Perhaps no more beautiful and haunting text has ever been penned on the potential of the individual human, nor more comprehensive delineation of the conditions holding him back than Ralph Waldo Emerson's seminal essay Self Reliance. The dense 10,000 word essay generally receives sophomoric treatment from popular commentators, especially in self-help and entrepreneurship corners.
Emerson's nuanced view of the individual and individualism is generally stripped of its context, removed from the field of Emerson's other essays, and reduced to childish interpretations to give readers "candy" that confirms or enhances their self-esteem.
Truly great writing like Emerson's, however, requires almost a sort of masochism to read thoroughly and digest properly. Comprehension of it necessitates a willingness to grapple with its truth where the application of the truth is both complicated and painful. The joy of reading such work is like the joy of physical exercise: it comes at a price and it's worth it usually only in the end.
We're going to look at a brief quote from Beaumont & Fletcher's play, An Honest Man's Fortune, which Emerson places before his own text begins. In a few short words, the speaker pierces many of the comforts of socially constructed reality and sets us on course for internalizing important themes that Emerson develops later in vivid detail.
Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late.
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.
1. Your Navigational System is Inside of You
Humans have been using the stars for navigational purposes long before we started launching artificial stars into earth's orbit and linking up to them with our pocket computers in order to find our way around. When the speaker here says that man is his own star, he is directing you to look inside of yourself for how to navigate through life, rather than paying attention to the sometimes blinding light of all the other stars pointing in contradictory, confusing, and even harmful directions.
If you've ever watched a small child playing, you have seen a person following her own star. She isn't concerned about the way other people think she should be acting, or if her particular imaginary world is a bit silly. She's being honest to herself. That is, until she goes to school and is told "now is the time for reading," and then "no, no, now it's time to stop reading and move on to math. Never mind that you just started getting into reading."
Over the course of childhood and adolescence, many if not most people in modern society lose sight of their internal navigational system and are focused solely on the constellations pointing to "stable careers" and "good-paying jobs," or these days toward the hot new start-up or the location-independent nomadic lifestyle.
In every generation certain paths are glamorized and people are socially pressured to follow that path using a pre-made template. In our parents' generation, that template centred around buying a home, building a family, and saving for retirement. In our own generation, it is about owning little, making few commitments, maximizing optionality, and generally being free of constraint.
To aspire to Be Like Steve, even 20 years ago, was to truly be among the crazy ones. Today, you are considered crazy if you don't have that aspiration.
Maybe you're in the middle of the early stages of a startup and you hate every minute of it. You are afraid to do anything else because being a Founder is the cool thing to be these days. You think maybe it will get better when you start making a certain amount of money, or reach a particular threshold of fame. You're probably wrong. If you hate every minute of your work today, you'll probably continue hating it even when the material conditions have improved.
Or it could be the reverse. You could be in a corporate job you hate, and already know exactly what kind of product you want to build as an entrepreneur, but your spouse wants you to stay in your job just a little longer, until there's "enough" money to feel secure. Or your parents are pressuring you to pay off those student loans before you pursue your ideas.
Maybe you want to spend your life in a laboratory doing research, but don't see there being in money in it. Perhaps you want to support somebody else's vision rather than be responsible for coming up with your own, and you see your role in life as a #2.
Whatever is true for you, that's the star you should be following, no matter what everybody else is telling you.
But finding it is hard, and it changes over time. Your star is you, and you are not fixed. You are constantly changing and evolving, and so you should expect that your star will continue pointing you in new and varied directions. Staying true to that evolution requires rigorous self-examination, a painful dedication to reality, and a willingness to have brutally honest conversations with the people in your life so that your truth to yourself is an asset, rather than a burden to both your life and the lives of the people intertwined with your own.
Pay attention to the small decision you are making today. How many of them are truly consistent with where you believe you need to go, and how many of them are merely trying to preempt criticism or disapprobation from others?
It isn't only the major decisions that derail you. Indeed, it is usually a series of seemingly minor ones that cumulatively put you on a course in life. Examine all of them, every day.