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 the muscle. He has got a fine Geneva watch, but he has lost 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 solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His notebooks impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents
– Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841
I checked a book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays out of the library on my college campus based on the recommendation of a college professor that I had built a casual friendship with. She had seen me reading something different and something challenging in the hallway of the English building on campus and eventually started dropping recommendations my way – and one of the first ones was to “read Emerson, slowly, so you can really grasp what he’s saying.”
There were a dozen essays or so in that collection, but the one that jumped out at me then and has stuck with me through the years is Self-Reliance. It’s not the easiest thing to read, as Emerson uses a style of English almost two hundred years old that seems almost foreign to our natural language today, but there is so much useful truth in there that it’s well worth absorbing.
Simply put, Emerson argues that the more we rely on others, the less control we have over our own life. He looks at that idea from a number of angles: intellectual independence, emotional independence, physical independence, and so on.
Toward the end of the essay (which I quoted above), Emerson makes the point that when we become reliant on technologies that we don’t fully understand, we cede some control of our lives to other people. Think about it for a moment. If you don’t know how to fix the plumbing in your house, you’re not in control of the situation if a pipe blows – the plumber is. If you can’t replace a switch in your home, you’re reliant on the handyman/electrician.
Those reliances are very expensive. Plumbers know that you’re reliant on them for your life to continue as normal, so they can charge exorbitant rates and take their sweet time solving the problem. This costs you money. If a pipe blows at two in the morning on a Saturday and you can’t fix it quickly, not only are you going to have to pay the plumber a huge amount to come out on Sunday, you’re also going to have to deal with the cost of a great deal of cleanup and (possibly) repair of other things in your home.
This extends to every aspect of life. If you know how to cook a good, quick meal at home, you’re not reliant on restaurants. If you grow your own garden (or are at least capable of it), you’re not reliant on the produce section at the grocery store. If you learn how to do most of the maintenance on your car, you’re not reliant on the garage.
The fewer things you’re reliant on, the easier it is to move towards financial independence, too. You can handle emergencies without having to pay for an expert to come in. You can make day-to-day choices that save you money (like preparing food at home). Even better, your overall living expenses go down, meaning the threshold of savings you need to be truly financially independent is lower.
That Emerson wrote about this very thing in 1843 simply shows the universal truth of the idea: self-reliance always pays off.