The Ifs and the Ases

“The great division between human beings is into the Ifs and the Ases… This is the meaning of those two words as I interpret them: If it were, — if it might be, — if it could be, — if it had been. One portion of mankind go through life always regretting, always whining, always imagining. These are the people whose backbones remain cartilaginous all their lives long, as do those of certain other vertebrate animals, — the sturgeons, for instance. A good many poets must be classed with this group of vertebrates.

As it is, — this is the way in which the other class of people look at the conditions in which they find themselves. They may be optimists or pessimists, — they are very largely optimists,– but, taking things just as they find them, they adjust the facts to their wishes if they can; and if they cannot, then they adjust themselves to the facts. I venture to say that if one should count the Ifs and the Ases in the conversation of his acquaintances, he would find the more able and important persons among them — statesmen, generals, men of business — among the Ases, and the majority of the conspicuous failures among the Ifs. I don’t know but this would be as good a test as that of Gideon, — lapping the water or taking it up in the hand. I have a poetical friend whose conversation is starred as thick with ifs as a boiled ham is with cloves. But another friend of mine, a business man, whom I trust in making my investments, would not let me meddle with a certain stock which I fancied, because, as he said, ‘there are too many ifs in it. As it looks now, I would n’t touch it’.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes sr., Over the Teacups, 1890)