Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson is an essay in the First Series that he wrote in 1841. His essays are freely available on the internet. When printed, the essay Self-Reliance is about 19 pages, size 14 font, but it is packed with a lot of wisdom. Even though this work is very short, to fully savour and digest what’s being said, require time for reflection. I took the time to read Self-Reliance three times to fully get what Emerson is saying.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was a transcendental philosopher from the 19th century. In this philosophical essay, Emerson shares some big ideas, and from what I have read, self-reliance is really about being your best self.
10 Great Ideas
- In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty: How many times have you had an amazing idea that you failed to act on then later discovered that someone else did? We’ve all been there, take action today.
- Inmost in due time becomes the outmost: What do you spend your time focusing on? Do you focus on the things that will yield the greatest benefits in your life? What you spend your time on becomes your reality.
- Envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide…The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs: We live in a me-too culture where most conform. What would happen if you took the road less traveled and showed up as yourself? What would occur if you allowed yourself to be your extraordinary, authentic self? What would have happened if the pioneers and innovative thinkers of yesteryear, imitated each other, and suppressed their pioneering ways?
- Trust thyself: You know what you need to do, so take action. It may be the wrong action, but you are not standing still. And if you didn’t take the correct action, that’s feedback, so try something else. Trust yourself to do the right thing. Thomas Edison found 10,000 ways that the light bulb didn’t work, but he trusted himself that sooner or later he would get it right.
- My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady….What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think…It is harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it: Do not be overly concerned about what other people think about you, trying to impress them. Live your life, and do things because they feed your soul. Live your life to the fullest.
- A foolish consistency is the hobglobin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do…Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus and Luther… To be great is to be misunderstood: It’s okay to change your mind. As we grow and evolve, we think differently and become different people.
- 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. Perfection doesn’t exist. We’ll make a lot of mistakes and take wrong turns along our journey. That’s okay, all we have to do is course correct and eventually we’ll reach our destination. As Lao-tzu says, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”
- 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…. in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet… 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: To me, this means to be flexible. If something is not working try something else and do not worry about what others may think about you. Never put your life on hold, waiting for the perfect opportunity.
- Another sort of false prayers are our regrets. Discontent is the want of self-reliance: People often regret the things they didn’t do. Take risks and live your life to the fullest.
- Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation… Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon? Every great man is a unique…. Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much: Each of us has a purpose in this life, that one thing we were born to do, so live your purpose with enthusiasm. Do not try to live another’s life.
These are some of the great ideas in Self-Reliance by Ralph Walso Emerson. I highly recommend this essay, and set aside an hour and a half so that you can think about what you’re reading. Gene Waddell in “Using Rare Books to Inspire Learning Part 2: Drama – Travel” recommends that we also read History, (First Series – 1841) and Nature (Second Series – 1844) by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
How can you use this information? What do you have to add to the conversation? Let’s keep the conversation flowing, please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
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