Three weeks ago, I shared with you the first third of my favorite essay of all time, Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Self-Reliance has profoundly affected my life in countless ways, and I find myself re-reading it every month or two. Each time I read it, it reveals something new to me, giving me something to think about.
The original essay, published in 1841, outlines the value and need for each of us to follow our own path in life, one that relies mostly on our own efforts. It’s a call to do our own thing and to focus our energies in making our lives as independent as possible so that there are minimal consequences for doing our own thing.
Today, we’re going to look at the “middle third” of that essay. As before, I’ll be walking through the essay paragraph by paragraph, quoting large relevant pieces and then discussing them in my own words and experiences and relating them to the experiences of others.
As before, If you’re not a big fan of 19th century writing, don’t fret; you can feel free to skip the quoted parts below, as those just contain direct quotes from Self-Reliance. I’ll reiterate the main points below the quotes and tie them into both my own experiences and the journey of self-improvement and financial independence we all find ourselves on.
If you would rather read the full essay on your own, you can read the full text of . It comes in at around ten thousand words.
A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza; — read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing. In this pleasing, contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not, and see it not.
Our lives are full of patterns, even when life seems crazy and chaotic. Whenever we take time to reflect on our lives and really look for patterns, we start to see them. In fact, we see a lot of patterns.
Knowing those patterns can be incredibly useful. Many of those patterns are good in that they lift up our life, but some are bad – they bring us down. If we can figure out the bad patterns and focus on eliminating them or replacing them with good patterns, our lives improve.
There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour. For of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight of at a little distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency unites them all. 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.
One of the biggest difficulties is how different actions and patterns make sense at different times. A career choice that seems brilliant late at night when drinking with friends seems absolutely foolish in the morning.
The best ideas – the ones we should live our lives by – are the ones that seem wise at both points. If you’re doing something right now that would seem incredibly foolish in a day or two, you’re usually better off not doing it.
Be it how it will, do right now. Always scorn appearances, and you always may. The force of character is cumulative. All the foregone days of virtue work their health into this. What makes the majesty of the heroes of the senate and the field, which so fills the imagination? The consciousness of a train of great days and victories behind.
If you’re confident that you are doing the right thing, do it. If it’s something that makes sense to you no matter the time of day, do it. What holds people back from doing that is that they’re afraid of what other people might think. Don’t worry about appearances. If it’s truly the best choice, the results will make it clear.
Don’t let the potential of your friends or your coworkers looking at you oddly keep you from making the best choice for you and your life. Don’t be afraid to spend less. Don’t be afraid to go the extra mile at work. Don’t be afraid to exercise or change your diet. Don’t be afraid to take up a new hobby.
Go with what seems right for you.
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. I will stand here for humanity, and though I would make it kind, I would make it true.
If you want to be a great person, don’t expect others to entertain and enlighten you. Instead, focus on how you can entertain and enlighten others.
The truly great people in life – the people everyone wants to know and the people everyone is always willing to help – are the people who give of themselves as much as possible. They share their wisdom and time and efforts and advice with others.
In history, our imagination plays us false. Kingdom and lordship, power and estate, are a gaudier vocabulary than private John and Edward in a small house and common day’s work; but the things of life are the same to both; the sum total of both is the same. Why all this deference to Alfred, and Scanderbeg, and Gustavus? Suppose they were virtuous; did they wear out virtue?
Although the latter part of this quote is full of dated cultural references, Emerson’s point still rings true. We single out great people in history (and the ones he mentions had significant impact in the previous millennium in Europe) and laud them and give them deference as though they are made of something more than we are.
That isn’t true, though. When we hold someone in high regard because of some virtue of theirs, there is no reason we can’t cultivate that virtue in ourselves. Why not authentically live like Christ? Or like Gandhi? They were people with traits that deserve respect, but we can build those traits in ourselves. We can live like them.
The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear?
To do something different than the people around us takes confidence. It takes trust in ourselves. If you don’t trust yourself, you can’t stand out from the crowd.
That’s why it makes sense to regularly spend time breaking ourselves down to our core. What do you believe? What do you value? Challenge those things. Hammer them out, even if they end up pushing you in a different direction than you expect.
Eventually, you’ll forge a set of core values and beliefs that you can really trust and rely on, and you can build on those to do whatever you want in life.
You should never fail to challenge your core beliefs and values. Sure, there’s a risk of breaking them, but if you never challenge them, you never strengthen them. Without that strengthening, you don’t have a strong foundation in your life.
The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin.
If we keep refining our values and ideas and, over time, strengthen them by forging them in the hot fires of doubt and question, we can deeply rely on them in every aspect of our life. Our instincts become more and more true. We’re able to react naturally to different situations and our reactions are actually very good ones.
Spend time thinking about what you believe, what you want to achieve in life, and what those mean. Challenge them. Your whole life will be rewarded.
Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed. My wilful actions and acquisitions are but roving; — the idlest reverie, the faintest native emotion, command my curiosity and respect. Thoughtless people contradict as readily the statement of perceptions as of opinions, or rather much more readily; for, they do not distinguish between perception and notion.
Most people don’t think about why their instinctive actions contradict the values that they hold dear when they actually think about them. When your life is full of those kinds of contradictions, it’s hard to build your life into anything great. You only build to great things when your instincts match your conscious decisions.
If you ever find yourself wondering why you did something just a few hours or a few days earlier, you need to spend some time really thinking through that contradiction. Doing so will either strengthen or alter your instincts and eliminate those feelings in the future. The less you have those kinds of contradictions in your life, the better.
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.
For all the value that there is in hammering out our core values and trying to live by them, we are still often shaped and bent by society. It might feel right to do something, but when no one else around you is doing it, it’s pretty scary to do it. Something else might feel wrong, but if everyone else around you is doing it, it’s easy to join in. We naturally bend to the crowd.
The problem is that if we’re bending in a way that goes against what we value, we end up with one of those contradictions, and it’s those contradictions that undermine us, every single time.
I’ll say it as clearly as I can: contradictions between our true values and our behaviors are a huge part of why we don’t succeed. We might value hard work, but when we don’t deliver it, we’ll fail. We might value frugality and saving, but when we spend like crazy, we fail at our financial goals. Our values need to be in line with what we’re actually doing to succeed at anything.
But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.
We often overlook the wonderful things in the current moment as our minds are retelling the events of the past or thinking about the plans for the future.
I’m guilty of this myself. My children will want me to watch one of their favorite movies with them and rather than trying to enjoy the moment with them, my mind will reflect on the things I need to do this evening or whether or not that last article was well-written.
The more we focus on the moment by listening, by paying attention, by looking for the beauty in the current moment, the more we get out of our lives.
We are like children who repeat by rote the sentences of grandames and tutors, and, as they grow older, of the men of talents and character they chance to see, — painfully recollecting the exact words they spoke; afterwards, when they come into the point of view which those had who uttered these sayings, they understand them, and are willing to let the words go; for, at any time, they can use words as good when occasion comes. If we live truly, we shall see truly.
It is usually much easier to follow the ideas and quotes and path that others have beat down for us. We follow the steps without really understanding them until we reach a point where it all makes sense.
My own personal finance journey was exactly the same way. I always knew the basic steps of improving my personal finance state, but it wasn’t until I actually did it and I saw the impact of taking those steps in my own life that I was able to really appreciate how much impact all of those choices had in the broader span of my life.
When I see a quote from someone who has achieved something great, I not only see it as advice as to how to make it to that stage, but also that I’ll understand it in a much deeper way when I actually achieve something.
To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is. Who has more obedience than I masters me, though he should not raise his finger. Round him I must revolve by the gravitation of spirits. We fancy it rhetoric, when we speak of eminent virtue. We do not yet see that virtue is Height, and that a man or a company of men, plastic and permeable to principles, by the law of nature must overpower and ride all cities, nations, kings, rich men, poets, who are not.
It’s usually not worth wasting your time or breath or thought on things that don’t work. Instead, we should be focusing on talking about things that do work or about how to bring things that aren’t working into a better state.
Why waste our time criticizing others and speaking badly about them if the goal isn’t to improve them? If you’re not willing to put in effort to bring about improvement in whatever you’re criticizing, don’t waste your breath. Move on to something else.
Your words, efforts, time, and energy should focus on improvement, not destruction.
Thus all concentrates: let us not rove; let us sit at home with the cause. Let us stun and astonish the intruding rabble of men and books and institutions, by a simple declaration of the divine fact. Bid the invaders take the shoes from off their feet, for God is here within. Let our simplicity judge them, and our docility to our own law demonstrate the poverty of nature and fortune beside our native riches.
Rather than simply trusting and following whatever ideas and people come our way, put them to the test. Apply your hardened core virtues and ideas and see how these things stack up. Don’t just follow the hot new thing.
Often, friends of mine and people I trust will introduce ideas to me. I try not to feel obligated to agree. Instead, I file that idea away for later and try to make up my own mind about it. There’s no need to make a snap judgment unless you have to.
When I’m forced to, I’m hopeful that my instincts and core values are forged well enough that I’ll make a good choice. Can I walk into a tempting place and not spend money? Can I engage in political discussion without emotions getting in the way? It can be really challenging.
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.
Just because someone else is criticizing others or using poor language doesn’t mean you have to engage in it. If it doesn’t ring true with what you consider to be right, then you shouldn’t bother doing it.
No matter how the winds of society are blowing around you, stick to your core values and your sense of right and wrong. No matter how the company around you behaves, stick with your own sense of right and wrong. Don’t overturn them just because someone around you is doing something different.
I often have guests in my home who express ideas that I don’t agree with or use behaviors I don’t find to have any value. I don’t imitate them or adopt their ideas just because someone I care about is expressing them. I also don’t choose not to care about them because we’re not in agreement. Sometimes, that can be hard, but it’s always worth 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.
That doesn’t mean you should separate yourself from the world. All it means is that you need to have the internal strength to make choices in line with what you value.
The world is full of temptations. We are constantly tempted to spend money in all kinds of ways and to spend our time in all kinds of ways. Most of the time, those choices aren’t really in line with our core values.
The real trick of self-reliance is to be able to know when those things are truly in line with our core values and when they’re not, and then having the strength of character to say “no” to those things that aren’t in line with what we value. Society makes that hard, but we’re better people when we’re able to persevere.
I hope you’ll check back in a few weeks as we take a look at the final third of this essay and see what it can teach us about self-reliance in this modern world.