Self-Reliance: Summary and Key Takeaways

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Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the great philosophers of American thought.

His essay, Self-Reliance, is one of the foremost essays that acts as a precursor to many personal development texts today.

In fact, you could even think of Emerson as something of a self-help author of his time. He was basically a 19th century Tony Robbins.

Emerson was one of many thinkers at the heart of philosophical movement called Transcendentalism. At the heart of this movement was the idea of the self, the individual, as the central pillar from which all reality flowed. It rejected the notion of society and focused inward on the self. It promoted a nonconformist thinking approach, something that was very popular with certain groups of people at the time.

Today, this essay is held in high regard as one to help us find our purpose, specifically to help ourselves gaze inward and understand what our best selves look like, and how we can manifest that best self most profoundly.

Get it Here

So let’s take a look at some of the best thoughts that come out of this essay.

“Trust Thyself”

At the core of Emerson’s theory is this idea of trust in oneself. When we are listening to the whisper of our soul, hearing what we must do to best serve in this world, are we living in alignment with what our soul is telling us?

The world today has a habit of really getting in our way, of making a second guess every decision we make. We can afford to do that. We have to think deeply, understand what we must do, and then never look back as we pursue those goals. To do so would be to betray our trust in ourselves.

This raises two important concerns. One, we must live with integrity according to what the best version of ourselves would do. Two, we must make room for our true self to manifest in us. Because if we cannot listen to that true version of ourselves, we will never know to whom we must be true.

We have to get rid of distractions that vie for our attention every day. We have to create the quiet moments of meditation and introspection. Only then can we create the circumstances in which we can be true to ourselves.

To trust ourselves, we must know ourselves.

You Cannot Conform to a Sick World

Another important point in Emerson’s essay is the idea of nonconformity.

When we are true to ourselves, the integrity of our mind is more important than the expectations of society.

By following the advice above and being true to ourselves, we will naturally become nonconformist. We will appear as outsiders to the “norm” of society, a society that is fundamentally broken to begin with.

Emerson points out that if this is the case, if you pursue a path of nonconformity, society and the world will “whip you with its displeasure.”

But Emison applauds those who can do this, describing it as godlike to ignore the expectations of humanity and trust in oneself to be the taskmaster.

What About Purpose?

But we want to focus more on purpose, since that is the whole point of this collection of notes.

So what does Ralph Waldo Emerson have to say about finding your calling in life?

It all goes back to that idea of trust in oneself. When we pursue a path that is fundamentally ours, especially if we do so while surrounded by a mediocre society, we come closer to that highest version of ourselves.

Look Forward

Next let’s talk about habits. Ralph Waldo Emerson uses the word “consistency.”

Specifically, consistency with one’s past. Emerson argues that you can’t constantly be looking over your shoulder at what has come before, as this will hold you back. You have to have a forward-thinking mindset.

And when you fail, because you will, that forward thinking mindset will keep you course correcting, much like a ship on a voyage. No ship or airplane ever travels in a straight line. It is always zigzagging one way and another, but the overall trajectory is the same. That is the philosophy we want to take towards our future. Never look back, and constantly course correct as we move forward.

You Are Divine

Now we get to my favorite take away from this essay: the idea that we are Royal and we have infinite potential.

We see this in our media all the time. We are bombarded with stories of people who didn’t know they had a royal lineage, or who were part God and never knew it. So many stories have demigods in them, all the way back to the first stories ever told. We love the idea that there is a little divine in us.

And guess what? We do.

Each of us has infinite potential. Each of us has a best self that is waiting to be discovered. Each of us can find that best version of ourselves.

So with that in mind, let’s awaken to the best version of herself, trust that person, extract ourselves from conformity with society, and live in epic life.

Best Quotes from Self-Reliance

“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

“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 to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

“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. 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.”

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

“The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

“My life is not an apology, but a life. It 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.”

“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him.”