In the classic Walden, Henry David Thoreau echoes Warren Buffett on having an inner scorecard and defining your own success:
If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. The faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments and customs of mankind. No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.
A bit later he writes, in perhaps one of the most important passages in the book,
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
And finally …
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) remains best-known for Civil Disobedience and for Walden, a beautiful ode to simplicity and self-sufficiency.
Thoreau moved into a cabin he built by Walden Pond to extricate himself from social life and surround himself with the simplicity of nature. The book is a collection of his insights on a range of topics gained over the two years and a few months he spent there.
Here is some of what he had to say on reading:
With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike. In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor accident.
The seclusion of Walden offered an opportunity for serious reading.
My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world, whose sentences were first written on bark, and are now merely copied from time to time on to linen paper. … I kept Homer’s Iliad on my table through the summer, though I looked at his page only now and then. Incessant labor with my hands, at first, for I had my house to finish and my beans to hoe at the same time, made more study impossible. Yet I sustained myself by the prospect of such reading in future. I read one or two shallow books of travel in the intervals of my work, till that employment made me ashamed of myself, and I asked where it was then that I lived.
It’s the labour of reading that makes it worthwhile.
The student may read Homer or Æschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and consecrate morning hours to their pages. The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have. The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity.
The classics are the noblest thoughts and require training.
Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.
The work of art nearest to life itself …
What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study. The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.
No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.
Books are the wealth of the world …
Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.
The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.
On the connection between books and culture …
The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers. What does our Concord culture amount to? There is in this town, with a very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for very good books even in English literature, whose words all can read and spell. Even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated men here and elsewhere have really little or no acquaintance with the English classics; and as for the recorded wisdom of mankind, the ancient classics and Bibles, which are accessible to all who will know of them, there are the feeblest efforts anywhere made to become acquainted with them.
And one of my favorite passages on the two types of illiterateness:
We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.
It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones.
We spend more on our bodies than our minds.
We boast that we belong to the Nineteenth Century and are making the most rapid strides of any nation. But consider how little this village does for its own culture. I do not wish to flatter my townsmen, nor to be flattered by them, for that will not advance either of us. We need to be provoked—goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot. We have a comparatively decent system of common schools, schools for infants only; but excepting the half-starved Lyceum in the winter, and latterly the puny beginning of a library suggested by the State, no school for ourselves. We spend more on almost any article of bodily aliment or ailment than on our mental aliment.
Solving problems almost always starts with ensuring you’re solving the actual problem. When the actions we should take are not obvious, or the problem is difficult, it’s easy to feel the need to do something … anything. We convince ourselves that motion is better than inaction. The choice, however, isn’t between action and inaction. This is a false duality. There is a third option that often makes the most sense.
“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”
— Roman satirist Petronius Arbiter
There is something almost poetic in the way that Petronius (27 AD — 66 AD) so succinctly captures a phenomenon that most of us have been through.
Poorly performing organizations or divisions reorganize all the time. Sometimes the source of the problem is the organization, more often than not, however, reorganizations offer little impact on the results.
Consider taking charge of a poorly performing division at work. The pressure to deliver is high. You’re told this is your big opportunity. You’re advised to take charge and lead. You’ve been taught that doing something is the same as results, so you naturally mistake movement for results. So it’s only natural that you come up with a plan to move the boxes around and reorganize the division.
Movement offers shelter from failure. When you’re in motion, you feel like you’re doing something. We convince ourselves that as long as we’re in motion, we can’t fail. As long as we’re doing something, anything, failure can’t really find us.
Movement feeds our ego. Our evolutionary programming craves the validation of others. In a world that values action and short soundbites, nuanced conversations are hard. Others don’t have time to really listen to your nuanced story as they run to their next meeting. And telling people that you’re doing nothing results in disapproving looks. Movement offers the drug of validation to the outside world. It is far easier to tell others that we’re doing something than doing nothing. And so we do.
Perhaps a few examples will help illustrate the concept. First, consider the person we all know that is always planning to start a business. Planning is doing something. It’s action. We can tell others about our dreams, and as long as we’re planning we never risk failure. Second, consider the person who has been writing a book for years. The movement of editing and refining serve a purpose, of course, but when that purpose becomes an end we never get results. There is no risk of failure if you don’t publish your work. Finally, consider the person that wants to get a promotion at work. They take on so many new projects they are always too busy to apply for that promotion. They’re busy but they aren’t getting the results they want.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather make success a little less about luck every day.
Motion is easy. Results are hard.
Preparations are necessary but not sufficient for achieving results. The actions we take are often just preparations for what we really want to accomplish. We read a diet book instead of dieting. We learn how to use Shopify or Woo commerce instead of starting a store. When we confuse preparations with the end instead of the means, we really trick ourselves.
Maybe Pascal was right when he said, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” And yet this inability to sit quietly serves us as well. You wouldn’t be reading this right now if the people who made your device sat quietly in a room. As with everything, it’s not black and white. We have to learn when sitting quietly in a room serves us and when it hurts us.
Doing something isn’t the same as getting results. The problem is we convince ourselves that our only options are to do something or do nothing. We forget the third option, gathering more information. While there will always be pressure to do something immediately with urgency, most of the time that action will be wasted. We’d be much better off if we stop for a moment and gather more information before acting.
The next time you feel the urge to do something for the sake of doing something remember what Thoreau said: “It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”
“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 practise 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.”
Solitude is an important aspect of creative thought. You could make an argument that in our information-overloaded world where our senses are stimulated nearly 18 hours a day, solitude and calming our minds is more important than ever. Walking allows us time to play with ideas, explore concepts, and be wrong in our thinking without worrying about others seeing the rawness of our thoughts.
