Monday, December 9, 2013
that we choose our own version of success
It seems he'd tried to live as others did. In his twenties, he'd taken on the jobs of teacher, surveyer, gardener, farmer, house-painter, carpenter, mason, day-labourer, pencil-maker and glass-paper maker. He found aspects of each of them disappointing and decided to no longer be included among the 'mass of men who lead lives of quiet desperation' as he put it.
In 1845, aged 27, Thoreau set off to build himself a rough, basic house on the shores of Walden Pond. He intended to work for just six weeks of each year (probably helping farmers get their crops in or something like that) and figured out how to live off just 27c per week for the rest of the year. During the other 46 weeks of the year, he reflected on nature, read, wrote in his journal and walked. Sounds pretty good to me.
He had one bed, a table, a desk, 3 chairs, a small mirror and some cooking utensils in his one-room house. Thoreau studiously avoided anything 'the world' would consider successful. He dodged all forms of work to the greatest extent possible, which turned out to be a lot.
"Joy and sorrow, success and failure, grandeur and meanness do not mean for me what they do for my neighbours," he wrote. Just to make his outlook crystal clear, he added, "If a man has spent all his days about some business by which he's grown rich, has got much money, many houses, barns and woodlots, then his life would have been a failure, I think. Normal society man has no interest that can tempt me. Not one." Ignoring his neighbours and choosing to 'march to the beat of his own drum' came easily to him.
His contemporaries only scoffed at him, including intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott. But as one of my books says, "to a true eccentric like Thoreau, earning the disdain of others, or at least puzzling them, is a sign of success." As for his own personal job description, he called himself the self-appointed and unpaid inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms.
Here is one of his most famous quotes, which I'm sure we've all come across many times. "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." We see this splashed over cards and souvenir merchandise in gift shops. It's in the offices of high-flyers on desk calendars and wall hangings. All sorts of business people and VIPs quote it. It's become one of the mantras of wealth creation teachers. How ironic, to think that it came from a man who didn't care a fig for all that, and in fact, stood for the opposite of what they stand for and wasn't afraid to say it.
And how funny to think that so many twenty-first century ambitious go-getters quote it glibly, along with the one about marching to the beat of their own drum, without knowing the background of their creator. They may or may not recognise the name of Henry David Thoreau, but I'm sure they claim that his words resonate with them. I wonder what his reaction would be to the irony that they have latched so fervently onto his sayings. No less, is the irony that tourists from all over the world visit his little house on the shore of Walden Pond to this very day, but possibly shun the fellow down the road who is really living in the spirit of Thoreau, the one who lives in a little shack, clothing himself from Good Will shops, heating his baked beans over a little campfire each night and reading his books by torchlight.
I have to say I find his attitude refreshing. Henry David was the real deal, not part of a group who dress the same, eat the same, surreptitiously study the way people such as themselves are 'meant' to think and wear their supposed non-conformity like badges. He wasn't a burden on the tax payer, because he genuinely earned his 27c per week, and Centrelink payments weren't even an option. This gives us exciting freedom and potential, when it comes to defining what the 'success' in his quote may mean to us. I applaud Thoreau for deciding on his own values and sticking to them without being swayed by what people were saying. The lives of people such as him remind me that, hey, even if I don't look successful, by what criteria am I making the judgment? When I start feeling like a flop, I can remember Thoreau, and he reminds me that I've moved the measuring stick by which I determine my values. That's right, I'm not going by job description, bank account total or academic letters after my name. My personal values are time spent with family, laughing at their jokes, listening to them, reading good books, writing some stuff, noticing things when I go for walks, and encouraging my kids to focus on their own values with the tool of homeschooling. I find it easier to think of myself as successful with these things as my gauge.
I've never been to America, but if I ever do, I'd like to visit that little house, and I've got the book "Walden" on my kindle to dip into sometimes when I feel reflective.