Wait, did George Bernard Shaw *really* say this?
March 6, 2014 3:51 PM   Subscribe

The inspirational saying on my tea today reads, "Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself" and is attributed to George Bernard Shaw. My limited knowledge of G.B. Shaw is that he was not prone to penning inspirational proverbs - did he really write this?

Google gives me thousands of references to the quote as attributed to him, but no source. QuoteYard attributes it to a 1990's self-help book which seems more plausible.

Are there any Shaw scholars or enthusiasts on AskMe who could shed light on this?
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This kind of bugs me, most often with reference to Oscar Wilde. Typically, playwrights are (correctly but misleadingly) credited with "saying" something that they actually have a character in one of their plays saying, which means that it's not clear at all whether the playwright himself believed it, or whether he simply put those words into the mouth of someone he might have disagreed with.

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" is a case in point, which was said by Lord Darlington in Wilde's play Lady Windemere's Fan.

I can think of a number of Shaw's plays that could have had this line in it, but my searches so far have been fruitless. I did want to make the point that you're right, he wasn't exactly doing needlepoint pillows. I'll keep searching.
posted by janey47 at 4:00 PM on March 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

The wikiquote talk page for George Bernard Shaw lists it as being unsourced.

Which isn't to say he didn't say that, but if people who go out of their way to edit a wiki of George Bernard Shaw quotes can't find a source for it, you have to wonder.
posted by Sara C. at 4:05 PM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not a G. B. Shaw scholar, but I find it very odd that he would talk about "finding yourself" as if most people thought that's what life was about; it seems to me that "finding yourself" is a very 1960s concept, and indeed, if you look at Google Ngrams, there's a sudden sharp rise in "find yourself" after about 1966.

I've found any number of quotes online that quote Mark Twain as saying "If you want love and abundance in your life, give it away," which is both an extremely un-Twain-like thing to say and terrible verb agreement. Bad self-helpy authors think they can get away with bad self-helpy glurge if they put it in the mouth of somebody smart.
posted by Jeanne at 4:08 PM on March 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

Agreed that the idea of "finding yourself" doesn't sound anything at all like George Bernard Shaw.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:20 PM on March 6, 2014

Best answer: You might submit it to Quote Investigator; they have looked into quite a few Shaw attributions already.
posted by lily_bart at 4:28 PM on March 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Google Books brings up some results attributing it to E.W. Wilcox, which would seem more plausible (she wrote the famous "Laugh, and the world laughs with you / Weep, and you weep alone") if not for the anachronistic "finding yourself" idea Jeanne points out. (And a brief search in her poetry anthologies as available on Project Gutenberg does not bring up that phrase.)

You might also try contacting Nigel Rees of the BBC Radio 4 programme Quote...Unquote; he is a very enthusiastic researcher and it is possible this quote has already been investigated on the show or in the associated newsletter.

OR you could ask this at Snopes' Questionable Quotes forum; it's not very high-trafficked, though.

(On preview: yes, Quote Investigator is also a great resource!)
posted by jeudi at 4:30 PM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all. Keep chiming in if you have any wisdom... otherwise I will definitely contact Nigel Rees (thanks, jeudi!) and/or Quote Investigator (thanks, lily_bart!).

And agreed, janey47 - with the exception of Shakespeare (hypocritical of me I know), I hate the practice of attributing quotes to authors when their characters voiced the sentiment. I've read one too many inspirational essay that quotes J.K. Rowling saying, "It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." J.K. Rowling didn't say this! Dumbledore said this!
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 7:27 PM on March 6, 2014

Following Jeanne's idea of using Google Ngrams - here is a search for "isn't about finding yourself" - which is as big a chunk of the quotation that the system will let me search for verbatim. There is a very strong spike from the mid 90s onwards but nothing from Shaw's lifetime - or even from the 60s.
posted by rongorongo at 1:30 AM on March 7, 2014

Best answer:
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.
- this is quoted on page 49 of Thomas Szasz's book "The Second Sin" form 1973. This old usenet thread from 2002 - which asks the same question you did about the GBS quote's authenticity - suggests that this is the "full version" of the mis-attributed Shaw quote. See also this page which links the concepts from Shaw and Szasz. Note that the Szasz text does not cite Shaw - although he does talk about the concept of "The Self Made Man". In terms of what Shaw might of thought of that - we could consider his play The Millionairess which satirises those whose wealth is based on the success of others. So I doubt Shaw would have much appreciated being made to sound like libertarian hippy.
posted by rongorongo at 6:31 AM on March 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

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