Word count: ~8,000
Time to read: ~30 minutes
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Kyle Eschenroeder.
“A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
“Thereupon many statesmen and philosophers came to Alexander [the Great] with their congratulations, and he expected that Diogenes of Sinope also, who was tarrying in Corinth, would do likewise. But since that philosopher took not the slightest notice of Alexander, and continued to enjoy his leisure in the suburb Craneion, Alexander went in person to see him; and he found him lying in the sun. Diogenes raised himself up a little when he saw so many people coming towards him, and fixed his eyes upon Alexander. And when that monarch addressed him with greetings, and asked if he wanted anything, ‘Yes,’ said Diogenes, ‘stand a little out of my sun.’” –Plutarch, Alexander
Alexander was so impressed with Diogenes that he told his followers “who were laughing and jesting about the philosopher” that “truly, if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”
What was it about a philosopher famous for living in a clay jar on the street, eschewing material possessions, and flaunting convention that so impressed the wealthy, empire-conquering king?
Diogenes did not need to please Alexander because he needed nothing from him. Not money, food, or shelter. More importantly, he didn’t need approval or blessings.
Being as powerful and famous as he was, Alexander transformed everyone around him into sniveling sycophants. It’s no surprise that the self-reliance displayed by Diogenes’ contempt earned the king’s respect.
Diogenes’ simple, ascetic lifestyle may seem to exemplify self-reliance, but these externals are not its essence.
Rather, self-reliance is a mindset, an approach to life that can be adopted whether you live in a wilderness cabin or a “little box” in the suburbs. Self-reliance is about living a life in which you make decisions and opinions with primary respect to your own experience of the world. You trust yourself. You’re true to yourself.
This doesn’t mean living in a void, it just means that we’re conscious about our relationship to the world and other people. It’s not rejecting external advice outright, but trusting ourselves enough to sift through which advice is worthy. We’re aware of the agendas of others, and don’t let them sway us from our self-determined path. Self-reliance doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting all established customs and values, it just means experimenting with them so we know if they work for us. It’s putting stock in our inner wisdom.
This was the kind of self-reliance Rudyard Kipling celebrated in “If”:
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch”
This was also the kind of self-reliance that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about in his masterwork, Self-Reliance. It wasn’t about living off the grid, farming, or beards (though his self-reliant friend Thoreau had a great one). It was about maintaining sovereignty over the self in a connected, civilized world.
This is the kind of self-reliance, though exalted by the philosophers of the past, that remains acutely relevant today.
In fact, there may never have been a time when developing this type of self-reliance has been more important. We’re over-politicized and polarized. Advertisements are creeping further and further into our content, making them less obvious. The Internet has given us two or two-thousand sides to every story. Social media feeds allow our peers to weigh in on our every decision. The comment section of a blog post allows us to see what other people thought of an article before we’ve formed our own opinion. It’s increasingly difficult to live a life that is inner-directed rather than other-directed.
In order to operate effectively in this kind of autonomy-sapping environment, developing a strong sense of self-reliance is crucial.
Just as Emerson’s project of self-reliance didn’t mean withdrawing from the world, but engaging it differently, so will ours. We’re not interested in escaping society, but we don’t need to be subsumed by it either. We won’t be rejecting our culture wholesale, but taking a different, more intentional, centered, and effective stance towards it.
The development of that stance begins with dispensing with the cultural myths surrounding self-reliance and coming to understand what it is not. From there, we’ll begin to grapple with what it is, and how to embrace it more fully.
(Art of Manliness BONUS: Self-Reliance has been one of the most important pieces of writing in my life. I’ve read it at least once a year for a decade now, and each year it means something new. I hope the following ideas will inspire you to read the essay in its entirety. To support you in this, I’ve put together a FREE reading guide.)
What Self-Reliance Is Not
“The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard…and the bold sensualist will use the name of philosophy to gild his crimes. But the law of consciousness abides.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
Self-Reliance means respecting our own experiences, ideas, and traits.
The best of those things.
It’s not an excuse to be lazy, immoral, confrontational, distant, or an asshole in general.
It’s not an excuse to mock the ideals of others, be narcissistic, or hurt others in any way.
Sartre recognized that “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
Notice the word “condemned” — the freedom self-reliance offers isn’t fatalistic or nihilistic. It means taking on more responsibility, just a higher grade responsibility than we’re usually saddled with.
