Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson (Translation by Adam Khan) Book Notes

If you’re not familiar with Ralph Waldo Emerson…don’t worry, I’m not, too.

But seriously, this guy is pretty woke.

I like the way he thinks about nonconformity and confidence in your ideas in this book.

In an argumentative, non-self-helpy way, Emerson talks about why self-expression is the path to self-discovery (and discovery in general), and why others’ opinions don’t matter.

You’d think that self-consciousness is only prevalent in the Digital Age, but based on Emerson’s writing, it existed far back during his years.

The problem with the original version, though, is that it’s really hard to understand. The language is different, and even the way he uses the language is different. (In addition, English isn’t my first language.)

At first, I tried going through it and tried interpreting this hard language in my own words. But after seeing the translation available on the Internet, I figured I’m getting the wrong takeaways from the book. So I just read the translation by Adam Khan. (What matters is the content, anyway.)

Highlights and Insights

Speak what is true for you, and it will almost always resonate in others.

  • If an idea resonates with you well, others might hate it. We stop there. But we didn’t look that others might like it too

The voice in your own mind is so familiar to you that you give it no respect.

  • Perhaps because of fear, we tend to lack creative self-esteem to express our own ideas and emotions. But when we see others manifesting their ideas into the world, we’re then faced with regret of inaction.

You have something unique, original, and great to express. Try to imitate someone else and you kill off that originality which is you. Envy is a lack of appreciation of your own special gifts.

  • I think this is valuable when “finding your own voice”. We, as beginners, constantly imitate what’s working. But as we gradually learn the principles of our craft, imitation only hurts. It’s time we become the chef of our own cooking

Nobody knows what your special gifts are, and you won’t know until you try to express them.

  • This relates to what Sonke Ahrens says in his book, How to Take Smart Notes: “Writing clarifies thinking.” Thus, self-expression is actually a means to an end–which is self-discovery.

The greatness of the universe cannot be expressed by cowards.

Be brave and true to yourself. Put your heart into your work. Do these things with sincerity and you come nearer to being what you truly are: A singular expression of all existence a genius, a creator, a redeemer, a healer, a teacher, a force for good in the world.

  • Only through becoming polarizing/authentic with your ideas will you truly discover yourself.

Completely accept your current situation the place and time you live in. Accept it and make something magnificent with it. There is no better time. There is nothing to wish for. Genius and wisdom arise when you see that the source of existence is in your heart and works through your hands.

  • Before we start doing something, we always wait for inspiration or courage or motivation. This isn’t productive. Creativity–the Muse, as the creatives call it–only strikes when we start doing the work.

Look at children. They trust their own impression. They haven’t learned to calculate how many people oppose their purposes and so they don’t alter their purposes accordingly. If they conceive a purpose, they start to accomplish it without any self-​censoring calculations.

  • Society has suppressed the creative genius within us–the child who does not become self-conscious. Play and exploration was once a source of knowledge and childly wisdom. Over time, as we wanted to conform with societal standards (and thinking), we gradually lost this ability.

Infants do not conform. The adults conform to the infant. An infant is charming, attractive, interesting, and the adults gather around and try to please him or her. But listen: There is something just as charming, just as interesting, and just as pleasing about every stage of life, from childhood to old age.

  • Only when you freely express your ideas and turn them into reality will people admire who you really are.

Be exactly what you are right now and already your charm starts to manifest.

…don’t try to gain goodwill by displaying pleasing behavior. Don’t try to beg for peoples’ approval. That is the attitude of someone who doesn’t feel he has a right to be what he is, to feel the way he feels, to think what he thinks. But you DO have the right.

  • Playing “nice” or even trying to please everyone is a sign of low creative self-esteem. This form of conformity is a waste of time. In a Marketer’s perspective: “If you’re targeting everybody, you’re talking to no one.”

Don’t try to figure out what behavior or opinion will make you popular with others. It is disrespectful to the grandeur of who you really are. It is selling your soul for the low outcome of manipulating the superficial affections of others as if you needed their approval.

