The “Books with Impact” series takes a deeper look at specific books that have had a profound impact on my financial, professional, and personal growth by extracting specific points of advice from those books and looking at how I’ve applied them in my life with successful results. The previous entry in this series covered Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin.
I was first introduced to Walden by my high school English teacher, who told me more than once that it was something I should revisit throughout my life because it would read much differently at different stages in my life experience and intellectual growth. He was completely right.
Walden is a book written by Henry David Thoreau and first published in 1854, in which Thoreau describes his experience of spending two years, two months, and two days living in a small house that he built himself on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. He spent that time in near-solitude, rarely seeing another living person and doing most life tasks for himself.
Walden compresses that experience, for narrative purposes, into a single year, and the book’s overall purpose is to make the argument that being close to nature, being comfortable in solitude, and spending a lot of time in contemplation combine together to transcend the “desperate” existence that most people feel in their day to day lives.
So, why is this a “book with impact” that’s being discussed on a personal finance site? Walden essentially boils down to an argument for the benefits of self-reliance and minimal spending, of spending time in contemplation and enjoying nature rather than in the artificial environments we create for ourselves. In an era where people spend hours upon hours daily staring at screens and being constantly distracted, in a world where money woes bring untold stress and the vast majority of Americans live a paycheck to paycheck existence, Walden‘s message is a powerful one.
Having said that, let me forewarn you that reading Walden is a slow process. Thoreau writes in a very dense fashion and sometimes will rapidly hop around from serious analysis to sarcasm and flights of fancy. He also uses somewhat dated language; while I personally find him much easier to read than other authors of the 19th century, it’s not fully written in modern language. I consider the effort to be worth it, but this is one of those books that deserves to be read slowly with a little notebook open beside you to jot down interesting ideas and thoughts, which you’ll find constantly while reading it.
The full text of Walden is freely available via the Project Gutenberg website; you can simply click here to start reading. If you prefer to read it in the Kindle app on your phone, you can open the mobile page for Walden and, in most mobile web browsers, just click on the Kindle link and it’ll automatically open in your Kindle app so you can read it like any other e-book and your place will be saved.
What follows are some of the interesting ideas that I took note of during my most recent reading of Walden, ones that I felt were particularly relevant for the modern challenge of spending less, finding personal independence, and being in control of our resources and of our mind.
But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal.
Thoreau’s point here is that we sacrifice a lot of our lives working in order to earn external rewards, and those external rewards fade quite quickly.
Think of the many, many things we buy, use for a while, and then discard, or the things that we buy and don’t even use at all.
Think of the piles of stuff stowed away in our closets that we don’t use and will likely never use, that we’ll probably eventually throw away or sell for a pittance or let our children deal with.
What is the good in working for all of that stuff? Why not work for the internal things? Why not work instead to have a great sense of peace and security? Why not work so that you have the time to understand the world more deeply and feel at peace with the big questions in life?
The thing is, working primarily for those internal things often means that you don’t have to work nearly as hard. You don’t really need much to provide basic care for yourself, and if you then spend most of your energy on finding true inner contentment… well, isn’t that a pretty good life?
It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.
This is a quote that marks the timeframe in which Thoreau wrote Walden. While he is unquestionably an abolitionist, he’s also aware that slavery does exist and talks of it as an ongoing human condition in widespread use, which is true for his time.
However, his core point here is that we are often the worst of all masters to ourselves because we can never escape that slavery. Wherever we go, we’re there. If that voice in our head is a cruel, critical master, full of nothing but contempt for the people that we are, that’s perhaps the cruelest outcome of all.
It is hard to find joy when your internal voice is constantly criticizing you.
It’s also easy to fall into situations where we’re tempted to find easy solutions to that criticism. If the voice in your head is shouting at you that you’re not good enough in some way and then a product comes along telling you how it will improve that very thing, it becomes incredibly tempting. The marketer and that foul voice in your head are working in tandem to empty your pockets.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.
From the debts we owe to others to the critical voices in our head, from our desire to keep up with the people next to us to our desire to find pleasure because we “deserve” it, we’re often rushed along through life, through a series of hard choices that we sometimes feel stuck in.
The thing is, those chains never really go away. I can find temporary peace when I go on a long hike in the woods, but the internal monologue comes with me, as do many of the worries of life.
The only escape from it that I have found is to turn away from materialistic aims and try to soothe the feelings within to the best of my ability, to eliminate as many sources of stress and worry from my life as I can, and to drink deeply from the natural world (those long hikes, for example) and from great books.
Those things don’t cost money at all, but they do require some realignment of life’s priorities, often in an uncomfortable way.
For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.
This is the culmination of what Thoreau’s earlier points are. He essentially works for about six weeks out of the year and earns enough in those six weeks by his own effort to pay for his expenses for the year. The other forty six weeks, he spends it in “study,” which, as we learn later on in the piece, means spending time in nature, in reading, in contemplation, and in the company and worthwhile conversation of people of his own choosing.
This is a very true expression of the often-quoted saying “work to live, don’t live to work.” Work is a necessary act for him, providing just enough so that he could get on with living.
He didn’t work to accumulate material possessions. He didn’t work to acquire property or to appear better than the neighbors. He didn’t work to acquire the latest gadgetry.
