You will notice that the man who does not lose his courage or his determination…gets on his feet again infinitely quicker than the man who does; in fact, there is not much chance for the man who loses heart, whose courage fails. When he loses his grip, as a rule, he loses his climbing qualities, and simply drifts. A dead fish will float with the stream, but it takes a very lively one to swim against a strong current.
— Orison Swett Marden in The young man entering business, (1907), p. 152.
"You will notice that the man who does not lose his courage"
I am not confident this is the provenance of the “dead fish floating downstream” phrase, but it is the oldest I could find in an initial Google search. This phrase has been adapted in many ways by subsequent authors and (in every circumstance I have encountered) is usually cited anonymously. Some observed adaptations include:
- It takes a strong man to swim against the current; any dead fish will float with it.
- A dead fish floats with the stream, but it takes a man to swim against it.
- Any dead fish can float down stream. It takes life to swim against the current.
- The title of Jim Hightower‘s 2008 text, Swim against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow (which I bet is a good read).
I was originally introduced to this phrase by Lee Graves through his “Thought for the Day” email on September 11, 2007. Most of Orison Swett Marden’s texts are available in the public domain and may be downloaded at Google Books and Project Gutenberg.