William Shakespeare? Pablo Picasso? David Viscott? Joy Golliver? Emilio Santini? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A popular adage presents a fascinating answer to a perennial philosophical question about the significance of life:
The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.
This statement is often attributed to the famed playwright William Shakespeare or the influential painter Pablo Picasso on social networks like Facebook and Pinterest. I know that means absolutely nothing about who really said it. Would you please trace this quotation?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence linking this expression to William Shakespeare or Pablo Picasso. The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1993 book by the radio personality David S. Viscott. This citation is detailed further below.
An interesting thematically related statement was included in an 1843 essay titled “Gifts” by the prominent lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson who argued that a gift is only worthwhile if it is integrally related to the gift-giver 1
Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a stone; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing.
In 1993 the volume “Finding Your Strength in Difficult Times: A Book of Meditations” by David Viscott was published. The author was a psychiatrist who hosted a pioneering radio talk show in the 1980s and 1990s during which he provided counseling to callers. Viscott’s statement was composed of three parts instead of two: 2
The purpose of life is to discover your gift.
The work of life is to develop it.
The meaning of life is to give your gift away.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In January 1994 a column in the religion section of “The Seattle Times” included a simplified instance of the passage above. The columnist had been collecting statements that he considered insightful or profound, and he shared several in his article. No attribution was given, and this version omitted the middle element. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3
As the new year begins, I will share with you some of my collection. Some items were recorded 50 years ago and others just this week. I hope one or more of them will be interesting or useful to you. …
— The purpose of life is to discover your gift and the meaning of life is in giving it away.
A year later the same columnist, Dale Turner, published additional sayings from his personal assemblage in “The Seattle Times”. The concise instance of the adage was further disseminated when it was printed again: 4
Today, I am responding to requests that have come to me to share more items from my collection. I hope one or more will be interesting or useful to you this first week of a new year: …
— The purpose of life is to discover your gift, and the meaning of life is in giving it away.
In May 1995 the keynote speaker at a meeting in New Jersey designed to encourage young people to enter the teaching profession employed an instance of the dictum: 5
“Keep growing professionally,” she emphasized. “The purpose of life is to discover your gift; the meaning of life is giving it away.”
The connection to Viscott was not forgotten. In 1997 an article in the “Chattanooga Times Free Press” of Tennessee placed the adage at the beginning of an article about a successful painter: 6
“The purpose of life is to discover your gift; the work of life is to develop it; and the meaning of life is to give your gift away.” — David Viscott.
In March 2006 the “San Francisco Chronicle” published a profile of a mathematician working at a Hewlett Packard laboratory. The journalist noticed an instance of the saying was posted on a wall. No ascription was given, and the words “meaning” and “purpose” were swapped. Also, the word “find” was used instead of “discover”: 7
A note on the wall says, “The meaning of life is to find your gift; the purpose of life is to give it away.”
In May 2006 an article in a Newport News, Virginia newspaper described a scene in a documentary called “Master of the Flame” about a local glass artist named Emilio Santini. The artist mentioned the adage: 8
At one point, Santini summarizes his philosophy: The meaning of life is to find your gift, and the purpose of life is to give it away.
Also in 2006 a book titled “Just Do It!: The Power of Positive Living” used the saying as an epigraph for a chapter. The words were ascribed to Joy Golliver who has written and lectured about community service and care giving: 9
The meaning of life is to find your gift.
The purpose of life is to give it away.
Joy J. Golliver
In conclusion, David Viscott published an instance of the saying in 1993, and QI believes he should receive credit for originating the adage. This ascription is based on current knowledge, and it may change in the future as databases expand. The most popular modern instance is a simplified version of Viscott’s three part statement. Others employed the adage after it was in circulation.
Image Notes: Globe gift from Nemo at Pixabay. Wrapped gifts from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Images have been edited and resized.
(Great thanks to Lucinda Critchley, Laurelyn Collins, and Obsidian Eagle whose inquires led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1843 July, The Dial, Volume IV, Number I, Gifts (Essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson), Start Page 93, Quote Page 93, Column 1, Published by James Munroe and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1993, Finding Your Strength in Difficult Times: A Book of Meditations by David S. Viscott, Life, Quote Page 87, Contemporary Books of Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1994 January 1, The Seattle Times, Section: Religion, Other’s Insights Can Help as We Look Ahead to New Year by Dale Turner, Quote Page A14, Seattle, Washington. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1995 January 7, The Seattle Times, Section: Religion, A Positive Thought Can Go a Long Way in Halting Despair by Dale Turner, Quote Page A12, Seattle, Washington. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1995 May 10, The Press of Atlantic City, Edition: Cumberland, Section: Region, Young Teachers / Program Encourages Teenagers To Go Into Teaching, Diane D’Amico (Staff Writer), Quote Page C1, Atlantic City, New Jersey. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1997 February 16, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Taking A Look Back by Ann Nichols (Free Press Arts Writer), Quote Page J1, Chattanooga, Tennessee. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2006 March 19, San Francisco Chronicle, Section: Business, “Challenges — and solutions – HP mathematician cited for years of work helping others” by Benjamin Pimentel (Chronicle Staff Writer), Quote Page J1, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2006 May 14, Daily Press, Section: Sports, “An Eclectic and Versatile Player” by Marty O’Brien (Daily Press), Quote Page C1, Newport News, Virginia. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2006, Just Do It!: The Power of Positive Living by Eray Honeycutt, (Epigraph of Chapter 16: Hindsight & Hope), Quote Page 201, AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana. (Google Books Preview) ↩