  • This is a good way to put it

Be indifferent to the judgments of others, not with a thoughtless or angry defiance, but with the firm knowledge that you are a vital expression of something unspeakably intelligent and good.

  • Not to toot my own horn, but this has been a long time philosophy of mine–if something popular doesn’t work, then it’s time to question that practice. This is the single thing that led me to the creation of this blog. If a popular practice or belief produces suboptimal results (i.e. suboptimal study techniques, busyness as proxy for productivity), then it doesn’t matter if you become a nonconformist as long as you’re disproportionately more effective.

Forget about what you have been before. Forget what you’ve said before. Be what you are now, even if it “isn’t you” that is, even if it seems to contradict what you or others have pigeonholed you to be.

  • Contradicting our past selves doesn’t mean we are hypocrites, no. It means we are growing and changing–much like how transportation used wheels instead of faster horses. Holding on to the past is a form of sunk cost fallacy. It’s actually easier said than done, but a great reminder nonetheless.

The world is in a conspiracy to make you conform. Others will think they know what you should be and how you should act and what you should think. And they will apply pressure to you to make you conform to it. But if you conform, you lose your soul. You lose your originality. You lose your connection to the Mystery. You lose your creativity and your aliveness.

  • Conformity kills creativity. People tell you to think outside the box yet they feel like it’s heresy to do so.

Many of the people who have changed the course of history also would not have believed that they could or would. But when you rely on yourself and be exactly what you are, a new force moves through you, and a new source of power.

  • Great revolutions rely on breaking the status quo. Only when someone expresses his groundbreaking ideas will he become great. That said, a lot of people will misunderstand him. But the thing is, greatness doesn’t come without misunderstanding and boldness. Sometimes this boldness comes with a great cost–your life, even. Personally, I don’t like that. I prefer doing this on a smaller scale, like expressing my ideas in an authentic way.

honesty is far more beautiful than the pretense of acceptance, and it will do more good. Conditions do not improve when everyone goes along just to avoid seeming rude.

  • Again, this goes back to “playing nice” and is symptomatic of seeking people’s approval even when unnecessary.

The reason conformity is so damaging is that it “scatters your force.” It takes the pure, strong, true expression you are and blurs it into feebleness and mediocrity.

  • You can’t be great without looking like an idiot to others. I think Mark Manson said that.

Do not join any crowd. Every club or group tries to make each member a “retained attorney,” locked into one perspective, chained to a set of beliefs that blind you to the truth.

  • This gives the feeling of “woke” when people discover that their suspicions are confirmed, or when they discover a common enemy, or when their failures as justified–much like in multi-level marketing.

People do and say things much of the time in the spirit of someone trying to make amends or to atone for a sin. They take actions as if to justify or excuse themselves. Their whole demeanor reeks of apology.

  • It’s funny because when you’re too apologetic, people will treat you more like a pushover rather than respect your “apologetic efforts.” The moment you stop trying to please everyone, the moment you stop apologizing for every action is the moment you take ownership.

You have the right to be what you are. Never allow the well-​meaning people to make you pay for that privilege. You are what you are and you need no stamp of approval or sponsor to grant you the authority to be so.

  • This completely resonated with me. Even your friends or your relatives will try to stop/ridicule you if you try to do something out of your own gut–especially if it’s not a conforming act like building your own business.

All that needs to concern you is your own task, not what people think about it or you. This is difficult and may be the only defining difference between those who are great and those who are mediocre.

Trust yourself. Don’t concern yourself with what you have said or done in the past. Others have seen it and expect you, even insist, that you act that way in the future.

  • Expect that people might be shocked and treat you like a hypocrite once you stop conforming to their normal expectations. But you know yourself this isn’t true. A hypocrite is someone who does exactly the opposite of what he preaches–you’re not that kind of person.

When your soul is moved, yield to it, even if it contradicts what you knew or thought in the past. Do not try to be consistent. Trying to be consistent blocks the new creation that is constantly attempting to flow out of you.

“Speak what you think today in words as hard as cannonballs, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.” Yes, you will be misunderstood. All great souls have suffered this indignity.

  • So if you’re going to express yourself anyway, do it with total resolve and certainty.