Self-reliance is a call to be true to yourself in the most important way possible.
To try and use it as a way to justify the worst parts of yourself is a terrible mistake.
Doing It All On Your Own
Self-reliance is associated with 100% bootstrapping your life.
But the notion that we’ve got to do it all on our own is absurd. We’d all die as infants if it weren’t for the extreme generosity of our parents.
There’s no such thing as a purely self-made man. Every day we benefit from thousands of years of collective human ingenuity.
There aren’t many things of significance you can build entirely with your own two hands. You need others. After all, Thoreau’s Walden Pond was owned by Emerson.
The rest of these “is not’s” follow from this premise.
“Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him all doors are flung wide: him all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire. Our love goes out to him and embraces him, because he did not need it. We solicitously and apologetically caress and celebrate him, because he held on his way and scorned our disapprobation.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Self-reliance is not about elevating ourselves over everything else, believing we’re an entirely self-sufficient, all-powerful island. Rather, it’s about heightening our connection to powers greater than ourselves.
A lot of the ideas and excerpts of Self-Reliance may be misunderstood if read through a narcissistic lens, in which you possess everything you need to be successful on your own. But true self-reliance is, in practice, obedience to something bigger (this can be religious or not — we’re talking about things unexplainable or unmeasurable to us). Self-trust is also trust in the Big Other:
“As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends. Caratach, in Fletcher’s Bonduca, when admonished to inquire the mind of the god Audate, replies,
‘His hidden meaning lies in our endeavors;
Our valors are our best gods.’”
Self-reliance doesn’t advocate taking matters into your own hands as the sole means of success; rather, action, the exercise of will, becomes a kind of sacred act, a prayer, that allows the individual to tap into powers outside the self.
As it is often put, “God helps those who help themselves.”
Self-reliant action is magnetic. It doesn’t rely on total knowledge or a perfect plan, just trust enough in oneself to move forward.
When we build anything, the more energy we’re willing to pour into it the more others want to help us. I see this with businesses all the time. An entrepreneur pitching a new business isn’t nearly as persuasive as one who’s worked on the business for two years himself and has traction.
We’ve heard this said many times in many ways.
Thoreau declared 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.”
And of course, Goethe’s famous (loosely translated) couplet:
“What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
People throughout history have been amazed by the power of self-trusting action. It is worth a leap of faith to see just what they were talking about.
Being a Loner
“One is really only alive when one enjoys the good will of others.” –Goethe
Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless was radically individualistic. He raged against society and eventually fled to its fringes, then decided to leave it all together for a while. He found himself alone, sick, and starving in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. His final realization? “Happiness is only real when shared.”
Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone wants to be alone so bad, but quickly realizes how important other people are — even if they kind of suck. He needed space, but not that much. His mistake wasn’t in wanting solitude, but in thinking he’d be better off never seeing his family again.
Self-reliance is often symbolized by the hermit who lives alone and doesn’t need or associate with other people. And certainly, as we’ll see, solitude is an essential aspect of self-reliance. But the solitude we need is more nuanced than that.
The trick isn’t to always be alone or always be surrounded by people. The trick is doing what’s right for you at the moment. Introverts will need more solitude than extroverts, and extroverts more social situations. But both need both.
If we’re too embedded in the cacophony of civilization, the sound of our own thoughts will be drowned out.
But if we’re too removed from society it becomes difficult to know what we know. The understanding we gain in solitude remains impotent unless it’s exposed/tested/run up against society in some way. Nietzsche noticed this in his own ideas: “…all truths that are kept silent become poisonous.”
In the German philosopher’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the titular character would rotate between a hermit-like life and a teaching type of life where he brought his messages to society. Nietzsche himself followed this pattern throughout his life.
We see this in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as well. Every hero must go out to adventure, usually beginning the quest alone. But the journey wasn’t over ‘til he returned to share the elixir (usually some special knowledge) with society.
Excess society is an asylum that will overpower our own thoughts; excess solitude is a vacuum that will desiccate them.
Healthy, intermittent solitude is a greenhouse where our best ideas can flourish and grow.
Seeking autonomy not only doesn’t preclude building relationships with individuals, it also doesn’t preclude fostering genuine concern for those individuals, as well as concern for the welfare of society as a whole.
