“A Ship in Harbor Is Safe, But That Is Not What Ships Are Built For” - Meaning Behind the Quote

Updated April 5, 2024

Has anyone ever told you that “a ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for”? What does this quote mean, and who said it?

According to most sources, this quote can be attributed to John A. Shedd. However, he published it in a book of popular quotations, meaning that it is possible the adage already existed and isn’t actually original to him.

Regardless of where the quote comes from, it carries a powerful message that we can all use in our daily lives. Though it’s tempting to hang out in our comfort zones forever and ever, that’s not really what we’re built for.

Instead, we exist to grow and develop, to work towards becoming the best versions of ourselves. If we stay in the “harbor,” we won’t ever realize our full potential.

“A Ship in Harbor Is Safe, But That Is Not What Ships Are Built For” - Who Said It?

The quote "A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for" is commonly attributed to John A. Shedd, an American author and professor.

We first find the quote in Shedd’s 1928 work "Salt from My Attic". You’ll hear people frequently using this quote in motivational contexts and discussions on risk and purpose, as it implies that the purpose of our lives isn’t simply to stay in our comfort zones.

The History of the Quote

“Salt from My Attic” was a collection of popular aphorisms compiled by John A. Shedd, which included the quote in question:

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

There are a number of similar quotes that appeared before Shedd’s 1928 work, however. For example, a Duluth, MN, newspaper published the following in 1901, referencing an idea of Theodore Roosevelt’s:

“President Roosevelt thinks that warships are not built to rust and rot in harbor. He wants them kept moving so that crews can keep in full practice at their seamanship, gunnery, etc. That sounds like hard sense.”

After Shedd published his sayings book, it was referenced by the columnist Ed Howe. The article written by Howe ended up being reprinted in a number of different newspapers.

In addition to “a ship in harbor is safe,” he notes the following quotes from Shedd’s book:

“We have strength for today’s work. If yesterday’s is added, we stagger; if we try to carry tomorrow’s, down we go ….”

“When it is rose leaves all the way, we soon become drowsy; thorns are necessary to wake us…”

The Meaning Behind the Quote

The quote “a ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for” carries a powerful metaphorical meaning, applicable to our day to day lives and our efforts toward personal growth. 

The most obvious meaning has to do with our tendency to stay in our comfort zones and the reality that doing so doesn’t allow us to lead our best lives.

The harbor represents safety, comfort, and the avoidance of risk– after all, a ship in harbor is protected from the storms and uncertainties of the sea.

At the same time, what is the primary purpose of a ship? It’s not to remain docked but to sail, explore, and transport people and goods from point A to point B.

Similarly, this suggests that while staying in our comfort zones might be safe and easy, it prevents us from fulfilling our true potential and purpose, which often requires taking risks and facing challenges.

Stoic Themes Behind “A Ship in Harbor Is Safe”

Hidden within this quote are many of the main themes of Stoic philosophy. Let’s take a look at some of the concepts alluded to in the adage that would have been right up the alleys of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca the Younger.

Purpose and Virtue

Stoicism teaches the importance of living in accordance with one’s nature and purpose.

seneca the younger

"If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable."

– Seneca the Younger

Just as a ship is built to sail the seas, our favorite Stoic philosophers believe that humans should live in alignment with their rational nature and pursue their own purposes and virtues.

The quote reflects this idea by implying that staying within one’s comfort zone is contrary to fulfilling one’s true purpose. Basically, if you want to live your best life, you’ve got to get out there and take some risks!


If you’ve been reading our blog for any length of time, you likely know that Stoics advocate facing life's challenges with resilience and calmness, viewing them as opportunities for growth and improvement.

marcus aurelius “A Ship in Harbor Is Safe, But That Is Not What Ships Are Built For” - Meaning Behind the Quote

"The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way."

Marcus Aurelius

In this quote, the metaphor of the ship venturing out of the safe harbor into the potentially treacherous open sea represents the Stoic idea that one should not shy away from life’s difficulties but, instead, accept and confront them bravely.

