I was reading a CliffNotes article online about one of my favorite pieces of writing: Emerson's Self-Reliance. One thing I like about CliffNotes is the overall view. After reading the essay countless times and reading it onto a tape and listening to it countless times, I never realized until reading the CliffNotes article that there are three separate parts to the essay. It all seemed like one single piece to me.
In one section of the
essay Emerson said, basically, "your own lack of trust in yourself
causes you to want to imitate others, or in some other way not be yourself." Then in another part of the essay he says, basically, "society tries to make you conform, to be what you're not, and it uses scorn and disapproval to control you and keep you from being yourself."
And tonight I watched a movie, a miniseries called Elvis (starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and there on the screen were Emerson's principles demonstrated with such stark poignancy it seemed like the director was trying to illustrate Emerson's essay.
In one of the early scenes, when Elvis was making his first recording, the producer (Sam Phillips, who was a one-man show —
owner, recording engineer, producer, manager) comes into the recording
room after Elvis had sang a few songs and says, basically, "What the
hell is this? You sound like (and he names some singers), and they
already have records. People have already heard them. I want you to sound like YOU."
other words, Elvis did exactly what Emerson said people tend to do: He
didn't trust himself and was trying to imitate others. He was imitating
his favorite singers.
Later, they were taking a break
and Elvis was goofing around, just passing the time playing on his
guitar and singing (in other words, Elvis was accidentally just being
himself). Sam heard it and said, "That's great!" and recorded it. That
was Elvis' first hit. It was alive, it was unique, and it was completely
Later in his career, after he had hired a new
manager and before going on tour, Elvis went to Sun Records to say
goodbye to Sam. After Sam wished him well, he told Elvis, "They're going
to try to clean you up, to slick you up. You just be who you are, and
you'll be all right."
In other words, "the world will try to make you conform to what they want you to be."
they certainly tried to do it to Elvis. The Great Money Machine tried
to turn him into something he wasn't. He was criticized for gyrating
around (in one city the judge sent police to his concert to make sure he
didn't "wriggle"). He was pushed by his manager into doing stupid
movies — movies that Elvis didn't want to do — and pushed him into singing songs he didn't really like, and singing them in a way that just wasn't him.
guess what? If you do enough of what you don't want to do, if you
aren't motivated, if it doesn't excite you, if you're not getting off on
what you're doing, and if you have to continually be something you're
not, you will inevitably be miserable.
In order to deal
with the boredom and unhappiness caused by his perpetual violation of
his own integrity, Elvis took uppers to keep him energized and downers
to help him sleep, and his life slowly spiraled down into hell.
the producer of a television special set up a situation where Elvis
could just be himself and do his thing, and he came alive! His
performance was outstanding. I saw that performance myself and it was
the first time I ever had the thought, "Elvis is really good." Prior to
that time (and that was only a couple of years ago) I never knew why he
ever became so famous, because by the time I heard Elvis he had already
sold his soul. He had conformed to what others thought he should be.
this single performance revived him for only a short time. Then he went
back to conforming. His manager and his father convinced him he needed
to conform to their wishes. He needed to go back to doing what they
thought was best. And he went back to being miserable.
this be a lesson for all of us. The world whips us with its
displeasure, as Emerson wrote. It has always done so, and it will always
do so. It will never stop. It will never let up. It tries to make us conform.
And our own lack of courage does the same thing from within, hollowing
out our own self-trust and leaving but the shales and husks of our real
But it doesn't have to be that way. If
we explore integrity in earnest we can be our honest selves, we can
follow our own way, and we can be happy. It will take courage and
commitment, but it can be done. Gandhi did it. Lincoln did it. Emerson
did it. My wife did it. And you and I can do it too.
Adam Khan is the author of Self-Reliance, Translated and Principles For Personal Growth. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.