by Allie Burke
In his piece, Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson presents the idea that we must be self-reliant—in our ideas, beliefs, environment, and ultimately, in the structure of our lives—to be an individual in society. But Emerson wrote this piece in 1841. How do his ideas of non-conformity apply today? People my age, with mental illnesses, who are somewhat offended by the statements “Millennials ruin everything; we can’t even joke around anymore” or “When I was your age I owned a house” but are also somewhat uncomfortable by the idea of identifying as Millennials because we work 8-to-5 jobs—where do we fit in, and how? Our generation seeks to never conform, but what about those of us who still work in Corporate America and who still care about what people think of us? How can we be self-reliant but also thrive in a world that so obviously doesn’t respect that idea? What would Emerson do?
Many Best in Class companies such as Google and Zappos, the online shoe company, promote self-reliance as part of their culture. The way they see it, happy wife does equal happy life and happy employees equal happy customers. Zappos, for one, encourages holacracy. They support their employees in a way that makes them happy—encouraging them to be themselves and to make the right decisions for the company—so that everyone will want to work there. This is an environment where people are passionate about doing worthwhile work. Emerson touches on this theme in Self-Reliance when he talks about the importance of trusting our inner-selves: “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.” It’s so true, isn’t it? That if we think independently enough to be the passion that we have inside of us, we could achieve greatness. But what if our work environment does not support self-reliance? What if we don’t work for Google or Zappos—what if we work for management full of closed-minded behavior and style? Are we give in to the Millennial generation’s way of life and quit to seek out a company that shares our values, a risk that could cost us our financial stability?
I would like to think that Emerson would say yes. Yes, quit that horrible company so you can be yourself! “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards!” Emerson’s ideas of how life should be lived as an individual in society are insightful, but in 1841 he couldn’t have possibly predicted the well-oiled corporate machine that is modern America. He couldn’t have possibly predicted that the average household would need to bring home $50,000 per year to survive in 2016 California. He might have rephrased or even rewritten much of what he wrote in Self-Reliance if being an individual in today’s society meant being broke.
Connecting the Millennial values of being self-reliant to making money, and to Emerson, is affected by the prevalence of mental illness in today’s society. Do you think Emerson knew that 18% of America—43 million people—would suffer from some type of mental illness when he said, “What I must do, is all that concerns me, not what the people think”? How would he react in the discussion of this quote as it relates to anxiety and panic disorders—a constant worry and feeling of nervousness about what other people think of us? He would likely feel objection to people like me being offended by those who chastise us for doing what we believe is the right thing, but could he foresee that some of that has to do with a mental condition currently plaguing the United States? Emerson would likely not accept such an excuse. “This rule,” he wrote, in continuation of his admission that he cared for nothing of what others thought of him, “equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.” What would Emerson think of us, these half-millennials living with mental illness? That we are not great because many of us seek a balance of conformity and non-conformity for survival purposes and have issues with simply trusting ourselves because we do in fact care about what others think of us? I think he probably would, but that would mean we are not conforming to his ideas of non-conformity, which makes us self-reliant in our own way, doesn’t it?
In Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson has certainly made a valid and reliable argument that individuality is imperative to achieving a successful and happy state of being in society. But the piece was written nearly 200 years ago, when corporate environments were a futuristic dystopia and mental illness was something you spoke about behind closed doors, out of earshot of anyone who might judge you for being anything less than sure of yourself. Emerson could not have anticipated these types of modern barriers that we must overcome before we can even think of adapting to his strict idea of self-reliance as a way of life. Self-reliance and non-conformity manifests itself in many forms, and the act of trusting ourselves enough to accept that we can be our own individuals and do what we think is the right thing for us even if we don’t adhere to the advice of an opinionated preacher who is long gone from our modern world, is to be more self-reliant than Emerson’s ideals ever could have taught us to be.
A Bestselling Author, NPO VP, and Psychology Today Blogger from Burbank, California, Allie Burke writes books she can’t find in the bookstore. Having been recognized as writing a “kickass book that defies the genre it’s in”, Allie writes with a prose that has been labeled poetic and ethereal.
Her life is a beautiful disaster, flowered with the harrowing existence of inherited eccentricity, a murderous family history, a faithful literature addiction, and the intricate darkness of true love. These are the enchanting experiences that inspire Allie’s fairytales.
From some coffee shop in Los Angeles, she is working on her next novel.
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Self-Reliance. A World of Ideas, Lee A. Jacobus, Eighth Edition, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010, 889-902.
“Zappos: Best in Class Customer Service” Technology and Operations Management, December 5, 2015, https://rctom.hbs.org/submission/zappos-best-in-class-customer-service/
“The Deloitte Millennial Survey” Deloitte, 2016, https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/millennialsurvey.html
“How Much Money Do You Need to Live in Los Angeles?” Investopedia, September 14, 2015, http://www.investopedia.com/articles/personal-finance/091415/how-much-money-do-you-need-live-los-angeles.asp
“Mental Health by the Numbers” NAMI, http://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers