I haven’t read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on “Self Reliance” in its entirety since my sophomore year of high school, but I had a random urge tonight and ended up devouring it again over the past hour or so. It was a much needed reminder of everything I know to be true – offering an illumination of both my strengths and weaknesses. So here are some noteworthy nuggets that may provide useful to you (they were to me!).
“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…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.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.”
I actually just brought this up in “Creativity & Innovation” class yesterday. The teacher asked for those who liked creativity to raise their hands – I was one of the 8 who didn’t. When he asked for an explanation, I told him that it wasn’t that I didn’t like creativity, but that I respected and admired the creativity of others more than my own. That anything I created didn’t seem good enough. I’ve always thought this way, and it’s actually had a pretty profound influence on some decisions I’ve made in my life. I don’t regret them, though. I hardly ever feel worthy of most ‘awards’ I’ve been given; they just make me work harder, so that I can attempt to capture that ever-elusive feeling of maybe one day deserving them.
“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”
Actually, Emerson goes way more into detail about this, but here you have the essence of his argument. Don’t cave in to peer pressure, societal expectations, prescribed roles, the status quo, etc. Stand out from others and show your true colors – otherwise, how is anyone to know who you are?
“With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
I have to admit, this one is pretty tough. I think what he’s trying to say is that every day is another opportunity for growth – and we shouldn’t stifle ourselves by adhering to our past. This might be where innovation occurs, when you have the freedom to completely contradict what you may have said or thought yesterday. However, personally, I feel that my thoughts are not so much inconsistent as my entire being. Much of what I do or how I act centers on how I feel in the moment, so may be wholly inconsistent from one moment to the next. Is this what he means?
“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.”
Hah, definitely. The path is NEVER a perfectly straight line. Ever seen this? The good thing is, everyone’s in this boat. If you’re genuine with your decisions and actions, then the path you take, however windy or curvy, will be uniquely you – and that’s nothing to sneeze at!
“Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.”
Be bold, and carve your own path. Haters gonna hate.
“Why should we assume the faults of our friend, or wife, or father, or child, because they sit around our hearth, or are said to have the same blood? All men have my blood, and I have all men’s. Not for that will I adopt their petulance or folly, even to the extent of being ashamed of it. But your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation. At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door, and say, — ‘Come out unto us.’ But keep thy state; come not into their confusion.”
The real world is crazy – full of drama and other people’s shit. It’s easy to get caught up in it all and get completely lost – but don’t let that happen. Keep your wits about you and ignore other people when they try to bring you down – regardless of who they may be. (Also, thanks to Charlie for helping me remember this message).
“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. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. 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.”
It’s in everybody’s best interests to stay away from those who you do not see eye-to-eye with. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. I’ve encountered this a few times, with people whose actions I don’t understand at all. I try to just stay away from them, if I know that I will have to put on a “happy face” when talking to them which is dishonest.
“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.”
Last one! Success is usually so narrowly defined as ‘the 9-to-5.’ I am someone who enjoys all kinds of various activities and even more so because they are so different. I am disciplined and could stick to just one thing; but why, when there’s so much else out there too? I think this is a bit of the entrepreneurial spirit in me. :-)