How to Think for Yourself

Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the greatest challenges in a world awash with information, ideas, and opinions, is learning to think for ourselves.

It’s tempting to believe the solution lies in mental models, clever tricks, and mainlining the right philosophers. But what if the solution is simpler, and you’ve had an inner genius all along?

In “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson compels us to learn to listen to that inner genius, to respect our own ideas, and to be comfortable being nonconformists.

Because if you don’t profess your own ideas and know what you stand for, you’ll be forced to live by someone else’s beliefs.

Here are some of my favorite ideas from the essay. And as always, if you want to listen to the full audio breakdown of the essay, subscribe to the Nat’s Notes podcast on YouTube, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts by searching “Nat’s Notes.”

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“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster 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.”

“There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”

“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world 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.”

“If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers, under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reënforce yourself”

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. 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 tomorrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”

“At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.”

“Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is Christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts. What a contrast between the well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American, with a watch, a pencil, and a bill of exchange in his pocket, and the naked New Zealander, whose property is a club, a spear, a mat, and an undivided twentieth of a shed to sleep under! But compare the health of the two men, and you shall see that the white man has lost his aboriginal strength.”

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

As always, if you want to listen to the full audio breakdown of the essay, subscribe to the Nat’s Notes podcast on YouTube, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts by searching “Nat’s Notes.”

I’ll be back next week with another wonderful book to share with you.