I keep hearing people quote Chesterton as saying, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Where did he say that? And what on earth did he mean by it?
To answer your first question first, he said it in his wonderful and timely book, What’s Wrong with the World, which was written in 1910. Part Four of the book is entitled, “Education: Or the Mistake about the Child.” The famous, and much abused, line comes up at the end of Chapter 14 of that section.
As for your second question, the Quotemeister generally tries to avoid explaining what Chesterton means. For two reasons. One, Chesterton himself explains what he means quite nicely. It sometimes requires a little more reading. Two, we think students should write their own class assignments rather than having us do it for them. However, since this quotation is so famous and so misunderstood, we cannot resist the temptation to offer our interpretation.
Chesterton consistently defended the amateur against the professional, or the “generalist” against the specialist, especially when it came to “the things worth doing.” There are things like playing the organ or discovering the North Pole, or being Astronomer Royal, which we do not want a person to do at all unless he does them well. But those are not the most important things in life. When it comes to writing one’s own love letters and blowing one’s own nose, “these things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.” This, argues Chesterton (in Orthodoxy) is “the democratic faith: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves – the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state.”
As for “the rearing of the young,” which is the education of the very young, this is a job not for the specialist or the professional, but for the “generalist” and the amateur. In other words, for the mother, who Chesterton argues is “broad” where men are “narrow.” In What’s Wrong with the World, Chesterton forsaw the dilemma of daycare and the working mother, that children would end up being raised by “professionals” rather than by “amateurs.” And here we must understand “amateur” in its truest and most literal meaning. An amateur is someone who does something out of love, not for money. She does what she does not because she is going to be paid for her services and not because she is the most highly skilled, but because she wants to do it. And she does “the things worth doing,” which are the things closest and most sacred to all of humanity – nurturing a baby, teaching a child the first things, and, in fact, all things.
The line, “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly,” is not an excuse for poor efforts. It is perhaps an excuse for poor results. But our society is plagued by wanting good results with no efforts (or rather, with someone else’s efforts). We hire someone else to work for us, to play for us (that is, to entertain us), to think for us, and to raise our children for us. We have left “the things worth doing” to others, on the poor excuse that others might be able to do them better.
Finally, and less heavily, we should also point out that the phrase is a defense of hobbies. This was confirmed by Chesterton himself. The phrase became famously attached to Chesterton in his own life. And it was perhaps Chesterton’s only line which he actually quoted in something else he wrote. From his mystery “When Doctors Agree” published in the collection, The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond (1937):
Paradox has been defined as “Truth standing on her head to get attention.” Paradox has been defended; on the ground that so many fashionable fallacies still stand firmly on their feet, because they have no heads to stand on. But it must be admitted that writers, like other mendicants and mountebanks, frequently do try to attract attention. They set out conspicuously, in a single line in a play , or at the head or tail of a paragraph, remarks of this challenging kind; as when Mr. Bernard Shaw wrote: “The Golden Rule is that there is no Golden Rule”; or Oscar Wilde observed: “I can resist everything except temptation”; or a duller scribe (not to be named with these and now doing penance for his earlier vices in the nobler toil of celebrating the virtues of Mr. Pond) said in defence of hobbies and amateurs and general duffers like himself: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” To these things do writers sink; and then the critics tell them that they “talk for effect”; and then the writers answer: “What the devil else should we talk for? Ineffectualness?”