Control and Responsibility

Stoicism emphasizes focusing on what is within our control and letting go of what isn’t– a concept that is often referred to as the dichotomy of control.

epictetus “A Ship in Harbor Is Safe, But That Is Not What Ships Are Built For” - Meaning Behind the Quote

“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”

– Epictetus

In the context of the quote, the decision to leave the safety of the harbor represents focusing on actionable items (like steering the ship and facing the sea) rather than fearing uncontrollable elements (like the weather or the sea’s conditions).


Impermanence as a constant of life is something that shows up in countless wisdom traditions. Like many other powerful philosophies and religions throughout history, Stoicism teaches that change is a natural part of life and should be embraced rather than feared.

marcus aurelius “A Ship in Harbor Is Safe, But That Is Not What Ships Are Built For” - Meaning Behind the Quote

“Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to throw away. Death stands at your elbow. Be good for something while you live and it is in your power.”

– Marcus Aurelius

In relation to the quote of the day, the journey of a ship from the harbor to the open sea can be seen as a metaphor for the transient nature of life's circumstances, encouraging individuals to embrace change and the unknown.


Courage is one of the four cardinal virtues in Stoicism (alongside wisdom, justice, and self-discipline). The courage to venture beyond the safety of the harbor and fulfill the ship’s purpose of navigating the seas mirrors the Stoic theme of having the courage to live in accordance with one’s nature and face life’s inherent risks.

seneca “A Ship in Harbor Is Safe, But That Is Not What Ships Are Built For” - Meaning Behind the Quote

"It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult."

– Seneca the Younger

In our day and age, it’s easier than ever to just stay in our safe, comfy little bubble. However, by cultivating the virtue of courage, we can move beyond this zone and work to fulfill our true purposes and the best versions of ourselves.

How to Apply the Meaning of This Quote to Your Life

Getting a rush of inspiration from a quote is one thing, but what can you take away and really apply to your life? Here are some key takeaways and exercises that aren’t just heady concepts but actual practical ideas.

Identifying Your Comfort Zone

Your “comfort zone” is the space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk.

Obviously, this sounds kind of nice, right? After all, your comfort zone provides a state of mental security.

However, the Stoics would advise that you reflect on your daily life—what are the activities, habits, or situations where you feel most at ease, unchallenged, or unchanging? These can range from your job, social interactions, and hobbies to even your thoughts and attitudes.

The reason that you want to do this type of audit of your life is that within this comfort zone can lead to a sense of safety, but also stagnation. YOu can look for signs like feeling unfulfilled, lacking motivation, avoiding new challenges, or feeling that your growth, both personal and professional, has hit a plateau.

The next step is to identify what fears keep you in your comfort zone. Is it fear of failure, judgment, or the unknown? Understanding these fears is the first step toward confronting and overcoming them!

It might sound silly, but stay with me for a second: think of yourself as a ship. Are you anchored safely but indefinitely in harbor, or are you ready to set sail? What destinations have you dreamed of, and what adventures await beyond the harbor? This type of exercise can honestly radically change your life.

Stoic Exercises to Improve Your Life

There are a number of Stoice exercises you can use to apply the concepts of this quote to your actual day-to-day life.

Let’s break down some of the most practical options so you can pick the ones that fit into your routine and goals.

Dichotomy of Control

Adapted from the ideas of Epictetus, this exercise involves dividing your concerns into two categories: things you can control and things you cannot.

Focus your energy only on what you can control—like your effort, attitude, and actions—and release concern over what you cannot control, such as others' opinions or unforeseen events. This mindset helps in reducing anxiety and propelling you out of your comfort zone.

Premeditatio Malorum (Premeditation of Evils)

To practice premeditatio malorum, imagine what could go wrong in stepping out of your comfort zone.

Then, consider how you would handle these situations. This Stoic exercise reduces fear and prepares you for challenges by understanding that you can manage and survive adverse outcomes.

Voluntary Discomfort

This next exercise asks you to challenge yourself with intentional discomfort to lessen the power that your fears have over you.

This could be anything from cold showers, public speaking, or trying new activities that typically induce anxiety. The goal is not to suffer but to desensitize yourself to discomfort and fear, enhancing your ability to act despite them.


