Of all of the essays and short articles I have ever read, the one that has had the greatest impact on me is Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson. If you’ve read my “Pieces of Inspiration” column before, you’ve probably seen me quote from it several times – and for good reason. Every time I read it, which is about once a month or so, it reveals something new to me that leaves me thinking.
Self-Reliance was originally published as part of a book of essays by Emerson in 1841, which means that the language and cultural references are just old enough that it can be a bit difficult for modern eyes to read.
So, today, I thought it might make sense to start walking through this essay, touching on the main points and highlights, and do my best to explain to you why this essay is so incredibly valuable and how it has guided me throughout the years of my adult life. The essay itself is around 10,000 words, so I won’t be quoting the full essay here, but I will be walking through it paragraph by paragraph. If you want to read the full essay, here’s a link to Self-Reliance at the Emerson website.
In order to keep this from turning into an insanely long piece, I’m going to break it into three pieces, each covering roughly a third of this essay. This is the first part; in the future, I’ll link to the remaining parts here (and they’ll link back to this one).
If you’re not a big fan of 19th century writing, don’t fret; you can feel free to skip the quoted parts below, as those just contain direct quotes from Self-Reliance. I’ll reiterate the main points below the quotes and tie them into both my own experiences and the journey of self-improvement and financial independence we all find ourselves on.
I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.
Right off the bat, Emerson reveals the key point of the entire essay. Your own original thoughts – even if they’re strange and run counter to what everyone else is thinking – is the most amazing thing about you. Everyone can copy others. Everyone can just reiterate what everyone else is doing or thinking. The greatest thing we can do as people is to walk our own path of thought and action. Don’t keep up with the Joneses; instead, follow your own standard.
In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
Whenever we see a great piece of art or a great invention or a great human action, we often think to ourselves, “Well, I could have done that.” The difference is that you didn’t do that. You chose not to do that. Now that someone else has done it, if you do it, it is merely an imitation.
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.
Like it or not, all you really have to rely on in this world is you. It’s up to you to build yourself into the person you want to be – that takes character. It’s up to you to find your own unique path in this world, which is made up of a mix of your particular situation and your particular innate talents and your particular experiences. No one else has read the set of things you’ve read. No one else has experienced the things you’ve experienced. No one else has that mix; it’s up to you to do something special with it.
A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope. Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
It is only when we choose to do our best, when we decide not to leave any energy or effort on the table, that we actually achieve something good, and we know in our heart when we’ve done that. Think about the things in your life that you’ve done that were truly great. You knew they were great. How did you know? You knew because you put everything you had into that great thing. You didn’t leave anything behind – you really gave it your all. That’s the pinnacle of human achievement – and it feels good when you do it. Really good.
Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it, so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it. [...] The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you. [...] But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality!
When we were younger, self-reliance was far easier. We could rely on others to take care of our needs, regardless of what we did. The challenge of being self-reliant in adulthood is that we can no longer rely on others to take care of our needs, though we still need them. Your boss is not required to pay you. The people in the community are not required to befriend you.
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.
Society insists that we conform to the behaviors of others. It wants us to follow the same path as everyone else – buying the same things, going to the same restaurants, and watching the same television programs. However, it is not the people who conform in every aspect of their life that find success. It takes non-conformity to stand out and do something different and make some real changes in our lives and in the world around us.
In order to achieve personal finance success, I had to stop conforming to what my immediate social circle expected from me. I had to be self-reliant and blaze a path much different than what all of the patterns in my life had shown me up to that point. I had to stop spending money in a way that was considered normal in that group. It was hard, but without that choice, I couldn’t follow the path I find myself on today.
No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.
Part of the challenge of self-reliance is that we have to rely on our own internal rules of what’s right and what’s wrong instead of relying on all of the cues given to us by society. Often, what society tells us to do – buy this product, work at this type of job, spend your free time watching television or shopping, and so on – is at odds with what it feels like we should be doing according to what our gut tells us.
Trust your gut. There is no real reason not to.
I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right.