The course of a missile looks like a zigzag up close because it is constantly correcting its flight path. But when you look at it from a distance it flies straight and true to its mark. In the very same way, you will find that your honest expression will have a deeper, more intelligent trajectory than you could have realized from so close a perspective.

  • In other words, your short term contradictions are necessary to bring you to the correct path–avoiding going down the wrong path just for the sake of conformity. Once they see you succeed, only then will they understand.

Be great enough to be true now, with self-​trust, with self-​reliance, with a self-​sufficiency, independent of your own pet theories or the scolding fingers of others. Trust yourself and shine from the center and your genius will justify you in the end.

  • I like that last sentence. I remember hearing about Moby Dick’s author where he’s totally unrecognized despite this great work. After a hundred or so years, he became considered as one of the greatest novelists in history


Honor is not superficial. It is eternal and that’s what makes it great. It does not try to please or appease, it does not try to win our respect, and so ultimately wins it. Cultivate a profound indifference to circumstances, opinions, and authority. Do this and future generations will bring your original work to its full fruition.

  • A lot of popular songs today, for example, are just rip offs of classical music. A lot of popular books are just rehashed ideas without even a hint of repackaging. These die with time rather than become timeless–they’re just noise simply because they’re not authentic and honorable.

The reading of history is the reading of the biographies of a few strong people who took resolute action, often against tremendous popular resistance resistance to nonconformity, resistance to genuine, original thoughts and actions.

  • Again, you can’t spark revolutionary change without breaking the status quo. Steve Jobs, Jack Ma, and Henry Ford come into mind.

You will find a startling similarity between all self-​reliant souls of history, no matter what time and place they lived.

These great people were ordinary folks who decided to take matters into their own hands, to fulfill their destinies sometimes at great personal cost. Any one of us has a latent greatness if we would only break free of conformity.

If a person claims to know of divine matters but uses ancient language from another country, do not believe it. Why worship the past? The truth is here, now, as fully and completely as it has ever been. You need no ancient description of the color of the sky; you only need to look up. You can describe it however you want to describe it. Memorizing former descriptions misses the point entirely.

  • What you see as truth shouldn’t be defined as “X said this” but rather to your own perspective–what you can really describe now. It’s what you perceive as true, not what X has said in the past.

Do not be hesitant. Do not cower in shame or fear. Don’t quote some wise man of former ages. Say boldly what you perceive now.

Let us hope we do not always think so highly of ancient teachings and obsolete languages. We are like children who memorize rules and ideas, struggling to remember the exact words. Later, when they come to understand more about the world, they can throw away those words and perceive the truths for themselves, saying it just as well from their own present understanding, in their own words. Let us do the same.

“If we live truly,” wrote Emerson, “we shall see truly.”

  • We should ask “what’s the point of this?” when we’re reading all texts. I find this questioning useful especially when reading about “scientific techniques”. I treated them like gospel before. But now I realized that not everything Science says is practical nor groundbreaking. If you see the example on my homepage: I’ve read before that looking at pictures of cute animals will increase productivity. Connecting with your future self eliminates procrastination. But the question is, are they even significant or do they just generate fake feelings of hope? Let’s question our readings more often.

A deeply honest person does not remind you of anyone else. A deeply honest person’s experience will be utterly unique and singular.

  • Uniqueness comes from authenticity, not conformity


To clearly see the need for this philosophy of self-​reliance, all you need to do is look at our modern world. We are, by and large, timid and easily disheartened. The truth scares us. Death scares us. The future scares us. And we are afraid of each other.

What we want is for someone to rise up and make things right, but what we see is that most people are seriously lacking real personal power.

They’re passive. They lack real purpose. They lack ambition and/or courage. They whine. They feel entitled to much more than their contribution merits.

  • People spend a lot of time telling others what they deserve rather than do something to make themselves deserving

They have no backbone, no guts, no character.

  • And they are easily offended. They treat disagreement as betrayal–like a total narcissist

Why? Because they’ve been beaten down by the opinions of others. They’ve conformed. And in conforming, they’ve lost their connection to their own selves.