Another exercise you can employ is to end each day with a reflection on your actions, thoughts, and feelings.

Did you act according to your values and goals, or did you stay firmly planted in your comfort zone? How can you improve tomorrow? This exercise fosters self-awareness and accountability.

Stoic Quotes With a Similar Message

Now, let’s explore some quotes from Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca the Younger that have messages and themes similar to the quote we’re focusing on today.

Stoic Quotes About Growth Through Adversity

While we all like to steer clear of challenges and adversity, the truth is going through hard times is probably the most powerful tool for growth!

"For we are naturally disposed to admire more than anything else the man who shows fortitude in adversity." 

– Seneca the Younger

"Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal." 

– Marcus Aurelius

"Misfortune is virtue's opportunity." 

– Seneca the Younger

"I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent— no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you." 

– Seneca the Younger

“What would have become of Hercules, do you think, if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar – and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.” 

– Epictetus

"A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it."

– Marcus Aurelius

"A setback has often cleared the way for greater prosperity. Many things have fallen only to rise to more exalted heights." 

Seneca the Younger

“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material.” 

– Epictetus

“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trails we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use. On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it.” 

– Epictetus

Stoic Quotes About Courage

Along with wisdom, temperance, and justice, courage is one of the four Stoic virtues. Here are some of the best quotes from our favorite Stoic philosophers about bravery, strength, and courage.

"Sometimes even to live is an act of courage."

– Seneca the Younger

“Your greatest difficulty is with yourself; for you are your own stumbling-block. You do not know what you want. You are better at approving the right course than at following it out. You see where the true happiness lies, but you have not the courage to attain it.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on—it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance—unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”

– Marcus Aurelius

"Courage leads to heaven; fear leads to death."

– Seneca the Younger

“There is nothing in the world so much admired as a man who knows how to bear unhappiness with courage."

– Seneca the Younger

"Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Man must be arched and buttressed from within, else the temple wavers to the dust."

– Marcus Aurelius

“Be like a rocky promontory against which the restless surf continually pounds; it stands fast while the churning sea is lulled to sleep at its feet. I hear you say, "How unlucky that this should happen to me!" Not at all! Say instead, "How lucky that I am not broken by what has happened and am not afraid of what is about to happen. The same blow might have struck anyone, but not many would have absorbed it without capitulation or complaint.”

– Marcus Aurelius

More Inspirational Quotes With a Similar Message

Before I sign off, let’s check in with some quotes from Stoic-minded thinkers that have a similar message “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

Quotes About Taking Risks

Taking risks is scary, but that’s the only way we can really stretch beyond where we are now. Let’s explore some of the best quotes from the greatest minds of history and the present about why it’s worth taking calculated risks in life.

“One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

– Andre Gide

“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

“It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all.”

– William James

“Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.”

– George S. Patton

“Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.”

– Ray Bradbury

“Risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.” – Leo Buscaglia

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life.”

– Steve Jobs

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Pablo Picasso

“Do one thing every day that scares you.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

T.S. Eliot

“People who don't take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”

– Peter Drucker

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

Helen Keller

“Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing.”

– Denis Waitley

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

Quotes About Your Comfort Zone

It’s tempting to stay in our comfort zone– after all, it’s so cozy there! In reality, though, we have to push ourselves past these boundaries if we really want to succeed and grow in life. Let’s take a look at some powerful quotes about moving beyond your comfort zone and really living.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

– Neale Donald Walsch

“Everything you desire is outside your comfort zone - otherwise, you would already have it.”

– Zan Perrion

“Nobody ever died of discomfort, yet living in the name of comfort has killed more ideas, more opportunities, more actions, and more growth than everything else combined. Comfort kills!”

– T. Harv Eker

“If we're growing, we're always going to be out of our comfort zone.”

– John C. Maxwell

“Most everything that you want is just outside your comfort zone.”

– Jack Canfield

“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

– David Bowie

“One can go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”

Abraham Maslow

“The place between your comfort zone and your dream is where life takes place.”

– Helen Keller

“All growth starts at the end of your comfort zone.”