Everyone is swayed by the greater society around us. When a perfectly nice person comes up to us and talks about the thing he or she just bought or the thing he or she wants, it seems wholly appropriate to want those things as well or, at the very least, have a heightened interest in that item. When that person expresses ideas to us in language that makes sense to us and seems agreeable, it seems appropriate to at least think about those ideas.
The real challenge, for me, is balancing politeness and interest in that person with a desire to try to follow my own rules. When a close friend talks about something that’s exciting to them, it’s easy to get caught up in that excitement, but the trick is to separate love for that particular item from love for your friend.
You can love your friends and love the community around you without giving those people undue influence over what you’re thinking and what your desires and goals are in life.
Virtues are, in the popular estimate, rather the exception than the rule. There is the man and his virtues. Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world [...]. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle.
If you truly hold a virtue, you should make that a fundamental and regular part of your life. If you aren’t willing to do that, then it is not really a virtue that you hold. It’s easy to be influenced to think that you should care about something and give a token gesture toward it; that’s society’s influence on you.
Save your energies for the things you truly care about and don’t waste your time, money, and energy giving only a token appearance or a token effort toward some thing you think you’re supposed to care about. Get rid of all of those token appearances and efforts in your life and instead commit all of that energy and effort to just one thing that you truly do care about. It’s only in that way that you will actually make a difference in regards to something that truly matters to you.
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.
Taking these kinds of non-conforming steps is hard. Often, it represents a choice – do you do what internally seems right to you? Or do you conform to what other people think and what they want and expect of you? You can’t achieve great things if you always do what others want and expect of you and if you always think the way others around you think.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Jim Rohn, who said “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Why? You are repeatedly influenced by their beliefs, their ideas, their habits, and their routines. They shape you, and it’s hard to break through that and make real change in your life.
For example, if your friends are all big spenders, it’s hard to not be a big spender. If your friends are all conservative, it’s hard to be a liberal (and vice versa). If you live on a block where everyone has shiny new cars, it can be hard to drive around an older used car.
Following what you actually believe and what you actually think might mean upsetting your social routines and your social circle – and that’s hard. However, friendships that are in line with the things you hold to be true in your heart are going to be incredibly deep and powerful friendships. Those are the relationships you should seek out.
The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is, that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers, — under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are.
Whenever you spend your time or energy conforming to a pattern that you don’t believe in, particularly when it results in you making choices you wouldn’t make on your own, is that it wastes your time, your energy, and your money. It causes you to use all of those resources from your life in a way that’s not in line with what you truly believe.
Not only that, it makes it hard for others to really know the true person you are. The more you choose to spend your time, energy, and money on things that don’t match what you truly believe in your heart, the more your friends build a friendship with an image that isn’t really you. It’s hard to have a deep relationship with someone who is actually friends with a false image.
You are far better off being yourself and taking actions and spending time based on what you actually believe and letting friendships and relationships develop based on that true image. If you feel it’s right to be frugal, be frugal – and then connect with people who are also frugal.
For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or in the friend’s parlour. If this aversation had its origin in contempt and resistance like his own, he might well go home with a sad countenance; but the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs. Yet is the discontent of the multitude more formidable than that of the senate and the college.
There’s also the fear of bystanders. What will the person on the sidewalk think of my junk car? What will the person at the bank think when they see my checking account balance? What will the mailman think? What will the person down the block think if I tear up a chunk of my yard to put in a garden?
Honestly, it doesn’t matter what they think. For one, they probably think about you far less than you think that they do. We delude ourselves into overestimating how much other people notice us; it’s called the “spotlight effect.” For another, you usually have no way of knowing whether or not their reaction is positive or negative. For yet another, even if it is negative, who cares? It has no impact on you.
The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. [...] A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.
Yet another challenge is that we are creatures of habits and routine. Our days are made up of piles of normal routines and procedures that we use to get through our days. We often go through the same steps when we first wake up, when we go to the grocery store, when we have some time in the afternoon to spare, and so on.
Those routines are often shaped by the person we used to be many years ago, but that doesn’t always reflect who we are today. Today, we have different beliefs and different desires and different goals. Don’t let the patterns of the past alter what we are choosing to do – or not to do – today.
I hope you’ll check back in a few weeks as we take a look at the middle third of this essay and see what it can teach us about self-reliance in this modern world.