Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Club - "Self Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

In a recent post to the "Government and Economics" portion of the Student Section, I wrote about the opportunity and responsibility to use time wisely.  Referring to the students of our Government and Economics course, I advised that "the activities they choose, the enthusiasm that they exhibit in the pursuit of excellence, and the time they dedicate to these areas will determine their success and satisfaction."

The notion that the quantity and quality of time devoted to an activity will determine "success" is easy to understand.  But the idea that the "satisfaction" derived from such work is a result of the effort and vigor that we expend is not as apparent to many.  A benefit of reading the works of great authors is that it causes us to think and apply the ideas to our daily lives.  The first work we are reading in our "Book Club" is "Self Reliance," by Ralph Waldo Emerson.*

Regarding the value of work, Emerson says, "A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace."  Had I not been reading "Self Reliance," my advice to students probably would have excluded the notion that the "satisfaction" of having done one's best is every bit as important as the success that comes from such effort.

It has been said that "the journey is more important than the destination."  This is so true.  For once a destination is reached, there is nothing more to strive for and we immediately beginning searching for something else to pursue.  As a basketball coach, I advise players who profess to want to be "great" to work harder, longer, and smarter than their peers.  But I quickly qualify that advice by saying that one should only take that path if the process of working, often alone, for such a large portion of time is truly fun and exhilarating.  Even after dedicating the time and effort necessary, achieving the desired result is not guaranteed.  So the only reason one should make such an investment is because he truly enjoys the journey.

The importance of enthusiasm is also conveyed in Emerson's line.  I find it noteworthy that he uses the word "heart" rather than "mind."  I believe that we will be the most successful and the most satisfied while pursuing excellence in activities that we genuinely enjoy.  We should take the time to find what moves us and pour our hearts into the activities that interest us most.

*Click here for a not so well formatted but free version of the full text of Self Reliance.  And click here for a better presentation of the first half of the work.


  1. To try to boil it all down, my recollection is that Emerson simply advised that we trust ourselves and not try to emulate what others think or do, at least purposely.

    He believed strongly that our individual choices with respect to how we spend our time and what we do with that time is, and should be, up to each of us. We should work diligently and joyously on both what interests and pleases each of us. That's both our right and responsibility as well.

    If we ever hope to really come to know others, we must first make the effort to know ourselves.

    At least that's my recollection of some of what Emerson taught. He is absolutely worth studying.

    Of course, a nice complementary reading to this insightful essay on Self-Reliance is Thoreau's essay on Civil Disobedience. As is MLK's Letter From Birmingham Jail.

    Lots of good stuff out there. I'll happily join the book club.

  2. I have found a better link to Self Reliance. It contains the whole text and it is a little easier to read than the one I originally linked to: