Ah, Buzzkillers, good old Oscar Wilde, the author of so many excellent plays, novels, and poems. Dripping with epigrams, Oscar entertained literary circles in London, Paris and Dublin with his wit, often pairing philosophical and comical themes to excellent effect. Some examples include:
It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.
(The Portrait of Mr. W. H., 1889, p. 5.)
Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.
(“The Relation of Dress to Art,” The Pall Mall Gazette, February 28, 1885.)
Prayer must never be answered: if it is, it ceases to be prayer and becomes correspondence.
(Quoted by Alvin Redman in The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde, 1952.)
Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it.
(The Critic as Artist, Part I, p. 49, 1891.)
There are dozens of these legitimate Oscar-isms, but there’s no evidence that he ever said “Be Yourself; Everyone Else is Taken.” Indeed, Wilde dropped epigrams about personal identity into the dialog of some of his novels and plays, as well as referring to it (often obliquely) in essays. For the most part, he discussed this in terms of “being natural” and the tendency for people to wear masks to conceal the way they really are.
In De Profundis, often thought of as his greatest work, Wilde said:
Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.
(De Profundis, 1905, p. 63.)
Wilde had expressed it more succinctly in 1890, when he wrote:
Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
(“The True Function and Value of Criticism; With Some Remarks On the Importance of Doing Nothing: A Dialogue,” The Nineteenth Century, The Nineteenth Century (A Monthly Review), Volume 28, p. 447)
As you know, Oscar Wilde is one of history’s greatest quote magnets, and something as profound and witty as “Be Yourself; Everyone Else is Taken” was almost bound to be attached to him eventually.
But if Oscar didn’t say it who did? The history of this quotation is complicated, Buzzkillers, and no one person is solely responsible for it. We’re fortunate, though, because this quote gives us an opportunity to talk about one of the 20th century’s most important thinkers, Thomas Merton.
A Trappist monk who became one of the most widely-read theologians of modern times, Thomas Merton was born in France in 1915, lived more or less all over the world, and entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1941. The Trappists at Gethsemani lived (and live) a very basic spiritual life, in sparse conditions. To say the very least, life at their abbey provides a great deal of time for self-reflection, silence, and contemplation. I wouldn’t last a minute.
But Thomas Merton did, and while there he wrote deeply and extensively on spiritual matters, on improving interfaith understanding, social justice and pacifism. His work has been extremely influential for over fifty years. In a 1967 essay entitled “Day of a Stranger,” Merton wrote:
In an age where there is much talk about “being yourself” I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anybody else. Rather it seems to me that when one is too intent on “being himself” he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow.
(“Day of a Stranger,” The Hudson Review, Volume 20, Number 2, 1967, p. 211.)
Although the internet-driven “be yourself; everyone else is taken” quotation is usually thought of a humorous and witty way to encourage positive self-worth, Merton’s quote stresses warnings about the effects of concentrating excessively on one’s self. And, of course, by saying “I reserve the right to forget about being myself,” Merton argued that we should think beyond “being yourself.” A great many of his other writings deal with this conflict in human understanding and behavior — how to be yourself but not be obsessed with being yourself, and they make for very reflective reading
Merton’s work has appeared in many places, and as the internet geared up in the early days of Usenet groups and the advent of email, “I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself” seems to have been dropped. Electronic repetition and whittling down of Merton’s statement has turned, “in any case there is very little chance of my being anybody else” into “everyone else is taken” and we’ve ended up with the self-affirming but perhaps overly shallow, “be yourself; everyone else is taken” that you see reproduced in people’s email signatures, on coffee cups, and on t-shirts.
Unfortunately, Buzzkillers, twas ever thus. Interesting ideas (and even epigrams) get pared down and over-simplified. But go out and read some Oscar Wilde and some Thomas Merton, and think about the ideas they were really trying to convey.
Are you being true to yourself in your business?
When I first heard the quote from Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken”, I thought it was one of the most brilliant things anyone had ever said.
Maybe I was just ready to hear it.
I was fresh out of college, working in my first job as a merchandise buyer and ready to take the world of retail by storm.
Of course, growing up I know people had echoed that same sentiment to me in many forms. “Be yourself honey, don’t try to be like someone else.” my favorite aunt used to say to me. “People will like you for who you are. And if they don’t, they’re not your true friends.” said Fergie (a friend of the family, who was “Fergie”, way before the singer “Fergie” or Fergie the Duchess of York became famous.)
But for some reason it never quite rang true until I heard the quote from OscarWilde.
I think it was the “everyone else is already taken” that really clicked with me.
I remember thinking to myself “yah they are already taken”. And it was in that moment that I felt like someone had given me permission to be myself.
So if everybody else was already taken, I may as well be me and enjoy it!
It made sense.
I started thinking about this the other day, when I was thinking that maybe I should switch from pronouncing the word niche (rhymes with switch) to niche (rhymes with quiche).
You see I’m interviewed a lot on the radio about the topic of niche markets. And over the past couple years, I’ve noticed more and more, the people who interview me are pronouncing the word “niche” like “quiche”.
So on interviews it sometimes feels like a game of “niche-niche tennis”. The interviewer says niche (rhymes with quiche) and I reply with niche (rhymes with switch). 🙂 And I can just imagine our audience listening in and laughing at the niche – niche banter.
A few years ago no one, except my friend Robin Cowie, former president of Worldwide Brands and producer of the Blair Witch Project pronounced niche like quiche. But with Rob it sounded good, because he grew up in South Africa and has one of those totally awesome accents that makes plain old English words sound like something special.
However, over the past few years, I’ve noticed that everyone seems to be now pronouncing niche like quiche. Maybe it sounds more sophisticated.
So a few weeks ago, I decided in the interest of radio interview compatibility, I’d better start pronouncing niche like quiche and not niche like switch.
The first few interviews, it went OK. I had to stop myself from pronouncing niche like switch a couple times.
But it was fine… until this afternoon. When I gave a 90 minute energy filled teleseminar called “15 Creative Ways to Make Money on eBay”.
I started out saying niche = quiche, but then I got so wrapped up in showing people how they can think our of the box when it comes to making money on eBay, that niche just automatically popped out like switch.
“Great “I thought, “now I’m having a game of niche-niche tennis with myself.” LOL!
90 minutes later I wrapped up the teleseminar totally psyched because I knew I’d expanded people’s vision of how they can use eBay to make some money.
And you know what?
They didn’t care if I said niche = quiche, niche = switch or niche = nicho (the Spanish pronounciation). What people cared about was that I gave them 15 great ideas about what to sell on eBay and how to sell on eBay.
And it was at that point I thought of Oscar Wilde’s quote. “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”
Right then and there I decided I was going to pronounce niche = switch like I always have. I was not going to rework the pronunciation.
Niche = switch is who I am. My favorite food is pizza. I don’t like “nouveau Northwest Cuisine”. But I do like to shop at Nordstrom. No rhyme or reason. It’s just who I am.
How about you?
Are you being true to yourself in your business? Or are you trying to be someone you’re not?
Are you trying to copy someone else’s style because you think they have “it” and you don’t? Or do you think there’s only one persona you can adopt to “make it” online.
There’s a big difference between observing a successful person’s behavior and modeling what they do within the context of your own personality. Versus completely squashing your true essence in the name of “success”.
So are you building an online business that reflects your authentic personality? I hope so. Because it affects the kind of customers you attract. And if you attract the wrong customers your sales will suffer.
Something to percolate on. And if you ever feel yourself tempted to be someone else in your business other than who you really are… remember – everyone else is already taken.