– Tony Robbins

Quotes About Purpose

An element of this quote is that we all have purposes beyond simply feeling comfortable. Here are some inspirational quotes to get your gears turning about purpose and meaning in life.

"The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why." 

– Mark Twain

"The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

"To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all."

 – Oscar Wilde

"You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore." 

– Christopher Columbus

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

 – Ralph Waldo Emerson

"The only way to do great work is to love what you do." 

– Steve Jobs

"Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant."

– Robert Louis Stevenson

"If you want something you've never had, you must be willing to do something you've never done." 

– Thomas Jefferson

"He who has a why to live can bear almost any how." 

– Friedrich Nietzsche

"Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it." 

– Buddha

"You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream." 

– C.S. Lewis

"Purpose is the place where your deep gladness meets the world's needs." 

– Frederick Buechner

Quotes About Courage

In order to move our ship out of our harbor, we have to have courage. Courage, in fact, is one of the four Stoic virtues, along with wisdom, justice, and temperance. Here are some thought-provoking quotes about strength and courage to help you move beyond your comfort zone.

"The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

– Nelson Mandela

"Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage." 

– Dale Carnegie

“Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities... because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

– Winston Churchill

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear." 

– Mark Twain

"Courage is knowing what not to fear." 

– Plato

"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage." 

– Lao Tzu

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts." 

– Winston S. Churchill

"He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life." 

– Muhammad Ali

"The best way out is always through." 

– Robert Frost

"Without courage, wisdom bears no fruit." 

– Baltasar Gracian

Quotes About Impermanence

When things are good, we want them to stay the same forever. The truth is, though, that all things must pass– both the good and the bad! Here are some of the best quotes about impermanence that reflect the Stoic notion of change as a constant in the universe.

"Change is the only constant in life." 

– Heraclitus

"Everything flows, nothing stays still." 

– Heraclitus

"Nothing lasts, but nothing is lost." 

– William Blake

"This too shall pass." 

– Unknown

"Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through." 

– Anais Nin

"It's not that things are temporary. It's that everything is." 

– Alan Watts

"You could not step twice into the same rivers; for other waters are ever flowing on to you." 

– Heraclitus

"The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance." 

– Alan Watts

"Time does not change us. It just unfolds us." 

– Max Frisch

"We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever." 

– Carl Sagan

"Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don't struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality." 

– Pema Chodron

"Nothing gold can stay." 

– Robert Frost

"All compounds are transient, all emotions are ephemeral; find enlightenment in the dissolution of self." 


"The art of life is a constant readjustment to our surroundings." 

– Kakuzo Okakura

"The only real battle in life is between hanging on and letting go." 

– Shannon L. Alder

"Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished." 

– Lao Tzu

"To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die." 

– Thomas Campbell

"The end of a melody is not its goal: but nonetheless, had the melody not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either." 

– Friedrich Nietzsche

"The beauty of this world is in its transience, its constant change and the anticipation of renewal." 

– Unknown

"Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like." 

– Lao Tzu

"Change is inevitable. Growth is optional." 

– John C. Maxwell

"One must be deeply aware of the impermanence of the world." 

– Dogen

"Every beginning has an end and every end is a new beginning." 

– Santosh Kalwar

"We must be willing to let go of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us." 

– Joseph Campbell

"In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years." 

– Abraham Lincoln

"To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often." 

– Winston Churchill

Living Your Best Life With Stoicism

Though the quote “a ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for” wasn’t written by an ancient Stoic philosopher, it’s likely fair to say that Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca the Younger would have agreed with the sentiment of the adage. Encouraging us to move beyond our comfort zones and take risks in order to grow and become our best selves, this quote reminds us that staying “safe” isn’t the only thing that matters in life.

Are you searching for more inspirational Stoic quotes and philosophical musings? If so, make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog!

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Written by: Sophia Merton
Sophia received her BA from Vassar College and has always maintained a deep interest in the question of how best to live one’s life. She hopes to help others understand how they can apply Stoicism in their day-to-day lives in order to become the person they want to be, embrace the present moment, pursue their purposes, and rid themselves of unnecessary anxiety.

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