Self-Reliance, Part Three

Six weeks ago, I shared with you the first third of my favorite essay of all time, Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and three weeks ago, I walked through the middle third of that essay. Self-Reliance has profoundly affected my life in countless ways, and I find myself re-reading it every month or two. Each time I read it, it reveals something new to me, giving me something to think about.

The original essay, published in 1841, outlines the value and need for each of us to follow our own path in life, one that relies mostly on our own efforts. It’s a call to do our own thing and to focus our energies in making our lives as independent as possible so that there are minimal consequences for doing our own thing.

Today, we’re going to look at the concluding third of that essay. As before, I’ll be walking through the essay paragraph by paragraph, quoting large relevant pieces and then discussing them in my own words and experiences and relating them to the experiences of others.

As before, 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.

If you would rather read the full essay on your own, you can read the full text of Self-Reliance at the Emerson website. It comes in at around ten thousand words.

Check this lying hospitality and lying affection. Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s.

Simply because someone in your life lies to you does not mean that it’s okay to lie to others. Simply because someone in your life stole from you does not mean that it’s okay to steal from others. Simply because someone in your life values a particular type of material thing does not mean that you have to value it, too.

You are your own person. You can decide for yourself what you should be spending your time, money, and effort on. If you want to be frugal, be frugal – don’t feel like you have to hide it. Stick to the things that are true to you.

More importantly, be proud of those things. Never, ever be ashamed of something you’re passionate about (as long as it’s not harmful to others). Never, ever hide the fact that you’re working to improve yourself. Those are things to be lauded and if others do not laud them, that is indicative of the other person’s flaws, not yours.

Does this sound harsh to-day? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and, if we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last. — But so you may give these friends pain. Yes, but I cannot sell my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility. Besides, all persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the region of absolute truth; then will they justify me, and do the same thing.

The truth is that if you stick to your core principles in everything you do (whatever those principles may be, provided they’re at least somewhat socially positive), others (at least, the ones that matter) will come to admire you over time. They might not necessarily like the ideas you’re basing your life on, but they will respect that you believe in something deeply and truly follow it in the actions of your life.

Yes, of course, some people will always be negative. However, it doesn’t matter what you do – you will never, ever please some people. Over the long run, though, you’ll make many more people happy – including yourself – if you stick to the things that are true to you, not necessarily those that are true to everyone else.

How do you figure that out? Pay attention to your heart. The things that you do that really ring true simply make you feel good because of your positive achievement and your impact on others. When you go to bed at night and think back on your day, the things that make you feel like you’re building something that matters and the things that leave you feeling as though your day was a great one are the things you should look towards.

The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism; and the bold sensualist will use the name of philosophy to gild his crimes. But the law of consciousness abides. There are two confessionals, in one or the other of which we must be shriven. You may fulfil your round of duties by clearing yourself in the direct, or in the reflex way.

Always remember that your actions are not a criticism of others, no matter how they interpret them. Your actions and your words are representative of you and no one else.

It can often feel like a personal judgment when others don’t follow the same patterns that you do. The truth is that it’s not a judgment – it’s simply someone following a different path. Rather than rejecting that person, there is much more value in studying that person and seeing whether or not their path is a useful one.

Learn from others, but don’t judge yourself by them. Everyone has their own path to follow and it’s perfectly fine if someone else follows a different one than your own. Instead, view that exposure to a different path as an opportunity to learn.

If any man consider the present aspects of what is called by distinction society, he will see the need of these ethics. The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become timorous, desponding whimperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force, and do lean and beg day and night continually.

Modern society wants to knock people down and fill us with fear, making even the simplest decision (like letting children play in the yard) seem like risky enterprises.

In the end, the problem is that we’re not making decisions based on core principles. We try to balance the safety of our child with the need for our child to learn independence and leadership – and all that happens is that they don’t really learn either one.

You can commit to financial independence and achieve it. Or, you can halfheartedly pledge allegiance to the idea and also devote yourself to having many of the latest and greatest toys. Guess what? You’ll never catch up with the Joneses nor will you ever achieve financial independence.

Figure out your path, commit to it, and stick to it. Without that, you’ll never achieve much of anything.

If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.

Many people use their first big failure as a reason that they’ll never succeed. They’ll view their current career as their one chance for success and keep applying for jobs in that career path five years after losing their last job.

The truth is that success usually comes to the people that keep trying new things and digging into new approaches. Sure, that person is going to fail – usually many times – but every once in a while that person will hit upon a success and sometimes it’ll be a big one.

If you stop with your first failure or your first middling success, you’ll never build something bigger. Even worse, you’ll find yourself chained to only one stream of income – and if that one dries up, you’re really in a pickle.

Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.