Emerson, in fact, formed deep friendships with his family and other people, and often gathered with them to discuss philosophy and sharpen each other’s thinking. He and other members of these sort of mutual improvement societies took the strength they gathered from their meetings, and, rather than being insular and looking to completely withdraw from the world, actively sought to engage it and were often quite politically active. Self-reliance was a means of helping others; you can only reach down to pull another up, if you’re on solid ground yourself.
Emerson understood that the more our actions involve us in something beyond ourselves, the better off we are. In fact, an interest in serving others becomes a positive feedback loop for our self-reliance — the more self-reliant we are, the more we can help others, and the more we try to help others, the more self-reliant we become.
While we often think of responsibilities and personal entanglements as detracting from one’s individualistic sense of self, caring for other people paradoxically can be one of the best ways of finding ourselves, as Milton Mayeroff explains in On Caring:
“Direction that comes from the growth of the other should not be confused with being ‘other directed,’ where this refers to the kind of conformity in which I lose touch with both myself and the other. Rather, by following the growth of the other, I am more responsive to myself, just as the musician is more in touch with himself when he is absorbed in the needs of the music.”
In fact, connecting with other people is the main way we find our place in the world, as Mayeroff further unpacks:
“Through caring for certain others, by serving them through caring, a man lives the meaning of his own life. In the sense in which a man can ever be said to be at home in the world, he is at home not through dominating, or explaining, or appreciating, but through caring and being cared for.”
Self-reliance doesn’t mean the selfish refusal to sacrifice oneself. Rather, it means that we know our duties and passions in life and give ourselves totally to pursuing them to the point that we don’t consider the energy and resources spent to be sacrifices. Mayeroff continues:
“Obligations that derive from devotion are a constituent element in caring, and I do not experience them as forced on me or as necessary evils; there is a convergence between what I feel I am supposed to do and what I want to do. The father who goes for the doctor in the middle of the night for his sick child does not experience this as a burden; he is simply caring for the child. Similarly, in working out a philosophical concept the need to reflect on it again and again from similar and dissimilar points of view is not a burden forced on me; I am simply caring for the idea.”
Self-reliance is about being true to ourselves. The surprise is that this means allowing one’s “self” to disappear more often.
What Self-Reliance Is
“Self-trust is the first secret of success, the belief that if you are here the authorities of the universe put you here, and for cause, or with some task strictly appointed you in your constitution, and so long as you work at that you are well and successful. It by no means consists in rushing prematurely to a showy feat that shall catch the eye and satisfy spectators. It is enough if you work in the right direction.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and Solitude
The Ability to Be Alone
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” –Blaise Pascal
All the above caveats aside, solitude is foundational for self-reliance. If we can’t be alone, we can’t be self-reliant.
Nietzsche describes a danger of this inability in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “The lonely one offers his hand too quickly to whomever he encounters.” If we’re afraid to be alone, we’ll accept the company of just about anybody.
If we spend our time alone itching to be in the company of others, how can we discover what we truly think? If we’re forever embedded in the “madding crowd” it can be difficult to parse our inherited, default desires from the things that we truly want to want.
Emerson describes the state of mind we must find in order to think clearly:
“Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable.”
And warns of the difficulty of keeping these insights when going into the world:
“These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members…. The virtue in most request is conformity…. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”
Note that the goal is not to remain in solitude, but to reestablish our connection to ideas that disappear when we’re engaged in society.
This is not just important for those we think of as needing to remain close to the muses of inspiration, like writers and artists. Regular retreats into solitude offer serious ROI for business people as well.
In fact, three of the most successful businessmen of our time have used this practice quite successfully.
Warren Buffett famously removed himself from Wall Street to set up shop in Omaha because his priorities are different than that of most CEOs or investors. Instead of spending his time traveling, speaking, having meetings, and rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers of the Big Apple, he lives quietly in the Midwest and reads as much as he can.
When Bill Gates was running Microsoft he would take two “Think Weeks” a year to envision the future of one of the most successful companies in the world. He would go off by himself to read and think to gain clarity about what strategy Microsoft should pursue.
Steve Jobs said:
“If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away. The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to continue to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to say, ‘Bye. I have to go. I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.’ And they go and hibernate somewhere. Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently.”
If we don’t get out from under the opinions of our society we may never be able to hear our own unique ideas. Sometimes the best thing we can do to help the world is to take some time away from it.
