A Little Happier: Throughout My Life, I’ve Remembered One Line from the “Little Engine that Could”

As I mention frequently, I love children’s literature. I love chapter books, I love young-adult books, and I love picture books.

One drawback with children’s books is that occasionally, the moral lesson is painted in such crude colors that an adult winces. I have a real passion for didactic fiction—I love books like Little Women, The Secret Garden, and even Heidi—but even I roll my eyes at the earnest “I think I can!” lesson of perseverance by the Little Blue Engine.

Remember that page from Watty Piper’s hugely popular book, first published in 1930, The Little Engine That Could?  “Puff, puff, chug, chug, went the Little Blue Engine. ‘I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can.’”

But I have to admit it: The Little Engine That Could has made its way into my head. Throughout my life, I’ve found myself thinking “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” with the image of that smiling Blue Engine chugging up the mountain for the first time. That image paired with that phrase perfectly capture that sentiment.

It reminds me of George Orwell’s observation about the writing of Rudyard Kipling. Orwell criticized Kipling on many worthy grounds, but nevertheless, Orwell acknowledged, Kipling was often somehow able to express ideas and emotions in words that stuck. Of Kipling’s famous phrase, “He travels fastest who travels alone,” Orwell observes, “It may not be true, but at any rate it is a thought that everyone thinks. Sooner or later you will have occasion to feel that he travels the fastest who travels alone, and there the thought is, ready made and, as it were, waiting for you.”

That’s the genius of The Little Engine That Could and probably the reason that it has been in print for almost 90 years.

Whenever I have the occasion to try to push myself to persevere, the thought and the words to express it are ready made. It’s not great literature, but it’s what stays in my mind. I find that these kinds of personal commandments or mantras really do help me shape my actions.

How about you? Do you find yourself repeating the words from the Little Blue Engine? Or do you have another personal mantra?




Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.