“I wanted…to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” -Henry David Thoreau
My colleague attended a conference recently and shared that one of the speakers, who has been funding startups for decades, was asked what has changed most about the entrepreneurs he sees. His answer was that entrepreneurs have gone from founding companies their mothers would be proud of to founding companies that do for them what their mothers used to do — e.g. give them rides, get their food, and do their shopping.
That people now clamor for services that take care of them the way you might expect a parent to says a lot about the lack of value being placed on self-reliance.
“Self-reliance” is the ability follow your own instincts and ideas, to avoid conformity and false consistency. Being self-reliant requires more than just doing things yourself.
The case study of extreme self-reliance is the two years, two months, and two days Henry David Thoreau spent living simply and fending for himself in a hut next to Walden Pond. Thoreau put himself in an environment where he had to be mentally and physically self-reliant, and while striking out on a similar experience might be impractical, there’s something to be said about carving out small, modern versions of this experience in order to flex the self-reliance muscle that is atrophying with each new “_______ on-demand” startup. The risk of not doing so is a society that can’t develop its own ideas, voice, stories, or processes — only mimic and repeat those already in existence.
A few different kinds of self-reliance to practice:
1. Create your own ideas — it’s great to be influenced by the thoughts, values, and people you admire but the only way to bring novel concepts into the world is to create the time and space to capture what’s going on in your mind when nobody is looking.
“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
2. Execute your own way — the ideas or the “what” that you bring into the world is one thing, the way you share those ideas and build them — the “how” — is another.
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what [other] people think.” -Emerson
There isn’t a single path to success but you’re way more likely to be successful if you rely on your unique abilities and embrace the direction you find for yourself, instead of making the same decisions of those who have experienced success. Rely on your instincts and knowledge, and embrace your unique constraints, not a step-by-step plan.
3. Develop your own voice — along with thinking unique ideas and following your own approach to execution, it’s important to develop your own voice for communicating.
“The highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what others but what they thought.” -Emerson
Public opinion is an increasingly difficult force to reckon with but in order to be self-reliant, it’s important to avoid limiting what and how you communicate to the ways others have chosen. This means forming your own informed opinion and communicating it in your own words — not limiting yourself to hashtags and movements defined by others.
4. Live less comfortably — do less to shirk the uncomfortable things that come along with the human experience.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” -Thoreau
For instance, by deciding to ride a bike instead of driving (or hailing a ride), you’re taking on the physical and mental challenge of transportation. Your physical, mental, and financial health all stand to benefit from the decision to separate yourself less from challenging experiences.