Having an Inner Scorecard
“The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an Inner Scorecard or an Outer Scorecard…If all the emphasis is on what the world’s going to think about you, forgetting about how you really behave, you’ll wind up with an Outer Scorecard. Now my dad: He was a hundred percent Inner Scorecard guy. He was really a maverick. But he wasn’t a maverick for the sake of being a maverick. He just didn’t care what other people thought.” –Warren Buffett (Alice Schroeder’s Snowball)
If you try to play tennis on a beach volleyball court you’re not going to have any fun at all. You’ve got to know the game you’re playing and the score you’re trying to make.
If you don’t know what race you’re running, life is a minefield full of things you should have accomplished by now. I might be having a great day, hop on Facebook, see a friend with a kid which reminds me that my mom wants grandkids and then the shit, I’m supposed to have kids by now section of my brain goes off.
Most envy or status anxiety has less to do with what we haven’t done and more to do with our lack of focus on what we’re doing. Self-reliance is caring about the game you’re playing, not trying to win all the games. Comparison and competition with others aiming at the same target might be helpful–but only within a limit.
Self-reliance is rejecting the standards and rules given to you by your biology and by society, deliberately developing your own code, then guiding and evaluating all your actions by this inner scorecard.
“When private men shall act with original views, the lustre will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of gentlemen.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
Being self-reliant means that we don’t wait for cultural acceptance to do what is right. We don’t behave based on the narrative society has developed for our social class, but what we believe the right thing to do is. This doesn’t necessarily mean we create values from scratch: we can choose which communities or people celebrate the best values and join them.
The impoverished philosopher Diogenes didn’t envy Alexander the Great, but Julius Caesar did. In fact, he broke down into tears after realizing how much more Alexander had achieved than he at the same age.
When we act with self-reliance, our actions are elevated. By any worldly measure Diogenes fell far below Caesar, but he also fell into a class of his own; the fact that Diogenes didn’t need anything to feel content allowed him to walk above the mess of envy and ambition — the trappings of status.
Those who can walk upright without the approval of certain classes will be free from silly competitions.
“You are not a lottery ticket.” –Peter Thiel, billionaire investor
Self-reliance means that you’re not too caught up in odds. Maybe 90% of the people who try the thing you’re trying fail at it.
This tells us nothing about the population trying the thing. It doesn’t say anything about their knowledge, grit, network, financing, skill, personality, timing, etc.
Another successful investor and entrepreneur, Ben Horowitz, put it this way in The Hard Thing About Hard Things:
“Startup CEOs should not play the odds. When you are building a company, you must believe there is an answer and you cannot pay attention to your odds of finding it. You just have to find it. It matters not whether your chances are nine in ten or one in a thousand: your task is the same.”
A study might say that 7 hours of sleep is the optimal amount for adults in your age range. That doesn’t mean that’s what you need.
On the other hand, the fact that some people live long lives smoking cigarettes doesn’t mean you should assume you’ll live as long as a smoker.
Probabilities are useful in some places more than others. They never tell you your chances at doing what you want to do, though. (Just look at Donald Trump’s wildly swinging chances of success leading up to the November 2016 election.)
“Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the foreworld again.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
“By dint of action, and extracting from himself strict account of his deeds, man arrives at a better knowledge of life. Its law appears to him, and the law is this: Work out your mission.” –Charles Wagner, The Simple Life
Life gets complex when we try to balance the baggage of the world: the presidential election, your friend’s relationship problems, your 5-year career plan, your well-studied social-labels or other ideologies, your social media popularity, foreign wars, etc.
Complexity comes with expectations and a slew of “shoulds.”
Minimalism, surrender, a clear path, comfort, and few material things may support simplicity, but they are not essential to it. Simplicity has less to do with our external life than we might think. Charles Wagner writes in The Simple Life that, “Simplicity is a state of mind”:
“It dwells in the main intention of our lives. A man is simple when his chief care is the wish to be what he ought to be, that is honestly and naturally human…At bottom, it consists in putting our acts and aspirations in accordance with the law of our being.”
Simplicity is a stance. A singularity of purpose. It comes from knowing what one is about and a trust in the future which is only attained through reliance on one’s self.
Faith in his abilities allows the self-reliant man to inhabit the present more fully, which creates a simplification of his world. Not out of ignorance, but in an elegant focus on the task at hand, unburdened by the noise of life.
As we rely on ourselves the baggage of the world is shrugged off. This freeing up of minds allows happiness, tranquility, and focus to flow in.
Realizing the Alternative is Harder
“I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
When we deny ourselves we begin to mutate into something disgusting. Like a geisha’s foot broken and bound, our spirits become contorted and confused. We lose power each time we “break” ourselves for other people.
Self-reliance means refusing to let your soul wither away because those around you have a different idea of what you should be like. It means finding those whose wants are your wants. Finding space to live by your nature.
Of course self-reliance is not about feeding the worst parts of ourselves. The lazy, stagnant urges that would lead to the decay of our bodies and souls. Self-reliance is about overcoming and exertion of the will. This isn’t about a trainer telling you to do a pushup and you refusing because it’s “not your nature.” It’s about resisting boring bestsellers to follow your own interests. Or bravely defending an unpopular opinion you believe to be true, but for which others judge you.
It’s about listening to the little voice within us with an idea for a business — not the one that tells you to fall in line.
“What I must do is all that concerns me, and not what people think.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Venkatesh Rao made an unpopular observation in The Calculus of Grit: “Humans don’t suddenly become super-human just because the environment suddenly seems to demand superhuman behavior for survival. Those who attempt this kill themselves just as surely as those dumb kids who watch a superman movie and jump off buildings hoping to fly.”
No matter how much we hoot and holler, we can’t do what we can’t do. When the world tells you you must jump, you ought to be able to say, “Nah.” We’re better off focusing on doing what we do best than wishing we could do what we can’t. Rao continues:
“It is the landscape of your owns strengths that matters. And you can set your own, completely human pace through it.”
How might we do this? Rao recommends a new behavior and new belief that will help us along the way:
“The only truly new behavior you need is increased introspection. And yes, this will advantage some people over others. To avoid running faster and faster until you die of exhaustion, you need to develop an increasingly refined understanding of this landscape as you progress.”
Action is a part of self-reliance, but so is introspection, else how will you know what action to take? We’ve got to remain fixed on our own path, and can’t know what that path is unless we’re tuned into our true wants and desires, and are able to admit that those aims are valid — even if they’re not connected to the kind of status markers of which society typically approves.
Set Your Own Law
“Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause;
He noblest lives and noblest dies who makes and keeps his self-made laws.
All other Life is living Death, a world where none but Phantoms dwell.
A breath, a wind, a sound, a voice, a tinkling of the camel-bell.”
–Richard Francis Burton
The result of introspection is the ability to set your own law for yourself.
This doesn’t necessarily mean creating an inner scorecard from the ether, nor does it rule out the existence of a divine, absolute law. It does necessitate rejecting the default laws of mainstream society and biology, in order to consciously and intentionally choose your own.
This is hardly an easy project. Carl Jung recognized the difficulty and even danger of claiming your own path:
“He is once set apart and isolated, as he has resolved to obey the law that commands him from within. “His own law!” everybody will cry. But he knows better: it is the law. …”
Anyone who lives their own law and begins down their own path will experience being “apart and isolated” intensely. As social beings it hurts terribly to break ideologically with those we love. Those without resolve will turn back — but unchanged and without any reward, just a gnawing sense that something is “off.”
Once we begin down our own path we must finish — and when we do we’ll be rewarded greatly. In fact, Jung believes this is the most important thing we can do:
“The only meaningful life is a life that strives for the individual realization — absolute and unconditional — of its own particular law…. To the extent that a man is untrue to the law of his being…he has failed to realize his life’s meaning.”
Live Now, Don’t Defer Life
“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.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
Don’t wait to live. Don’t wait for permission. Don’t wait for an undefined number of ducks to line up.
We will all die soon enough, it’s silly to die earlier by postponing life. Our path is likely to be circuitous but that doesn’t mean we need wait to come alive. Self-reliance means that our life isn’t diminished because we haven’t reached a goal yet.
If our life doesn’t currently match some dream handed down to us by society, we’re not helped by kicking ourselves over it. A self-reliant person is more pragmatic than that: he looks around and sees what he might do.
Self-reliance doesn’t mean we’re certain about what will happen in the future, but that we’re certain of ourselves. Emerson promises that this self-trust will bring us “new powers”:
“Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear; that a man is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations, that he should be ashamed of our compassion, and the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries, and customs out of the window, we pity him no more, but thank and revere him, and that teacher shall restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all history.”
