My Rookie Mistake and How I Handled It

Donald Miller

In my most recent book, I lifted a quote without knowing it. It was only a sentence:

“A ship at harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.”

*Photo used with permission

It’s a great quote. I knew I’d heard something like it before, but alone in my cabin where I was writing the book, I assumed the variation on it was mine. Imagine my surprise yesterday when somebody tweeted it and gave credit to John A. Shedd. Stink!

The book had gone to press (thankfully a small press run) but still, my heart sank. Truth be told, nobody would have noticed, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen my supposed ideas floating around in books and on the internet. It never bothers me, because I doubt there are that many new ideas, only new ways to phrase them. But, that could have come back to haunt me and tarnish my name.

Here are the two things I did, immediately:
1. I made the correction in the book, giving John A. Shedd rightful credit.
2. I blogged about it. Nobody has even read the new book, so it was important to get out in front of it.

To my knowledge, it’s the first such mistake I’ve made (knock on wood), but it wasn’t a fun one to have made. My apologies to Mr. Shedd, and to the readers who will, undoubtedly, think I’m smarter than I am. Hope this blog helps you realize that I’m not.

Grateful. Now, moving on.

-Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller has been telling his story for more than a decade, now he wants to help you tell yours. He’s helped over 1,000 companies clarify their message through the StoryBrand Workshops. For an introduction to what he’s doing now, check out the 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.

  • Well, there’s an honest mistake, repaired, probably bringing Mr. Hoppern more credit and plenty of credit to you for saying you’re not perfect. It’s refreshing…makes me want to be sure to admit my own faults!!

    Thank you…Patricia

  • Leslie McCarthy

    Thanks for your honesty, as always. Excellent quote too.

  • Don,

    At some point, either this side of eternity or the other, our paths will cross. My hope is to finally convince you to spend just a couple of hours to give my book a chance. I know you’ve been in my shoes, of trying to get someone to read your words and thoughts. I think you’ll like the story it tells.


  • Donald,

    I’ve heard variations on this quote for years so I think it’s barely a mistake.

    However, there is a bit of bad news. Grace Hopper was a woman, not a Mr., and there is no “n” at the end of her name.


  • Mike

    I think its Rear Admiral Grace “Hopper” not Hoppern right? And the Rear Admiral is a she not a he. Might be wrong, but it’s worth checking!

  • That is amazing and inspiring that you decided to let everyone know about it before they saw it.

    Have a Beautiful Day!

  • Liam.

    Adm. Hoppern is a woman! and a great lady at that!

  • Thanks Donald.
    I love the humility and humanity in your work. You’re a wonderful inspiration.

  • While I’ve always appreciated your humility and care in the things you do and say, I have to add that this is pretty silly. Are we to google every phrase we write? Because I’m pretty sure in the course of saying incredibly obvious things, such as your example here, repetition is the soup of the day. I understand the climate of today given the issues in a startling number of literary and academic careers. But this is akin to uttering, birds have legs but they’re not meant to run. Probably not the first person to say that exactly that way. But I don’t think it’s anywhere near like, let’s say, “I have a dream…” – MLK Jr.

  • You’re not a rookie. Even the most experienced and refined in their professions make mistakes. Being faithful to God is all about admitting when you’ve made a mistake, accepting grace, and moving forward. It looks like that’s just what you’re doing.

    Besides, it’s a great quote and an awesome concept. Just hearing that quote, whether yours or not, makes me excited to read the new book!

  • Adam W

    A few clarifications Don. It’s Grace Hopper (no N), and she’s female: Also, it’s unclear if this is really her quote, as some people think it may have originated with the writer John Ausgustus Shedd:

    • Thanks for the info, Adam. We’ve made the changes.

  • FCC Jeremy Armstrong, USN

    Don, She is Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. She is one of the grand dames of computing and came up with the term “bug in the system”, which is a good story itself. She is an amazing woman and overcame much adversity to make the flag officer grade of admiral at a time when there really was a glass ceiling for women in the navy.
    By the way, I love your writing and have used your book Blue Like Jazz to open up the door with a few of my sailors. Many Thanks!

