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.
- 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) ↩