“The world is your oyster!”
Anything and everything is possible! Life is full of precious pearls (aka opportunities) that are yours for the taking; you just need to get out of bed and seize the day!
This idiom is inspirational, motivational, and certainly worthy of being embroidered onto a pillow or perhaps made into wall art that sits nicely above the couch.
Yet, it’s wildly wrong.
Only 1 in every 10,000 wild oysters will produce a pearl. Even if you roll up your sleeves and do the dirty work to crack the oyster open, chances are that it will reveal nothing more than a quick, albeit tasty, snack.
Getting a pearl is far harder than embracing a “carpe diem” lifestyle of simply waking up and showing up.
Given the rarity of pearls from wild oysters, “the world is my oyster” seems far more depressing than motivating. You work and work until your knuckles bleed to stay afloat mentally and financially. Pain now, reward later. It’ll all be worth it in the end! The hard work has accumulated, and the big break is coming. Finally, you make the crack. Maybe it’s a job interview, or a big audition, or a meeting about a promotion. If we are cracking into our metaphorical oyster, that means there’s a mere 1 in 10,0000 chance of being successful. I don’t know about you, but those aren’t odds I love.
Where Does the Idiom Come From?
Upon a little time spent with my pal Google, I discovered that the original phrase comes from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Window, and in context, it’s a little less warm and fuzzy and a little more violent.
In the original context, the conversation goes:
Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny.
Pistol: Why then the world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.
Falstaff: Not a penny.
Trying to make Shakespeare has never been my strong suit, I’ll leave the interpretation to No Sweat Shakespeare:
“It’s clear that the original metaphor of the world being an oyster had violent connotations. If you don’t give me money I will have no alternative than to use violence to get it. I will get what I want by robbery and murder. There is also a veiled threat against Falstaff personally, from this thoroughly disreptutable man, Pistol.
It’s an interesting metaphor as oysters are notoriously difficult to open and we use special sharp tools to do it. In a sense one has to use violence to open an oyster. So with Pistol we have the image of him forcing the oyster to get the pearl, and of him using his sword – making it doubly violent. It’s interesting too, that the image is of a food of those who live near the Thames, routinely eaten but which very occasionally would offer one a life changing discovery – just like life. Life can be hard but if you keep at it it will sometimes unexpectedly give you a reward. That’s why this quote ‘the world’s mine oyster’ has evolved into a favourite metaphor for life.”
This interpretation makes more sense. If we want something, we need to work hard for it. Pearls don’t come easy, and neither does life. You have to put in blood, sweat, and tears to reveal the bounty of your labor i.e the pearl.
But I can’t help but dive in deeper.
A pearl is a pretty amazing thing. It’s journey begins as some sort of irritant, perhaps a grain of sand, that has found it’s way into a mollusk. Oh no! Intruder alert intruder alert! The mollusk furiously unleashes a substance called nacre to coat the unwelcomed speck. Nacre is made of aragonite, which is a shiny, lustrous substance. Layer after layer of nacre eventually results in a stunning, iridescent pearl, and the process can take anywhere from 2 to 4 years.
Us humans love shiny, beautiful, rare objects, but we also tend to be lazy. Instead of cracking away through tens of thousands of mollusks hoping to find a pearl, people figured out in 1893 that it was possible to implant an irritant into the mollusks to ensure a beautiful pearl.
Saying “the world is my cultivated oyster” would be a more accurate phrase.
Yet, the implication that life just hands us treasures doesn’t sit well with me.
Maybe we are looking at it all wrong. Maybe the world isn’t “my oyster” in the sense that it’s a physical, outside object. Instead, we are the pearls, and the world is the oyster surrounding us.
We enter the world as little irritants, crying, kicking, screaming, defenseless, and small. The world, our oyster, then lathers on layer after layer of nacre in the form of various life events; learning how to ride a bike, graduating from high school, surviving a first job so on and so forth. If we withstand the pressure of each layer and stay strong, we eventually become a dazzling pearl.
Waking up and seizing the day isn’t enough. We need to work hard and weather the storm. Then, just maybe, if we persevere, the thousands of layers of life experience will culminate in something spectacular.
“The world is my oyster, and I am a pearl.”
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