However, this appears to be a misattribution. The real source of the quote seems to be from an American psychiatrist and host of a radio show offering counselling to callers. In 1993 David Viscott published the book Finding Your Strength in Difficult Times: A book of meditations. In that book Viscott included this three-part offering:
‘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.’1
Viscott’s advice is germane in its succinctness. After 30 years it is perhaps even more so, as it could be argued that we are living in more difficult times now than in 1993.
I wonder what sort of gift people are discovering, and where they are finding it? Are the gifts we discover appropriate and meaningful?
How many of us search for our gift outside of ourselves, as if we were looking for a gift to buy for a friend in a store? We go into the store with no real sense of the person we are wanting to give a gift to; we just want to buy a gift, almost any gift will do. We buy the gift to satisfy ourselves rather than thinking about the recipient of the gift.
Then there are those of us who wait until the last minute and join the rush, such as at Christmas time with hundreds of others, to heedlessly buy anything simply so that we have something to wrap in gift paper to pass on.
Or, are we the gift-giver who looks for the latest gadget because it has been hyped up on television by some celebrity or other. We purchase it because it is new, because it is the latest thing, or because it shows that we are “up with the fashion.”
Maybe we are none of these. Maybe we are one of those rare people who create our own gift, Maybe we are aware of the talents we have been gifted with. Maybe we explore those talents and work to develop them (as Viscott recommends) so that we become proficient and skilled. Then perhaps, we think about who we intend the gift for, and we design a gift, utilising our talents, specifically for the person we wish to give the gift to.
Undoubtedly, if we are one of those in the last of these metaphorical scenarios then the gift is likely to be greatly appreciated and is likely to be of lasting quality.
These scenarios are, of course, all metaphorical. How many of us discover our gift in life? Then, how many of us work to develop that gift? Ultimately, how many of us give that gift away?
Viscott’s gift bears remarkable resemblance to Bill Plotkin’s concept of a person’s unique ecological niche (which he also refers to as one’s personal soul.) Discovering our eco-niche is, according to Plotkin, ‘what provides us with our ultimate personal meaning, our truest identity.’2
For more than four decades Plotkin has possibly done more than any other psychologist or psychiatrist to help people discover their eco-niche. He would agree with Viscott that ‘the work of life is to develop it.’ This work is crucial. One does not just discover one’s gift and then give it away. One must work with it, refine it, and explore it fully before it can be given away in the most beneficial manner possible.
Furthermore, our gift is not found outside of ourselves (in a store,) nor can it be rushed into (like the last-minute Christmas shopper.) Certainly, our gift (eco-niche) is not the latest thing, it is not something we purchase simply because it is fashionable.
Our true gift is that of the fourth scenario above. Once we discover it, we learn to craft it, and we learn how to use it so that it is of benefit to those around us, including the more-than-human species.
In these difficult times it is our personal gift (our unique ecological niche) that we must discover and develop, so that true Adults and true Elders can emerge.3
What gift are we developing?
1. Note that Viscott reverses the order of purpose and meaning. This is significant; meaning follows purpose. This is the same order that Plotkin (see later in the main text) ascribes. Note also that Viscott includes the vital second step (development of one’s gift) which has been left out of the supposed-Picasso quotation.
2. Bill Plotkin, The Journey of Soul Initiation: A Field Guide for Visionaries, Evolutionaries, and Revolutionaries, New World Library, Novato, California, 2021.
3. Bill Plotkin writes that, ‘…contemporary societies have very few real elders – plenty of “olders” but not many people of wisdom capable of effectively caring for the greater Earth community. However, a much more devastating and incisive cultural critique is to observe that the modern world has very few true adults – and that this is precisely the root cause of our current crises.’ Op. cit., p 11