined by Thomas H Palmer, a famous educator as a way of encouraging children to do their homework. It was made famous by Edward Hickson’s Moral song.

We can use this phrase in our work, dating, or social life.

The word “succeed” has gone through a long and fascinating etymology, but today it means “to come out well”.

Inspirational quotes like these can help us when times are tough. Even if some people might have their criticisms.