I’ve never been a big walker, but after reading Frederic Gros’ A Philosophy of Walking, I became one. I started walking at lunch. I started taking walking meetings and walking phone calls. Not only has it improved my health but it’s clarified my thinking.
In the book, Gros explores people and lives that were shaped by walking. He ponders Thoreau’s seclusion, why Rimbaud walked in fury, Nerval and his cure to melancholy. Rousseau and Nietzsche walked to think. Kant walked through his town at the same time daily to escape the “compulsion of thought.”
Walking is not a sport.
Walking is not a sport. Sport is a matter of techniques and rules, scores and competition, necessitating lengthy training: knowing the postures, learning the right movements. Then, a long time later, comes improvisation and talent.
Sport is keeping score: What’s your ranking? Your time? Your place in the results? Always the same division between victor and vanquished that there is in war – there is a kinship between war and sport, one that honours war and dishonours sport: respect for the adversary; hatred of the enemy.
Sport also obviously means cultivation of endurance, of a taste for effort, for discipline. An ethic. A labour.
Walking is not a sport. Putting one foot in front of the other is child’s play. When walkers meet, there is no result, no time: the walker may say which way he has come, mention the best path for viewing the landscape, what can be seen from this or that promontory.
Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.
[T]here is the suspensive freedom that comes by walking, even a simple short stroll: throwing off the burden of cares, forgetting business for a time. You choose to leave the office behind, go out, stroll around, think about other things. With a longer excursion of several days, the process of self-liberation is accentuated: you escape the constraints of work, throw off the yoke of routine. But how could walking make you feel this freedom more than a long journey? … only walking manages to free us from our illusions about the essential.
Walking can provoke these excesses: surfeits of fatigue that make the mind wander, abundances of beauty that turn the soul over, excesses of drunkenness on the peaks, the high passes (where the body explodes). Walking ends by awakening this rebellious, archaic part of us: our appetites become rough and uncompromising, our impulses inspired. Because walking puts us on the vertical axis of life: swept along by the torrent that rushes just beneath us.
What I mean is that by walking you are not going to meet yourself. By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history.
During long cross-country wanders, you do glimpse that freedom of pure renunciation. When you walk for a long time, there comes a moment when you no longer know how many hours have passed, or how many more will be needed to get there; you feel on your shoulders the weight of the bare necessities, you tell yourself that’s quite enough – that really nothing more is needed to keep body and soul together – and you feel you could carry on like this for days, for centuries. You can hardly remember where you are going or why; that is as meaningless as your history, or what the time is. And you feel free, because whenever you remember the former signs of your commitments in hell – name, age, profession, CV – it all seems absolutely derisory, minuscule, insubstantial.
As you would expect, the book explores philosophers and their relationship to walking. Nietzsche was a walker. He wrote:
Sit as little as possible; do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement — in which the muscles do not also revel. All prejudices emanate from the bowels. — Sitting still (I said it once already) — the real sin against the Holy Ghost.
When he wrote, The Wanderer and His Shadow, he walked, alone, for up to eight hours a day. Nietzsche would stop to scribble notes in small notebooks with a pencil. The entire book, except for a few lines, was thought out and composed en route.
Walking is different things to different people. To Nietzsche walking was more than relaxation, it was where he worked best.
“Think while walking,” Gros writes “walk while thinking, and let writing be but the light pause, as the body on a walk rests in contemplation of wide open spaces.”
While Nietzsche walked to work, Kant walked to escape. This was his way to escape — “a distraction from work.”
Like Nietzsche — although with different emphasis — (Kant) was concerned with only two things apart from reading and writing: the importance of his walk, and what he should eat. But their styles differed absolutely. Nietzsche was a great, indefatigable walker, whose hikes were long and sometimes steep; and he usually ate sparingly, like a hermit, always trying out diets, seeking what would least upset his delicate stomach.
Kant, by contrast, had a good appetite, drank heartily, although not to excess, and spent long hours at the table. But he looked after himself during his daily walk which was always very brief, a bit perfunctory. He couldn’t bear to perspire. So in summer he would walk very slowly, and stop in the shade when he began to overheat.
Rain or shine, Kant had to walk.
(Kant) went alone, for he wanted to breathe through his nose all the way, with his mouth closed, which he believed to be excellent for the body. The company of friends would have obliged him to open his mouth to speak.
He always took the same route, so consistently that his itinerary through the park later came to be called ‘The Philosopher’s Walk.’ According to rumor he only ever altered the route of his daily constitutional twice in his life: once to obtain an early copy of Rousseau’s Emile, and to join the scramble for hot news after the announcement of the French Revolution.
Many people think that walking fast is key. We’re driven to get from point A to point B and we need to get there as quickly as possible. This is not leisure. Nor is it restful.
Gros claims the lesson, “in walking,” is that “the authentic sign of assurance is a good slowness.” He later continues:
The illusion of speed is the belief that it saves time. It looks simple at first sight: finish something in two hours instead of three, gain an hour. It’s an abstract calculation, though, done as if each hour of the day were like an hour on the clock, absolutely equal. But haste and speed accelerate time, which passes more quickly, and two hours of hurry shorten a day. Every minute is torn apart by being segmented, stuffed to bursting. You can pile a mountain of things into an hour.
Nietzsche, Thoreau, and Rousseau think we should walk alone.
Being in company forces one to jostle, hamper, walk at the wrong speed for others. When walking it’s essential to find your own basic rhythm, and maintain it. The right basic rhythm is the one that suits you, so well that you don’t tire and can keep it up for ten hours. But it is highly specific and exact. So that when you are forced to adjust to someone else’s pace, to walk faster or slower than usual, the body follows badly.
So, Gros concludes, “it’s best to walk alone.” But we are never alone. Thoreau wrote: “I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.”