Life Is Not About Finding Yourself. Life Is About Creating Yourself

George Bernard Shaw? Mary McCarthy? Thomas Szasz? Sydney J. Harris? Helen A. De Rosis? Victoria Y. Pellegrino? Karen Horney? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: For decades pop-psychology has emphasized the task of “finding yourself”, i.e., identifying your deepest values, abilities, feelings, and desires. Yet, these qualities are not immutable. Instead, living fully means endlessly recreating yourself. Here are two versions of a pertinent saying:

(1) Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.

(2) The self is not something you find; it is something you create.

This notion has been attributed to playwright George Bernard Shaw, novelist Mary McCarthy, psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, and journalist Sydney J. Harris. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Tracing this saying is difficult because it can be expressed in many different ways. QI has found no substantive evidence that George Bernard Shaw who died in 1950 employed this saying; also, QI has seen no substantive evidence that Mary McCarthy who died in 1989 used this saying.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1969 within the syndicated column of Sydney J. Harris. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Young people searching for their “real self” must learn that the real self is not something one finds as much as it is something one makes; and it is one’s daily actions that shape the inner personality far more permanently than any amount of introspection or intellection.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1972 Harris published the book “For the Time Being”, and he included the passage presented above. 2

In 1973 Thomas Szasz published “The Second Sin” which contained the following similar remark: 3

People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds; it is something one creates.

In 1976 “The Book of Hope: How Women Can Overcome Depression” by Helen A. De Rosis and Victoria Y. Pellegrino included an interesting variant notion: 4

As Karen Horney once said, “The prime privilege is to work at oneself.” In other words, to find yourself is to create yourself.

In 1978 “The Book of Hope” was reviewed by Jon D. Swartz, and he reprinted the statement above: 5

“To find yourself is to create yourself” is the book’s theme, a rephrasing of Horney’s advice that one should work constantly at improving oneself.

In 1983 the statement by Thomas Szasz appeared in “The Oxford Book of Aphorisms” edited by John Gross: 6

People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates.
Thomas Szasz, The Second Sin, 1974

Also, in 1983 the statement by Sydney J. Harris appeared in “A Treasury of Days: 365 Thoughts on the Art of Living” edited by Dee Danner Barwick: 7

Young people searching for their “real self” must learn that the real self is not something one finds as much as it is something one makes; and it is one’s daily actions that shape the inner personality far more permanently than any amount of introspection or intellection.
SYDNEY J. HARRIS

In 1994 “The Age” newspaper of Melbourne, Australia mentioned a new album by a band called “fake” headed by Lady Bump: 8

fake, which is more of a “project” than a band, comes with its own “manifesto”, sprinkled with sentiments such as, “Why find yourself when you can create yourself?” and “Why try when you can lie?”.

In 1996 the saying under examination was attributed to Mary McCarthy within “You, Inc: Discover the C.E.O. Within!” by Burke Hedges: 9

The famous American novelist Mary McCarthy once said that “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” What a message!

In 1997 the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California published a piece about the court system and printed a remark from Clare Maier who was a deputy public defender. She attributed the saying under exploration to George Bernard Shaw: 10

Then, quoting from George Bernard Shaw, she added, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

In conclusion, QI tentatively credits Sydney J. Harris with this notion based on the 1969 citation. Thomas Szasz expressed the same idea a few years later in 1973. The attributions to George Bernard Shaw and Mary McCarthy are currently unsupported.

Image Notes: Public domain image of puzzle pieces from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Christopher Burd, Andrew Crowther, Sue Welfare, and Nigel Rees whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Rees wrote about this topic in his April 2021 newsletter and shared the 1973 citation located by Welfare. Also, thanks to Barry Popik who researched this topic and located the 1996 and 1997 citations. Further thanks to discussants Barney Dellar and Colin Fine.)

Notes:

  1. 1969 April 18, Record-Gazette, Strictly Personal by Sydney J. Harris (Syndicated), (newspaper has misspelling: Sidney) Quote Page 1, Column 10, Banning, California. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1972, For the Time Being by Sydney J. Harris, Section: Of the Life of the Spirit, Essay: Charity Doesn’t Start at Home, Quote Page 30, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1974 (1973 Copyright), The Second Sin by Thomas S. Szasz, Chapter: Personal Conduct, Quote Page 49, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1976 Copyright, The Book of Hope: How Women Can Overcome Depression by Helen A. De Rosis and Victoria Y. Pellegrino, Part 3, Chapter 19: Recovery, Quote Page 299, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1978 Summer, National Forum, Volume 58, Number 3, Book Review by Jon D. Swartz of “The Book of Hope” by Helen DeRosis and Victoria Y. Pellegrino, (Jon D. Swartz is the Chairman of Psychology, Anthropology & Sociology at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin in Odessa, Texas), Quote Page 46, Column 1, Publisher by Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (ProQuest)
  6. 1983, The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, Chosen by John Gross, Topic: The Sense of Identity, Quote Page 58, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1983, A Treasury of Days: 365 Thoughts on the Art of Living: Reader’s Digest Words of Gold, Edited by Dee Danner Barwick, Day: September 3, Quote Page 64, A Reader’s Digest / C.R. Gibson Book: Published by The C.R. Gibson Company, Norwalk, Connecticut. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1994 November 5, The Age, Magazine Section: Good Weekend, Page: Fast Forward edited by Cassie McCullagh, Article: Who’s that girl, Quote Page 11, Column 1, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1996, You, Inc: Discover the C.E.O. Within! by Burke Hedges, Section 2: 10 Simple Principles to Dramatically Increase Your Fair Market Value!, Principle 1: Take Responsibility, Quote Page 31, INTI Publishing, Tampa, Florida. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1997 August 11, San Francisco Chronicle, High Praise for Drug Court by Charlie Goodyear (Chronicle Contra Costa Bureau), (Continuation title: COURT: Treatment, Not Jail), Start Page A11, Quote Page A15, Column 2, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank)