You don’t typically think of Americans when you hear the word “philosopher.” But Ralph Waldo Emerson is a special exception.
Emerson was an American philosopher, writer, and poet. His most famous essay, Self-Reliance is an exploration of individualism and resistance to conformity. It stresses the importance of carving your own path instead of following the norms of the day. Self Reliance is overflowing with wisdom, so we’re only going to look at what I believe are Emerson’s five best insights.
If you want to learn how to stand on your own and face the world, Emerson is the guy to read.
1. “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ that he dares not say, but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose.”
How much credit do you give yourself? Do you value your opinion, or do you always defer to someone with authority? Being aware of your limited knowledge is a good quality, but what’s problematic is when you become afraid to speak against something that doesn’t seem right to you.
If some saint, sage, or person with a Ph.D., makes a claim about something, and deep in the pit of your heart it feels wrong, do you speak up? Or do you force yourself to believe it?
For me, it was a long time before I could muster the words, “I disagree” to anyone. But once I did, my point of view became backed by the weight of self-belief, and people started listening to what I had to say.
It’s better to be always be proven wrong than to never question anything. We can’t forget that authority figures are just as prone to corruption and error as we are. They’re human too. And if no one is willing to question them, how much power do they wield?
Emerson wouldn’t want you to be apologetic about what you feel is true. The average citizen shouldn’t be quick to silence themselves, and you shouldn’t either.
You have a voice. You have a perspective and a unique set of experiences that others don’t have. Be aware of the facts, but don’t ever count yourself out.
2.“The easy thing in the world is to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own, but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
It is easier to submit to the crowd than to stand against it. If your beliefs don’t fit the crowd’s, life will feel more difficult. But what are you sacrificing by pretending to be like everyone else?
I’ll admit this one is tough, but it’s important. I apply this principle to my own life by staying grounded in my opinions and interpretations. I’m not closed-minded, but I don’t accept an idea, especially one the crowd believes, without giving it my own thorough examination. And I’m selective of whom I share those opinions.
“The independence of solitude” is rare nowadays. So what do we see instead?
Moral grandstanding is displaying virtuous behavior with intention of increasing your social status. If you’ve been on social media in the last five years, then you’re familiar with this process. It would appear that grandstanders are boldly standing up for what they believe in, but in reality, they are just trying to win the crowd.
They aren’t enduring the consequences of speaking their truth for the greater good. They live for the praise of the crowd and they fear the consequences of going against it. How brave does tweeting really make you anyway?
In order to keep the independence of solitude, you need to hold firm in your beliefs, even when it seems like the world is going mad. You should be tactful when it comes time to share your opinions, but don’t cheat yourself by lying about what you believe either.
3. “My life is for itself and not for a spectacle.”
How much of your life is a performance? How much of your life is checking off boxes from a checklist you didn’t make? How many people are you pleasing?
I spent years people-pleasing, and I learned having that attitude is like volunteering for slavery. You end up living for other people’s approval and not your own. That’s a dead end.
It’s your life, and it’s your death. Why are you only doing what people expect of you? Do you think there will be a grand tally of all the people you’ve pleased and they’ll give you a plaque before you die? You have the final say in what your life is going to be about, and that’s a liberating thing to consider.
You should please others and give to the world because you want to, not because you think you should. You make these choices intrinsically, and not for the sake of spectacle.
We all have a tendency to consider our social standing, but a self-reliant individual stays grounded in their perspective and always remembers who is ultimately in charge.
4. “A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; He should wish to please me, that I wish.”
This quote is the essence of self-respect.
Should you shrink before someone else’s greatness? What about your greatness? Why are you the one who has to make an impression?
I had a friend in school who would swoon over people he felt were of high status. When they came around, he would act differently, his voice would rise in pitch, and he wouldn’t dare say anything against them. Around girls was even worse. It was tough to watch.
Being humble is nice, but not to the point of self-degradation. If you met some high-status person, and you bent over backward for them, laughed at all their unfunny jokes, and kissed their feet, you probably wouldn’t think much of yourself afterward, would you?
Isn’t it arrogant to think this way, you might ask? I like to see it as a spectrum. Aristotle created a system of ethics based on finding the balance between virtues and vices. To him, virtue is what you get when you find the balance between excess and deficiency.
Take a concept like “self-regard” for example. Too much self-regard (excess) is arrogance/narcissism. Too little self-regard (deficiency) is self-loathing. The virtue of the two extremes is self-respect, or as Emerson would put it, self-reliance.
Self-reliant individuals believe in their worth, and they don’t reduce themselves because of someone else’s status. They don’t give respect until it is earned.
5. “Trust thyself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
This one is my favorite.
Do you know the origin of the word confidence? It’s derived from the Latin word confidere which means “to have full trust.” Confidence isn’t based on how competent you are, it’s based on how much trust you have in your competence.
Trust is the core of self-reliance. How can you expect to stand on your own without trusting in your abilities, your resolve, and your mind?
Here’s what I’ve learned from spending most of my life not trusting myself: When you’re anxious or perfectionistic, you cripple yourself with top-down self-control. You lack faith in your abilities, so you compensate for that by applying pressure. Betting against yourself always makes the most sense.
But you can work towards trusting yourself instead. You can explore the roots of your lack of trust and learn how to have faith in yourself for the first time. And you can take the energy your using for self-criticism and transfer it into the goals you’re striving for.
When you don’t trust naturally, trust is a gift you have to give yourself.
Here’s what Emerson (and I) want you to remember:
- Don’t apologize for what you believe, and don’t silence yourself when you feel the need to speak.
- Hold true to your values, even when it seems like the world is against you.
- Your life isn’t a performance, and you shouldn’t navigate it using someone else’s map.
- Respect yourself, and don’t bend to anyone because of their status.
- Self-trust is the only way a person can thrive on their own. Give yourself that gift, and you’ll be someone you can always rely on.
Self-reliance is not easy, but neither is life. Becoming self-reliant, and learning to stand tall in a scary world, will protect you, free you, and take you where you’re trying to go. So give yourself a chance. No one is going to do it for you.