If a young person does well in high school and doesn’t go on to a good college, we fear for her future. If a young businessman fails, we think he is ruined. This is ridiculous.

  • It’s easy to jump to conclusions when we only look at the things we fear and don’t take the pills that are hard to swallow

I am ruined or not, beaten or not, depending on what I say to myself. If I boldly think strongly, I’ll pick myself up and go on. With this attitude, I can try and fail at many things and come out all right.

  • It is you who determine failure–not society. I didnt know Emerson had an inner motivational guru in him

We are not victims, we are creators.

The moment you take genuine self-sourced and original action, nobody will pity you. They will admire and emulate you, now and in generations to come.



But we habitually ignore the present. We regret the past or yearn for it; we strain our minds to perceive the future; we dismiss the wonder of what is here now. There is one elemental truth that you must understand now, and re-​understand every day: You can’t be happy or strong until you live in the present, beyond time.

When you are present and becoming, you are one with the river, and so your actions have power.

  • I think this is saying: “When you just don’t give a damn about the past or future, you enter a state of optimal experience.”

Every honest action reveals a quality, an excellence, and you can’t help but respect and admire it.


The pressures, the desires, the opinions, the complaints, of others even though we love each other only cloud and obscure your vision. Solitude allows the dust to settle and the air to clear. Then you can see truly.

  • Digital Minimalism: Solitude is being free from inputs from other minds.
  • Essentialism: The more noise you have in your life, the more space you have to create.

Solitude will free your mind and ears and soul from the constant, unimportant interruptions. Learn to distance yourself from too much entanglement in the problems or goals of others. Certainly shine light where it may help, but their goals and problems are theirs, and yours are yours, and keeping that distinction is the only way it can work.

  • Using the mental model of Signal to Noise ratio, you only get the signal from other people’s opinions. Not all of them should be taken internally


Up until now, you have sometimes expressed agreement where you really disagreed, you have gone along with what you knew was wrong, you have failed to correct mistaken assumptions, you have restrained your honesty to save others’ feelings. You have shut yourself off from your own freedom and power in order to keep them safe from a painful truth, or merely to keep them liking you.

  • Why is it that we play nice? In my eyes, playing nice is a subtle form of manipulation. It’s the reason why I don’t like working in corporate jobs. You don’t certainly don’t have to voice it out when you think someone is ugly nor do you have to win arguments. More importantly, you don’t have to show that you agree to them. When you start to compromise your values for being nice–that’s being fake and duplicitous. You’re sabotaging your own freedom.

No longer hide your likes and dislikes. Trust that “what is deep is holy.” Do and say what truly and deeply delights you. Do and say what makes you feel serene and content at the core of your being.

This new way of being, this discipline to speak the truth, will sometimes seem excessively harsh. But if you follow the path of honesty, you will ultimately enter the flow of the river you will ultimately live in reality instead of the tangle of lying, misleading, and pretending that passes for reality.

will you sell your freedom and power to save someone from an unpleasant feeling?

  • Powerful question. Obviously, the truth must be said when needed. My girlfriend and I actually practice radical honesty especially when we unknowingly do something the other dislikes. We believed doing this leads to a satisfying relationship. It did.


Praying for some special favor is a demonstration of the lack of self-​trust. That kind of prayer arises out of a lack of knowledge about the unity of all things.

  • Praying for a special favor does not make you deserve it. But doing the work does.

Prayer, if engaged in at all, should be a “contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.” It is the monologue of a grateful soul.

When you live as an open expression of the mystery and grandeur of the universe, you will not beg for private favors in your prayers. You will see all action as prayer. Do not miss this point. Deep honesty will reveal the true way to pray: Take action.

Another form of misguided prayer is regretting the past. If there is some action you can take that will help the situation, then take it. Regret comes from a lack of self-​discipline.

  • Regret doesn’t do anything. The past isn’t in your control.

And sympathy falls into the same category. We sit down and pat the hands of those who bring trouble on themselves instead of speaking the truth boldly “in rough electric shocks” that might jar them out of their fog and self-​created illusions and put them in touch with their own powerful soul.

