20 Mark Twain Quotes That are Perfect for Business

As one of America’s most quoted writers, Mark Twain continues to be relevant to the American culture. His sense of wit and humor still resonate with people, and his quotes still resonate with people from all walks of life. We have selected 20 of the most relevant quotes and how they apply to the everyday businessperson. Pay attention and you might find a career booster between the lines.

1. The secret of getting ahead is getting started.

How many potentially successful businesses never got off the ground because they never took the first step forward? Whether the reason is analysis paralysis or lack of confidence, the only path to success is the one you take your first step onto. True, you might stumble and fall, but that was what happened when you took your first baby step. Then you looked around, got up, and tried again. It is no different with anything worthwhile in your business career.

2. There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded. (Via Brainy Quote)

The one thing about places that are less crowded is that there is more room to move around. Consider how many people are working on a non-toxic heat cube which will do the same thing as an ice cube – except in reverse. Or the company that finds a way to transmit electricity without wires. A single success is all you really need to make your mark in history, so you are better off joining the first group.

3. Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

While it is true that the majority rules in a democratic type of business, sometimes you are better off being on the outside looking in – especially when you see what most everyone else is missing. Creative and unique perspectives often get drowned out by joining the pack, but successful people know that it is just part of having the less popular view. You can join in, but only after taking the time to pause and reflect.

4. Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.

This is a truism that needs to be echoed more often today. Being afraid is often a natural response, but it is how you deal with that fear that is most important. Many people fail to realize that when you act courageously you usually don’t see it that way because your response was simply doing what you needed to do to get where you wanted to go. If you walk a path in constant fear you will never know courage.

5. The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.

Twain was a writer, so this applies more to written communication than oral communication. Yet it is important to always keep this in mind because the speed of communication has ramped up since the days of Twain. Yes, writers can put a pause in their written communication, and if done effectively, can speak volumes. The same applies to oral communication. Our knee jerk reaction in most situations is to say what we think or tell what we know. But injecting a pause can save us from a lot of misunderstanding.

6. Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.

The use of statistics continues to be maligned, though Twain wasn’t their first critic. But times have changed and there is a right way to use statistics to craft the point you are trying to make. It is often overlooked that statistics are often facts. They are just shaped to emphasize a particular point of view. Twain was right that statistics are more pliable, but this does not imply that the point of view being made is untrue.

7. Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.

Though politics has largely taken away the concept of civil discourse between people away from the general public, the business reality is that business is built on conversation. The phrase “talking past each other” has been used to describe a number of failed negotiations. There were emails exchanged and phone calls placed, but the parties were so busy communicating they forgot to sit down and just have a normal conversation.

8. Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work.

Rephrased in a slightly different way, what you hear is nowhere near as important as what you see and brings about the intended result. People are often impressed by what they hear going on during a project, but the people who are doing the actual work will be the ones should be recognized when all is said and done. Of course, this does not always hold true, so you have to ask yourself whether you want to be recognized as thunder or lightning.

9. The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.

This is parallel to the idea that if you have to explain a joke it has already failed to be funny. Here, the problem could be on either end. Either the person communicating the explanation isn’t doing it well enough, or the person doing the listening just doesn’t get it. Trying to explain something a second or third time only makes things worse. If you are in this position it might be better to put it in writing or have someone else take a shot at explaining things.

10. I can live for two months on a good compliment.

If you miss applying this idea you are likely to make more enemies than friends. People are told all the time what they did or are doing wrong. The reality is that most people do far more things right than they do wrong. Paying someone a sincere compliment will have them wanting to return to work or go the extra mile on completing the project on time and under budget. Grumpy people just don’t work as enthusiastically, and because compliments are so rarely heard they are not easily forgotten.

11. Better a broken promise than none at all.

Another way to see this is to be willing to take a risk to demonstrate your integrity. Making a promise is a risky adventure since if you can’t keep your promise there is likely to be some fallout. It’s not the promise itself where the danger lies but in the realistic assessment of your ability to keep the promise. Nothing is 100 percent, but making a promise demonstrates confidence and the willingness to commit to something. Your integrity will be at stake, and that in and of itself counts for something.

12. It is easier to stay out than get out.

Reminiscent of the lobster lore where lobsters would prevent each other from climbing out of an aquarium tank, the business application is to avoid getting yourself involved in a situation that has the potential for being a no-win situation. There will be significant pressure to go along with the group regardless of the direction the crowd is going. If you have the option of staying out, use it judiciously. Being the first one in is not always the best choice.

13. A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.

In Twain’s time, a crank was a person who was obsessed by an idea. You likely have known someone who was like this, either in the workplace or pursuing their own business on the outside. The endless talk of what might work and what was working gets on people’s nerves. The person is often written off as crazy – until the idea succeeds. What keeps a cranking chugging along is their belief in themselves.

14. Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great. (Via Goalcast)

A key point that needs to be added to this quote is that the number of people who are really great are few and far between. The people who want to hold you back aren’t always so obvious, but people who want you to succeed stand out – but only if you are looking for them. A sincere compliment and word of encouragement can be ignored if you have too many negative people around you because they will convince you there was an ulterior motive behind the compliment.

15. Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.

Clearly this is directed at the advertising profession, and most marketing and advertising people recognize the importance of this quote. Of course, you have to recognize Twain’s sarcasm here, but there is also a positive truth to what he is saying. As a consumer you have to be aware of the value of what you are buying; as an advertiser you have to convey the value of what you are selling.

16. Let your sympathies and your compassion be always with the underdog in the fight–this is magnanimity; but bet on the other one–this is business. (Via Twain Quotes)

An obvious example of this is that of a startup company laying out a business plan to replace Facebook. Americans in particular want to hear the rags to riches story and see the David defeat the Goliath. But when it comes to your own business, be wise enough to recognize your chances of beating the odds are relatively small. It’s just the reality of the business world.

17. Name the greatest of all inventors. Accident.

There is a hidden message here: keep on working at it. Choosing to do nothing makes it impossible for an accident to occur – at least any accident that will result in you inventing anything useful. One of the most common stories heard around the water cooler was that of the #M chemist who accidentally discovered the Post-It note adhesive. He was just a regular guy doing a regular job. By the way, the scientist’s name was Dr. Spencer Silver.

18. Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and…Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. 

It is amazing how many people hate to go to work every morning, yet spend little of their free time pursuing what they love to do. From a business perspective, it is making use of the freedom you have to accomplish the things you want to do. Most people are able to use only 20 percent of their complete set of skills, and much of the 80 percent holds the keys to what they love to do.

19. Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any. 

Infusing Twain’s wit into this quote you will get the idea that you should only respect those people who are superior to you; morally, intellectually, grammatically, etc. But there is also some sound business advice in here as well. If you don’t want to have to answer to anyone, find a way to start your own business. If you prefer working at a 9 – 5 job, then the fewer the layers of management the happier you will be at your job.

20. The primary rule of business success is loyalty to your employer. That’s all right–as a theory. What is the matter with loyalty to yourself? 

Finally, there is the all-important issue of loyalty. If you are not happy with yourself you will fail to see the need to be loyal to yourself. Loyalty to another person or a business is much easier to attain because you believe there is a direct connection between your happiness at your job and the loyalty that you exhibit. Turning that loyalty inward requires you recognize that the external loyalty can be taken advantage of, but it is nearly impossible to take advantage of yourself.


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