Do the things that ring true in your heart. Don’t just imitate others or do the things that please them.

All of us have experienced moments where we clearly feel as though we’ve done something good. We’ve achieved something great at work. We’ve achieved something wonderful in our personal life. Those are the experiences that we should seek out. The routine of our ordinary days should be such that we’re leading to those great moments. Time that’s simply wasted doesn’t build to anything at all.

Ideally, each day should end with a sense of having done something true to yourself that builds upon what you’ve already done in your life or takes it in a new direction. A day in which you spin your wheels isn’t much of a day at all.

That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have taught Shakspeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton?

Teachers can teach us lessons. Books can teach us things, too. We can learn a lot from the masters.

However, just repeating their steps won’t lead to anything great. Why? That path has already been blazed by others. At best, it can simply set you up to follow your own path.

The journey isn’t simply holding on for a ride on the back of a giant. The journey is climbing to the top and standing on the shoulders of giants. Let the methods and successes of those that came before you be your starting point, not your end goal. Use what they did to forge your own path.

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky.

The more we rely on the services and products of others without the ability to actually do those things for ourselves, the more precarious our situation becomes.

Would you be able to acquire clean water without the local grocery store or the service from your tap? Could you fix a problem with your automobile without the phone number of a repairman? Could you handle a toilet explosion without ringing up the plumber?

In modern life, it’s impossible to know how to do everything. Yet, in times of trouble, it’s the people that do know how to do many things that are going to be the ones that succeed.

Spending your spare time learning new skills can make it easier to handle emergencies without making panicked phone calls and writing big checks to specialists. Not only that, spending your spare time learning new skills can sometimes open up new income streams and career paths for you.

Try something new. The worst thing that can happen is that it doesn’t go perfectly, in which case you’re usually right back where you started. Most of the time, you’ll learn something new and perhaps fix a problem along the way.

It is curious to see the periodical disuse and perishing of means and machinery, which were introduced with loud laudation a few years or centuries before. The great genius returns to essential man. We reckoned the improvements of the art of war among the triumphs of science, and yet Napoleon conquered Europe by the bivouac, which consisted of falling back on naked valor, and disencumbering it of all aids.

This becomes more and more true all of the time. The latest technology ten years ago is considered outdated today. The thing that would change all of our lives just a few years ago is now in the dustbin of history.

It is rarely a good decision to be an early adopter of a new technology. Not only do you pay a big financial premium for that privilege, you’re facing one of two possible outcomes. One, the technology doesn’t catch on and you have a useless device (think of an HD-DVD player). Two, it does catch on, other companies refine it, and a much better version of the same device is on the market in two years for half the price. In either case, you were much better off waiting.

Stick with reliable things that work and do their job. If something just works, day in and day out, there’s no reason to replace it with the newest and latest and greatest.

And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long, that they have come to esteem the religious, learned, and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is.

The more we rely on our stuff to take care of us and entertain us, the less we rely on ourselves for that same purpose. When we rely on the television to provide our entertainment, it becomes harder to entertain ourselves in the absence of television, for example. Furthermore, we come to expect that society will protect all of that property for us through laws and law enforcement.

The truth is that our most valuable property is between our ears. Our skills enable us to achieve great things with or without equipment and our imaginations entertain us and enable us to create new things.

Rather than cultivating an ever-growing pile of property and possessions, how about focusing on developing skills and imagination and focus? Those things will stay with us no matter whether the country goes bankrupt or your employer fails or someone seizes your home via eminent domain. They can’t take your skills and your mind away from you.

So use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her, and gain all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations.

People take chances throughout their lives. Almost every professional and personal choice has some risk embedded in it. Many people never even think of those risks. They tend to blame misfortune on others, not on their own decision to take that risk.

Think of the recently fired person railing against their previous employer. How many times did that person take the risk of loafing on the job? How many evenings did that person take the risk of not building their skills and instead simply treading water in their field? Is it the employer’s fault that the person made these kinds of decisions? Of course not.

Whenever you work to improve yourself and increase your self-reliance, you’re improving your ability to avoid the risks in your life and increasing your ability to take advantage of the opportunities that life hands to you.

A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

Don’t take joy in events that are entirely outside of your control. Instead, take joy in events that were the result of your own efforts.

Take pride in a novel written or a lesson absorbed. Don’t take pride in a football game won that you didn’t participate in. Feel happy at a bathtub fixed or a project completed. Don’t take pride in something someone else actually did.

When you learn to derive most of your enjoyment from your own achievements, you become more and more driven to achieve things for yourself.

I hope you found this walkthrough of Self-Reliance to be valuable and enjoyable. The words of Emerson have inspired me quite often, and I sincerely hope his ideas bring something useful into your life.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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