Did He Really Say That? Finding the source of the space between stimulus and response

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”

This quote is widely used on the internet and most often attributed to Victor Frankl, holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.

The first time heard this quote I thought, I have to find the source and read more about this concept. So I order Frankl’s book and spent several days carefully digesting everything in it. With each page I eagerly expected Frankl to start a discussion of stimulus and response, leading ultimately to this oft-quoted verse.

But I never found it.

That quote is not in Man’s Search for Meaning.

So I launched a search for this quote, determined to locate it and learn more about this concept.

My search lead me to Stephen Covey. In the first chapter of his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey talks about Victor Frankl and his experience in the holocaust but the quote I was searching for not there. The concept of stimulus and response is clearly set forth in that chapter, and there are some quotes that come close, but that quote – as it is represented in many places – is not there.

But clearly it is associated with Frankl and, I thought, maybe Covey has written about this elsewhere since the publication of 7 Habits.

I was right, sort of.

In 2010, Alex Pattakos published – at Frankl’s urging – Prisoners Of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, in which “he applies Frankl’s philosophy and therapeutic approach to life and work in the 21st Century” (from the book description).

Frankl’s family, after his death, encouraged Pattakos to invite Stephen Covey, who had gotten to know Frankl through the years, to write the Foreword for his book. In that Foreword, Covey writes:

I will never forget how deeply moved and inspired I was in the sixties when I studied Man’s Search For Meaning and also The Doctor And The Soul.

These two books, along with Frankl’s other writings and lectures, reaffirmed “my soul’s code” regarding our power of choice, our unique endowment of self-awareness, and our essence, our will for meaning.

While on a writing sabbatical in Hawaii and in a very reflective state of mind, I was wandering through the stacks of a university library and picked up a book. I read the following three lines, which literally staggered me and again reaffirmed Frankl’s essential teachings:

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”

I did not note the name of the author, so I’ve never been able to give proper attribution. On a later trip to Hawaii I even went back to find the source and found the library building itself was no longer present.

The space between what happens to us and our response, our freedom to choose that response and the impact it can have upon our lives, beautifully illustrate that we can become a product of our decisions, not our conditions. . . We have the power to choose our response to our circumstances; indeed, we have the responsibility, and if we ignore this space, this freedom, this responsibility, the essence of our life and our legacy could be frustrated (pp. x-xi).

I had found it! The long sought after quote that is often attributed to Frankl.

And sadly, it’s true author remains unknown.

But at least I had discovered the source of the quote.

But along the way, I discovered something more precious.

I’ve discovered the story behind it.

The story that ignited the passion in Stephen Covey to write what he did in 7 Habits.

I also discovered this terrific book by Pattakos, that I might not have otherwise found.

And I discovered the truth behind the original quote. If we find the space between the stimulus (seeing a meme online that resonates with our perspectives) and reaction (hitting Like and Share or Retweet), ask take the time to ask ourselves if that person really said this – it can not only lead us on a journey of rich ideas associated with the quote, but it can also help us bring more awareness to the things we share, and say, online.

In our time, friends, we need that more than ever.


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