He worked so that he could spend his life doing things that brought him peace and contentment – spending time in nature, reading, contemplating, and having good conversations with thoughtful people.
What things do you do that truly do bring you peace and contentment? You’ll probably find that, if you take this seriously and back away from what you think you’re supposed to say, your answers involve very simple things, too. Mine involve reading and spending time in nature, just like Thoreau; I also find a ton of contentment in playing challenging games (like chess, for example) and in time spent with my family, teaching my children life skills and sharing experiences with my wife and with my children.
These aren’t activities that require tons of activity or tons of possessions. A lot of my possessions are centered around things that have little to do with the things in my life that provide the most peace and contentment.
As I preferred some things to others, and especially valued my freedom, as I could fare hard and yet succeed well, I did not wish to spend my time in earning rich carpets or other fine furniture, or delicate cookery, or a house in the Grecian or the Gothic style just yet.
In the end, Thoreau valued freedom above all else – freedom to spend his time in the way that he most saw fit, in the things discussed above that brought him peace and contentment.
What keeps you from doing this? Why is your life not centered around investing the bare minimum time needed to enable you to spend the rest of your life engaged in the things that bring you the most peace and contentment?
It is so, so easy to come up with weak answers to that question, justifications for why we don’t live this way. Instead of listening to and following those justifications, perhaps our lives would be better off if we ignored those justifications a little and strove for freedom instead.
In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.
When I read this, I am reminded of the fact that when I am not pressed up against the wall with financial demands and workplace issues, work is often quite enjoyable. There are few things I’ve enjoyed more in my life than being deeply engaged in a project, calling forth my whole mind and spirit to really accomplish something challenging, and feeling great when it happens.
Work is joyful in that context. It becomes drudgery when we have to earn certain high levels of money in order to pay our bills and pay off our debts, which usually means that in order to earn enough to make that happen, we have to submit ourselves to doing a lot of things we really don’t enjoy. We often end up facing a lot of stress and anger, both from our coworkers and from ourselves.
The best route out of this that we have at our disposal is to be minimal in our spending. What do we really need? Is going beyond that worth exposing ourselves to more of the stressful and negative aspects of work? Is it worth earning less to have more joyful work?
Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.
By choosing a life of minimal need and want, Thoreau found a deep peace that caused him to awake cheerful at the promise of the day ahead.
He didn’t have much in terms of wealth or possessions, but he had what he needed and valued most: freedom. He had basic shelter, food, nearby access to clean water, clothing, a warm place to sleep, and he was surrounded by opportunity to engage in the things that really lifted his spirits.
What more does one really need in life? What are we chasing that’s more than this?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.
Thoreau was strongly encouraged by the ability of a person to improve themselves by their own continuous and conscious effort. We are all capable of being more than we currently are if we choose to direct our efforts in that way.
We can be better people. We can find contentment. We can be healthier and more virtuous. It’s up to us.
There is no magic machine that will do those things for us, either. In the end, it is our own choice that will make us better. You can have all the workout machines in the world, but it is still up to you to choose to exercise. You can have the best alarm clock in the world, but it is still up to you to rise out of bed in the morning.
What will you make of yourself? Remember, you don’t need stuff to do this – you already have everything you need.
With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike. In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor accident.
Thoreau is making a subtle argument here for being a lifelong learner. If we spend at least some of our time learning new things and contemplating those new things into a deeper understanding of the world, and then we share at least some of the truth that we uncover, we’re doing something truly timeless, far more than collecting wealth.
Think about it this way. What will have a more profound affect on the world – buying a latte at Starbucks, or spending an hour learning about something new that unlocks understanding in your head which you’re able to share with a few people? Which will have a more profound and lasting effect on you?
His argument that ideas are timeless and things are far from it is one worth thinking about.
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
In this final quote, Thoreau is making the point that if a person rushes toward their dreams, that person is in danger of losing them if there is not a firm foundation underneath them.
What is that firm foundation? Well, certainly, a financial foundation is part of that. Knowing that your meals and shelter is secure for the foreseeable future is undoubtedly going to help make things more secure in your life.
It’s more than that, though. Another part of a foundation is that you have a good character and good values to rest your life endeavors upon, so that your own personal failings don’t undermine everything you’ve worked for. Yet another part is the things you’ve learned, and another part is the core relationships you have.
It is easy to strive for great things in life – a beautiful house, a booming career, a wonderful partner. However, if you ignore the foundations under them – a strong character that won’t fail you, good values, a firm sense of your finances, strong and healthy relationships, a good understanding of the world – the great things you build won’t suddenly fall apart underneath you.
It is worth pointing out that I took note of many other things while reading Walden – thoughts on human relationships, on morality, on appreciation of nature, on doing things for myself, on the power of reading challenging books. Walden is far from one-dimensional; in fact, it reads more like a series of essays that are interconnected by the overall narrative of life on the shore of Walden Pond.
This is not the easiest read in the world, but it offers up a great deal of value if you take it slowly, read it in pieces, jot down a few notes, and reflect on them. It will open up some very deep thoughts about one’s direction in life and how one should participate in the modern world and what one owes to themselves. Those are weighty questions, indeed, but they form the true foundation of personal finance.