Excerpt from Unsuited (Chapter 4)
On July 4, 1845, eight days before his twenty-eighth birthday, Henry David Thoreau embarked on an experiment in simple living using a property owned by his transcendentalist mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. On the shores of Walden Pond, a thirty-one meter deep lake in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau built a modest cabin, where he would spend the next two years of his life, writing, meditating and reflecting on popular society as he saw it. His motivation was not reclusive – he was being intentionally experimental. He had tried his hand at entrepreneurialism, but having discovered that success in commerce required a study of how to make it worth people’s while to buy, he at once decided that he would rather study how to avoid the necessity of selling. So he entered the woods in an attempt to be truly self-sufficient – to transact a form of private business. He described his motivations as follows,
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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, 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, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion[i]
Thoreau saw life as a great experiment that was untried by him, and he admonished his readers to try out their lives by “a thousand simple tests”. His account on Walden Pond, first published in 1854 is unique, engaging, inspiring and refreshing. American poet Robert Frost wrote of Thoreau that “in one book…. he surpasses everything we have had in America.”[ii] After two years in his simple abode, Thoreau left Walden Pond for as good a reason as why he went there, it seemed to him that he “had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”[iii]
Despite being written over one hundred and fifty years ago, we would think that Thoreau wrote Walden as a clarion call for the discontented masses of today who find themselves in careers and jobs that are unfulfilling. Many of us, because of our fear of risk, cling to the perceived “safe” paths, and never get to experience true flow and optimal experience in a work environment. An interesting observation is that the phenomenon of the “discontented masses” seemed to be just as problematic in the 1850’s. Thoreau remarked,
Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them[iv];
He further states,
It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten path for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pondside; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct”.
We have developed a propensity to establishing well-worn patterns of behavior, and as a result the course labors of life occupy our minds to the point that we often have difficulty experiencing life’s finer fruits. It is the same today as it was one hundred and fifty years ago. Although our technology has changed, a similar trap still catches us – the trap of consistency and social conformity. The antidote is embracing a life of risk tolerance, experimentation and passion where our creative drive is so aligned with our core values that our unique voice is heard, and that unique voice provides us with economic security and personal fulfillment, and induces a state of emotional and mental flow.
[i] Thoreau, Henry. Walden, Or, Life In The Woods. New York: Dower Publications, 1995. Print.
[ii] Frost, Robert. “Letter to Wade Van Dore.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Walden, ed. Richard Ruland. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc. (1968), 8. LCCN 68-1448. Print.
[iii] Thoreau 259
[iv] Thoreau 7.