What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. (Ralph Waldo Emerson: Self-Reliance)1
We hear the phrase often “Don’t worry about what other people think”. That’s great advice, but unfortunately it’s not a simple “on-off switch” for some of us. I was reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance this week. He describes overcoming a preoccupation with what other people think as “arduous” . The word “arduous” means difficult and the has the idea of a steep climb. In other words, it can be an uphill battle to quit worrying about what people think. It requires dedication, hard work, insight, and time.
The Core Problem
We typically associate worrying about what other people think with stress, worry, and self-consciousness. That’s true and while these things are troubling enough, that’s not Emerson’s main point. He says, not worrying about what people think is the “whole distinction between greatness and meanness”. By “meanness” he means a life lacking quality and excellence. Constantly worrying about what others think diminishes the life we could have.
Emerson continues by noting this “Self-Reliance” is difficult because “you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.” Well – they don’t. But they will pressure you into complying with their way of thinking. While good advice and discovering multiple perspectives can be helpful, beware of those who are mostly interested in shaping your opinions to align with their thinking (and then “punish” you for not complying).
Two Easy Things:
- “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion”. That’s because you get no opposition. You’re just thinking like everyone else thinks – even if it’s not right for you.
- “It is easy in solitude to live after our own” [opinion]. You also get no opposition because you keep your thoughts and ideas to yourself.
The Better Way:
The “great” person, according to Emerson, is the one “who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” When we speak, we speak independently, candidly, and kindly. Some may not like our thoughts, but don’t let that diminish your life.
1Ralph Waldo Emerson. Self-Reliance (pp. 13-14). Sanage Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Leave a Reply