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One Step Forward Two Steps Back

two climbers in front of a large ice shelf. one step forward two steps back

One Step Forward Two Steps Back Definition

One step forward, two steps back.

  • When attempted progress results in setbacks that can leave one worse than when one began.
  • When making progress in one area makes matters worse in another area.


To physically take one step forward then two steps back would leave you with a net gain of minus one step. If you did this repeatedly you would effectively be walking backwards. This would make progress overall impossible.

One Step Forward Two Steps Back Examples

  • They took away our holiday bonuses and replaced them with a 50 cent raise. Now They’re making us pay for our own office supplies. It’s always one step forward, two back with this company.
  • It’s always one step forward two steps back with Ted. He built the second bathroom we needed for years. But now the basement has to be redone because of the leaky toilet He installed!


History is a set of repeating circles, like the tide. The wind does blow through the ruins of tomorrow. But it is more a question of two steps forward, one step back. Humans and dragons make the same mistakes, again and again, but things do get better over time

Cressida Cowell

In the search for truth, human beings take two steps forward and one step back. Suffering, mistakes and weariness of life thrust them back, but the thirst for truth and stubborn will drive them forward. And who knows? Perhaps they will reach the truth at last.

Anton Chekov

One Step Forward Two Steps Back Origin

Literary Origin

Dwarfs by nature, they needed but the warmth of some hell-born fire to be kindled into monsters. The woman had it in her to be a hag, the man to be a scoundrel. Both were to any extent susceptible of that hideous kind of progress which makes for what is bad. Souls there are of this crab-like nature, ever reaching back into outer darkness, take two steps back in life for one step forward, turning all the fruits of experience into so much added deformity, ever going from bad to worse, and assuming more and more a black of deeper dye. Souls such as these, that man and woman bore about with them.

Las Miserables, Victor Hugo, 1862

A strikingly similar allusion to our idiom first appears in Les Misérables, the famous French novel turned play turned Hollywood blockbuster starring Hugh Jackman. The original novel was written in 1862 by the French poet, novelist and playwright Victor-Marie Hugo.

The play mainly follows the ex-convict Jean Val jean and several other characters in a story of redemption in the 1800s Paris, France.

Although not a likely origin, it is said that our idiom was popularized by the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, n his 1904 novel titled One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.

Spiritual Origin

Several sources have claimed the phrase originates with an Aesop’s Fable-like anecdote about a frog in a well. In the anecdote, the frog attempts to climb out of the well but makes little progress because for every two steps forward, the frog slips one step back down.

Obviously this uses the ‘flipped’ version of our idiom, but for the sake of origins they were both likely conceived around the same time.