There’s a fairly famous quote by George Bernard Shaw that I came across recently. It is:
The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they cannot find them, make them.
In the recent occurrence, the person quoting it was obviously approving and gave the source as “Mrs Warren.”
The quote is actually from Shaw’s 1893 play Mrs Warren’s Profession and is said by the character of Vivie, not Mrs Warren herself. Most of the rest of the scene following the quote is a repudiation of the sentiment expressed.
Let’s unpack it a little more:
The quote is famous and I first heard it during a speech at my high school graduation. I assume the speaker had gone through a book of quotations and picked it as fitting the message he wanted to convey. These days you would search for quotations online.
Sometimes a slightly longer version is given:
People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they cannot find them, make them.
It was years after my high school graduation that I was in a theatre in London’s West End, watching a production of the play, and was astonished to hear the quote word for word. I hadn’t realised till then that it was by Shaw, hadn’t realised that it was from a play, and definitely hadn’t realised that it was expressing a character’s view and wasn’t necessarily Shaw’s opinion at all.
As it happens, what the character Vivie says in full is:
Everybody has some choice, mother. The poorest girl alive may not be able to choose between being Queen of England or Principal of Newnham; but she can choose between ragpicking and flowerselling, according to her taste. People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.
If you read or better still, watch the play, by this part of the scene you will have already learnt details about the character. She is a young woman and has grown up wealthy. She is also highly intelligent, having achieved equivalent grades to the third wrangler at Cambridge. That’s an obscure reference these days but it refers to the third highest scorer in the undergraduate maths degree at Cambridge. More than 125 years after the play was written it remains a benchmark for formidable intellectual achievement. Philippa Fawcett had achieved a higher mark than the first wrangler in 1890 and this is presumably where Shaw got the idea for the reference.
But like I said, the rest of the scene argues against what the character has just stated. The title of the play is “Mrs Warren’s Profession” and the reason for this title is the hidden scandal of how Mrs Warren makes a living: she is a former prostitute and now a brothel owner. The wealthy and middle-aged Mrs Warren was only able to climb out of poverty, to find or make the circumstances she wanted, by turning to this disreputable trade.
It’s not exactly the stuff of stirring quotations.
Of course, Shaw also explored wealth and class in his more famous play Pygmalion, which was adapted into the even more famous and popular musical My Fair Lady, the musical rather missing the point of the play. But in both plays, Shaw comes from a recognisably leftist position that the world is unfair to the poor and disadvantaged. In other words, his own opinion is presumably the opposite of the famous quotation.
One can easily reject Shaw’s views and to a certain extent one absolutely should. He was an anti-Semite and held other unpleasant beliefs. You can also argue quite convincingly that opportunities for women have improved somewhat since 1893. Nonetheless, given the context of the play, it really isn’t the best inspirational quotation.