Don’t be afraid to create: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s life-changing advice on trusting your instincts

Colored pencils.
Colored pencils.
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In general, I think it’s wise to be self-critical. But I also believe that—in the deepest sense—we must trust our instincts and have the courage to put our ideas out into the world. Whenever I need a reminder about how to do this, I turn to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay on self reliance.

“Self-Reliance,” considered Emerson’s most influential piece, works its magic much like an inspiring song that can get you through the last stretch of a grueling run. His central point is that we should not ignore those inner whispers, which may be barely audible under the din of outside influences and self-doubt. They may contain sparks of genius. After all, the world’s greatest thinkers and leaders had the courage to hear themselves and to follow their convictions, without concerning themselves overly about tradition and what others might think. They taught themselves to ignore the din and doubt, and their ideas resonated with the world because they reflected a truth that others had sensed privately as well.

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts,” Emerson writes. “They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” In every book or painting or film that moves us, we respond because they speak to a truth we recognize—if only subconsciously.

Easy for Emerson to say, we might think. He’s a genius himself. But remember, at the time he wrote his essay, he wasn’t yet considered a master of American literature. He was just a guy. His ideas hadn’t stood the test of time. Yet he understood the importance of holding convictions about your personal potential.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all … That is genius,” he writes. “Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost.”

Still, it can be hard to feel sure of ourselves—particularly as our personal failures accumulate. And yet we must be brave enough to follow through on our ideas.

Emerson’s essay helped push me to pursue my boldest creative goal. In 2014, I wanted to write a book of literary science fiction, called Too Long Don’t Read (TLDR). My idea was to pen a satirical work about text and context in a universal culture run by a tech company. It would be a cross between George Orwell’s 1984 and Don DeLillo’s White Noise—but shorter, futuristic, and based on my work on Google’s legal document review team.

Basically, it was an insanely audacious goal.

But hell, I needed to trust myself. Yes, Google is an adored tech company. Sure, I’m no Orwell. But I felt the book needed to be written. Emerson helped me do it.

I printed out the essay and annotated it, carried it around with me, stained it with wine, and wore it out. Then I printed another copy and went back to underlining. I bookmarked the digital version of the essay on my computers at work and at home. I read and reread it. As I did, I became ever more certain that however ridiculous and daunting my goal might seem, the first step to accomplishing it was believing that it was worthwhile. Emboldened by Emerson, I dared to “abide by [my] spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility.”

The themes of the novella—the blurring line between fact and fiction, how to process fake information on a web without context, and whether technology should be driving decisions—are now the stuff of daily headlines. But that wasn’t as clear when I started writing it, or when I blogged the story as a serial after countless publishers rejected it.

I wrote the book—despite my many doubts, and those of others—because I was heeding Emerson’s warning that I’d be scooped if I held off. As he writes, ”Else, tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”

Each person has reason to believe in their own ideas, he explains, because each of us is unique. We each occupy a singular point in space and time, and our experiences can’t quite be replicated by anyone else.

Emerson thought that “great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this.” They show why we must trust ourselves and ”learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across [the] mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages.”

Many others have also celebrated Emerson as offering high-minded self-help for literary types. Writing for The New Yorker in 2015, Dan Chiasson explains, “Emerson’s essays are like wonder handbooks … you can use [them] to become enchanted; many dejected secular people have gone to them regularly to see the world in renewed and refreshed terms of beauty. They outfit you for a walk in the woods or an ordinary morning.”

But Emerson’s essays don’t just help you exist in the world. They urge you to make things, listen to the whispers, for the sake of creativity itself. “Self-Reliance” tells us that the process of creating is its own reward. We can only feel relieved and happy in life, he says, when we pour our hearts into our work and do our best. Anything less will gives us no peace. And so the essay frees us to speak our minds—and see what connects.