Once a year or so, I re-read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance. It was particularly helpful this year. You know the craziness, “post-truth” was the word of the year for 2016. People are yelling about fake news and alternative facts. There’s absurd behavior everywhere I look. The pockets of sanity seem to be shrinking–but they are there.
If anything can help cope with the world today, developing a sense of self-reliance is up there. Not the self-reliance required for hunting and foraging but the self-reliance required for truly independent thought. Emerson realized how hard society pushes against independent thought: “The virtue in most request is conformity…. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”
The whole essay is a series of quotes with punch like that one. I’ve collected fifteen more quotes for you below. All the quotes are from Self-Reliance, unless otherwise noted.
Realize the Alternative is Harder
To the extent that we’re not self-reliant, we must “break ourselves” for others:
“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.”
Don’t Defer Life
This is one of my all-time favorite passages:
“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.”
Take Yourself Seriously
“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within… 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
Respect Your Experience
What you believe matters. Your ideas might not all be good, but they certainly aren’t all bad. And if you don’t trust that some are worthwhile, then you’ll never do anything with any of them.
“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide…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.”
“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.”
Trust Your Path
For most of us, life doesn’t happen the way we would’ve guessed. This shouldn’t get us down, instead we ought to just focus on correcting our path.
“The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks….Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Ability to Be Alone
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” –Blaise Pascal
And if we can’t stand to be alone, we may be more susceptible to bad ideas:
“The lonely one offers his hand too quickly to whomever he encounters.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Life is better when we judge ourselves based on our own metrics, not random people’s’ opinions.
“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 (in Alice Schroeder’s Snowball)
Go All The Way
The cult of ‘testing’ has lulled some people into believing that doing more things half-assed is a better option than doing one thing with everything we can possibly bring to it. It’s hard to make this kind of leap, but it’s worth it.
“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.”
This Is Where You’re Supposed to Be
It’s easy to be nostalgic–sometimes for era’s we never lived through–but it’s now that we need to live in. Where and when you are is the place you’re supposed to be. Don’t turn your back on it!
“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.”