This kind of focus on the problem at hand is used by some of the best sports coaches in the world. Bill Walsh’s book The Score Will Take Care of Itself dedicates its title to the idea. Phil Jackson describes in Eleven Rings how he’d make his team focus all their energies on the current practice or current game and not on any championships. He even had his team, some of the best athletes in history, meditate in order to do this more effectively. The best way to a better future is focusing on the current step, which is only available in the present moment.
Take Yourself Seriously
“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
We’re not talking about taking yourself seriously in a self-conscious way, but in a “I belong here” way.
Taking yourself too seriously means believing in the absolute importance of your ideas to the exclusion of the kind of self-awareness that evinces humility, flexibility, and a honest recognition of the weaknesses of your viewpoint.
Not taking yourself seriously enough means dismissing all of your ideas, opinions, and desires as unimportant if they don’t align with what’s popular or promoted by “experts.”
Taking yourself seriously in a healthy way means lending credence to the fact that your ideas, opinions, and desires just might be important and have some worth — at least for you. You belong here just as much as anybody else.
We’ve all seen successful businesses started out of ideas we thought of years before. Or books written expressing an idea we came up with forever ago.
It’s not just that our ideas remain unrealized when we don’t take ourselves seriously enough, but our whole view of life becomes muddled because we’ve given more power to what others say about the world than to what we see in the world. The Indian sage Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “The primary cause of disorder in ourselves is the seeking of reality promised by another.” Instead of seeking realities expressed by others, we’re better off shaping the one we perceive in the best way possible.
Self-reliance means using the ideas that arise from within, rather than deferring exclusively to those which arrive from without.
Respect Your Experience
Self-reliance means you no longer reject your life. There are two pieces to this. The first is about respecting your place in the current environment and the second is about taste.
Emerson explains the first:
“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. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”
This is the “lemon out of lemonade” piece. If we envy another we are failing to appreciate some aspect of our lives, or seeing a downside of the other’s. If we try to be another we are killing our own potential.
Everything we can make out of our life begins right here, right now. That means our current attitude, effort, ideas, aptitudes, economic environment, etc. We must begin where we are, and to do that well, we must respect the material we’ve got to work with.
Emerson goes on to discuss the importance of respecting our tastes:
“I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly.”
He does not claim to have a monopoly on truth but exhorts us to respect our own experiences, perspectives, and tastes.
We don’t need to all be on the same page, but we ought to respect the page we’re on.
We can respect the diversity of ideas, but also respect the fact that not all ideas are ultimately reconcilable. We can celebrate their distinctiveness, rather than trying to harmonize everything into a single watered-down, universal strand. We can unapologetically “cleave” to friends who exult in and find “holy” the same things we do.
Self-reliance means realizing that your desires and tastes are valid. You are valid — with or without an external stamp of approval.
Self-reliance depends on your respect for your experience — but it flourishes with your love for your experience.
Nietzsche’s “formula for human greatness,” amor fati — “love of fate” — may be the most potent expression of this idea that we “say yes to life.” He discussed it in The Gay Science:
“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”
Trust Your Path
“The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
I don’t need to tell you that life doesn’t care much about the plans you make. We think we want one thing and it turns out we want another. We think we’d be good at one thing and we discover a whole other set of strengths. You may even discover that how you travel your path is more important than which path you travel; when deciding between taking two seemingly equally good directions, the posture you walk with can matter more than which path you choose.
We do not always know where our actions will take us, but we can learn to trust that our “genuine actions” will lead us where we need to be. It’s not the next place that’s most important, it’s the totality of our lives that matter in the end. Emerson put it this way: “The force of character is cumulative.”
Trusting in our path can be incredibly difficult, especially when the world demands we walk theirs. Perhaps the things that motivate other people don’t motivate us the same way. Emerson:
“And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has centered to trust himself for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!”
And it does demand something “godlike” to “cast off the common motives of humanity.” We are all wired to want the same basic things. Even if you cannot totally trust yourself as your “taskmaster,” it’s worth claiming the role as fully as possible.
It takes faith to listen to and trust in that quiet inner voice, especially when it sends us off in seemingly unrelated directions This can be the voice of conscience, the voice of experience, or the voice of the divine. A theist might hear their inner voice as God’s instead of their own, but the task of trusting and following these promptings, rather than dismissing them, remains.
Proverbs 3:5-6 (KJV) describes the task this way:
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”
No matter the source of the “still small voice” that nudges us this way and that, we must find faith in the zig-zagging paths of our lives. Without that faith we’ll fall victim to anyone who pretends to know where we ought to be heading. Those who give us directions, whether with good intentions or bad, always rob us of a self-reliant posture.