  • Well I quote you all the time, when I am talking, or updating my statuses. I always give you the credit in written word but we do share the same ideas and philosophy of life so I find myself saying the same things. I am directing the musical Pocahontas right now so I quote your book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, to my cast of teens constantly. I want them to be inspired to live a good story. None of them had ever heard of you before (sorry) but now over 75 teens are learning to make their lives meaningful. I don’t think those who live to inspire others really cares who get’s the credit.I think those type of people find their contentment in the fact that what they say, is catching on and changing hearts.

  • Trevor

    You may already know this, but Rear Admiral Grace Hopper is a woman, and there is no ‘n’ in the spelling of her last name. Just in case this info may be useful!

    • Trevor

      never mind. it appears you’ve already taken notice. sorry about that!

      • Thanks for the feedback. I believe we now have the correct info in place.

  • Don “Whitewater” Miller, I’m not making the Rookie connection after 6 books. Help me out here. I thought I was the Rookster. It seems like just a plain ole pro mistake. Do pros make mistakes? I think they can . . . and often. You certainly went after the mistake. Way out in front of it.

  • Thanks for the honesty, Don, and for the show of integrity. I think you’ve handled this very well. I can’t imagine how that moment felt. Great quote though. 😉

  • Elysha got listed as one of the best places to receive writing advice by Writer’s Digest May/June 2012 issue. Did you see that? Very cool. 🙂

  • No worries, bro. It happens to the best of us. 🙂

    And I agree, it is a great quote.

  • Sue Dermody

    Love this because I just spent 5 hours in a conference with 8th grade boys talking about ‘ownership’ of our thoughts and actions.

  • Hey Don–I appreciate your integrity. You made good on the error and allowed your readers to see the human side and heart of who you are, outside the pages and ink 🙂 which you do so well, by the way. Your act of sincerity will multiply itself and come back to you. Looking forward to reading the new book! Take care 🙂

  • Well, since you’re into correcting mistakes, I’m fairly certain I’ve always said, “I’m searching for God Knows what.” Just sayin’ you may or may not owe me some credit. 😉
    But when you correct your mistake, please don’t call me Mr. Shelly. 😉 Cracking up at all the comments.

    These days, I’m quite certain all you writers are up against a beast when it comes to people using your words. Often times I think I am brilliant only to remember I learned all I know from someone else.

  • “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” -me I said that. 100% original quote.

    Joking aside, good catch. I’m loving the book!

  • really excited to read the new book! how do i order it? i see it on amazon but i dont know if that includes the community social media part i have heard about… also i heard that anyone on the email list was going to get an offer for a free audio book but i havn’t gotten anything in my email yet and was wondering if what i heard was true. sorry to ask so many questions but i am just SOOOOOO excited to experience this new journey you are creating!!!

  • Don, sometimes mistakes can make great stories. In my first job out of college, I accidentally wired $77 million to the wrong bank. No joke, I didn’t realize it until a VP called to ask me where his money was. (Told him I’d have to call him back). This is always a memorable illustration when I give leadership talks!

  • Jean

    I don’t think you should feel embarrassed for this at all, Don. Something kinda cool you might want to read is the prologue to the children’s book, “The Twenty-One Balloons” by William Pène du Bois. It helped open my eyes to a particular reality.

  • This is awesome, Don. Makes me respect you more. I have done this before on accident and it’s totally embarrassing.

  • It’s a great quote. One worth borrowing. 🙂 I had a similar one on my most recent book that profiled about 200 different people. I had selected a photo and written the narrative. I later chose to change the photo shortly before submitting the final proof. Guess what I forgot to do… yep, change the narrative. I realized it literally two hours before the advance copies of the book arrived at my door! To error is human I guess. 🙂 At least it will be correct in future prints.