The secret of success is simply this: Take pleasure in self-​derived work.

  • This might seem too hedonistic or selfish but only the actions taken are what count. Especially authentic ones that thrive in spite of nonconformity. So be proud if you do this.

Not only are our prayers an expression of a “disease of the will” but those principles we live by are an expression of an equally pathetic “disease of the intellect.”

For the most part, when I speak to someone, I am alone because I am not likely to be speaking to a deeply honest person. I’m not likely to meet the universe expressing itself through him. No. He will be following some creed or other, not of his own creation. He will be relying on the external rules created by others rather than trusting himself. He will recite “truths” he has borrowed from others

  • I’m convinced now that Emerson is agnostic to ideologies and religion. But even outside of that, Emerson says you should trust your own judgement–the point of the whole book.

Each person is original or at least should be! But people are, for the most part, followers. They do not create or initiate genuine actions, but copy and follow.

When an un-self-reliant person finds some new philosophy, she will think it is the end-all, be-all, the all-encompassing truth.

  • Like a lifelong employee discovering the “power” of shit MLM’s–the “passive income by the beach” cult

The weak mind will stop seeking and consider the new philosophy the only truth and will refuse to understand how anyone else could see the light without the particular teachings of this one master.

  • Question the ways a philosophy might be wrong. For example, this very philosophy of self-reliance might become a gateway to narcissism and stubbornness.

If our follower would become honest and self-​reliant, the master’s philosophy would crack at the edges and fall away, allowing the light to shine directly on this newly-​honest soul.


…if you are not at ease in your own home, you will not be at ease anywhere else.

As Emerson wrote, “Traveling is a fool’s paradise.”


“Insist on yourself,” wrote Emerson, “never imitate.”

when you try to imitate or adopt the talents of another, you have only a superficial “half-​possession.”

  • When starting out in a place of incompetence, this is bad advice. Imitation of patterns and the thinking of successful minds shortcuts your learning curve. I say it’s only “blind” imitation that must be avoided, not all imitation.

Whatever you can do best, nobody can teach you but your own deep source and your own work and practice.

  • That said, upon gaining a level of competence, self-reliance is key to doing great and original work.

A new Thoreau could never be made by the study of Thoreau.

If you have the power to understand what another great soul has expressed if you understand those great words, if you grasp the beauty of a painting, if you recognize the genius of a piece of music surely you also have the power to answer in the same tone of voice as an equal. If you are up to the level of understanding, you are on an equal plane, and can reply in kind.

  • If you can see great writing, then you are capable of great writing on your own


You cannot improve “society.” It changes, but the change is not improvement for everything that becomes better, something becomes worse.

  • There’s always a tradeoff. As I’ve understood from an interview by Shane Parrish, Naval Ravikant says that society is too complex and that there is a multitude of underlying knowledge of its foundation–so it’s almost impossible to predict how society progresses in the long run. But then, I’m ignorant in these matters, so I might’ve understood it incorrectly.

We get new forms of entertainment and they waste hours of our time, distancing us from our loved ones, making us feel isolated and alone in a world full of people.

  • I don’t honestly know if this came from the translation or from Emerson himself–but all I can say is this is highly accurate. I left out the highlight, but when lightbulbs showed up, our natural sleep cycles got compromised.


Circumstances are insignificant and relatively inconsequential.

We have a tendency to make the mistake of measuring each other by what we have rather than by what we have become.

  • But focusing on becoming better would in some way or another bring that property to your life. No need to focus on property alone

Another form of external property is our thirst for the agreement of others.

  • Twitter and Facebook users are notorious for this

But the nature of wisdom and power works in exactly the opposite way. You gain access to the universal expression only by letting go of the opinions, customs, rules, and systems of others and stand alone, original, self-reliant, self-trusting, self-sourced.

Don’t rely on luck, either. Trust in the law of cause and effect. Do your work.

  • Of course, luck is unreliable. It’s like relying on winning the lottery for a living

External circumstances have no lasting value. Deep honesty and only your deep honesty can bring you true satisfaction and contentment.

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