One must remain true “to the law of his being.” The winding, sometimes circling, path will make sense if we allow ourselves to zig and zag with an upright posture.
Tend Your Garden
“Panglass sometimes said to Candide:
‘There is a concentration of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.’
‘All that is very well,’ answered Candide, ‘but let us cultivate our garden.’”
The best investing duo of all time, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, have said that, “Microeconomics is what you do. Macroeconomics is what you put up with.” They make all their investment decisions based on microeconomics and only study macroeconomics because it’s interesting to them.
The news and many authors would have us reverse that equation. We are convinced that it is terribly important we understand all of what’s going on in the world every single day. More often than not, headlines are distractions–and not enjoyable ones. They convince us the world is burning and that we ought to fear our neighbors. They convince us that the economy is in the dumps and there are no jobs, so why even try?
Of course, these things may affect our lives to some degree, but won’t they affect us with or without prior knowledge? And won’t the time we spent learning and worrying about them have been better spent working to improve our situation?
If I get too lost in “big idea” books about changes coming in the economy I will find myself disconnected from what is working now, focused too much on what might work in a few years. Objects in the mirror may appear larger than they are.
Next time someone begins a clever, complex explanation for why we’re in the situation we’re in, we’d do well to remember Candide’s response: “All that is very well…but let us cultivate our garden.”
Rely Less on Best Practices
“Insist on yourself; never imitate.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
When we focus on tending our own garden we naturally stop trying to find the perfect hack for every situation. Instead, we move forward in the best way we know how and inevitably come up with unique solutions.
“Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare,” Emerson wrote. “Do what is assigned to you and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.”
In a world with Big Data, best practices rule. You can’t argue for design A when design B has proven to be more effective, and normally you shouldn’t. At some point, though, the next Marvel movie isn’t interesting anymore — we want more like “Don’t Think Twice.”
Aristotle said, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” Today he may have added “and follow best practices.” Nobody blames someone who fails doing the thing that was supposed to work. Yet every industry depends on people doing the unpopular thing to find ways forward.
Best practices may supply you with a starting point. They may even often be the best way forward. The trick is to not let them dull us or hold us back.
(Clarifying note: best practices are best practices for a reason. Most successful companies don’t innovate, but copy in clever ways. Bob Dylan’s first album had no original songs on it — but he made each of those songs his own. We should always do what’s working as long as we can be ourselves while we do it. Often, originality doesn’t mean coming up with something totally novel, but combining tried and true elements in a new way — a creative endeavor that becomes impossible if you become a slave to the experts who say the best method has already been discovered and can never be altered or improved upon.)
Go All the Way
“We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. 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.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
The best parts of ourselves disappear when we don’t put our heart into our work.
Because self-reliance trusts personal experience, it isn’t plagued by doubt. It’s able to move forward full-throttle. It denies half-measures. It goes deep.
Our best shot at getting old without too much regret is to go all the way. Knowing we tried with everything we had will be enough to stave off disappointment if it turns out we don’t make it.
It’s also our best shot at doing anything interesting in life. Interesting work rarely happens at 70% or even 90%.
Yes, calculations should be made. Yes, we might fail. Yes, it’s scary.
God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.
God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.
God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.
This Is Where You’re Supposed to Be
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
Self-reliance is the kind of self-trust that enables us to embrace the world we find ourselves in.
It’s trust that we can participate in whatever “the new economy” means right now. It’s trust that we can find or create opportunity whenever faced with “Chaos and the Dark.”
It respects the cycles. Economic cycles, emotional cycles, and seasons of life.
It means starting where you are: right here, right now, as you are.
Remember, “envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide.” There’s no better life you could inhabit right now, not for you. There’s no better time or place you could have been born. There’s no better set of mistakes (“zigzags”) you could have made in the past.
There’s no better You to be.
There’s only the opportunity to develop a more perfect trust in yourself.
“Life is too short to waste…
‘Twill soon be dark;
Up! Mind thine own aim, and
God speed the mark!”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
Inspired to dig deeper into Emerson’s Self-Reliance? Grab Kyle’s FREE reading guide.
Kyle Eschenroeder is a writer who has been an entrepreneur, day trader, and whatever else sounded good at the time. Tweet him @kyleschen.