Whenever I am looking for inspiration in my own life whether it comes to how to develop myself professionally or to be better on a personal level with others, I like to refer to the excellent quote on success and on a well-lived life by American essayist, philosopher, abolitionist, and 19th century transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was not a man who saw success in only the material or popular means that is often the case of how individuals measure success today. Instead, Emerson believed success in life was about much more than fame, fortune, and overall popularity.
Emerson saw success and life itself as leaving the world a little better than when you found it. He believed in the importance of caring for nature, of having good relationships with other people, of honing your craft professionally in whatever you were passionate about, and of caring for family or friends who could rely upon your kindness and care. This quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson has always been a favorite of mine because while it was a conventional means of measuring a life well lived or a ‘successful’ life in the 19th century; I believe that too often today, we measure a ‘good life’ in shallow and often selfish ways.
In the era of the transcendentalist movement, there was much more to life than accruing things for material worth, or showing off how much money you had, or thinking that because you have more you are then better than someone else. On the contrary, Emerson and other thinkers of that movement believed in progressive ideals of equality, justice, and fairness. They believed in giving back to others in whatever way was possible and to do so consistently. While it was not a religious movement, it was based around individual actions to help a larger community or society.
It did not shun personal success or individual wants or needs as being unnecessary, but it asked people to believe in the power of working together to a common goal or cause, treating your fellow man or women with respect, fairness, and dignity, and to believe in giving back through charity, through helping others, and to be of good character not just in words but in actual deeds. Emerson like others were idealists and believed in the goodness of humanity despite the dark impulses that can lead us astray. While we are unique individuals of free will, we must never forget to care for our family or our friends, or nature itself which is gift not to be squandered.
The actual quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a long yet impactful one that touches on many different parts of one’s success in life that must not be ignored. When most people define success in a singular manner and often involving their own joy and happiness, Emerson does quite the contrary by arguing that success or a good life is based on how we leave the world after we depart from the Earth and what do we do in life to leave those around us better off than they were before. Above all else, Emerson asks the reader to imagine how they can impact the world in their own way for the betterment of not just themselves but for others as well and humanity.
In the quote, he does not ignore our hierarchy of mental needs such as the need to be respected by others, to laugh often with friends, to be appreciated for what we do, to be able to overcome adversity such as suffering betrayal, which is inevitable at points in our lives but to also appreciate the beauty around us because it is temporary in life as well. Fulfilling that life well lived according to Emerson is not just about being there for others but also being there for ourselves mentally by having our emotional needs met and fulfilled with joy, happiness, laughter, kindness, respect, and overcoming negative emotions such as betrayal and deceit.
“What is success?…
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch Or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
When you look at this memorable quote from Emerson, he prioritizes in life partaking in individual joy in the form of laughter most importantly. He also indicates the need to be respected by other people especially who you choose to associate with as being intelligent either emotionally or figuratively. He also discusses the need to be compassionate towards children, whether they are your own or not. Knowing that critics are inevitable in various avenues of life, Emerson seeks that any individual appreciate the critics who are honest about him or her and asks the reader of the quote to be mindful of those who want you to improve and to try to do right by them in becoming better at what you do.
Emerson also asks that while some friends are necessary to have in life; we must be prepared for betrayals that can occur from those who you thought were friends but were rather only looking out for themselves. Even though others, even friends and family members will let us down at times, we should still seek to see the good in others and to try to get the best out of everyone we meet. Human beings are fallible creatures, Emerson would say, but we should try to look for signs of redemption and efforts of good faith because people deserve to show you that they have good in them, and they can rectify their wrong doings often when they are given a real chance.
Despite facing inevitable criticism, betrayal, and disappointments throughout life, we must stop and take time to appreciate life itself for all its natural beauty. It will calm us down, put our lives in perspective, and think of a world much bigger than our own internal musings. Because of the sheer beauty surrounding us that we can often fail to fully appreciate, this divine beauty should inspire us to be caretakers of this world that we inherited at our birth and to be true guardians of the planet for the next generations. He includes in his musings on success in life to include leaving the world ‘a bit better.’ As individuals, we can only do so much for the state of the world, but if we all pitch in to do our part, that will cause massive change to occur on a societal and global level.
Leaving the world, a bit better is not just about recycling or not littering or being aware of how you’re affecting the natural world with consumption but it’s also about beautifying the world too. Whether it is cleaning a park littered with trash or creating a garden patch for others to enjoy or deciding to walk instead of driving a car, little actions like these by individuals can leave the world better off than before. I saw this kind of contagious effect working with others as a volunteer lately in helping to create a new vegetable and flower garden for a youth center in Washington, DC. Getting your hands dirty, beautifying a small part of the neighborhood, and having others pitch in to help is one of the best feelings one can have in life. It’s not often in our lives when we get to see a positive change happen in real life but creating a garden or even beautifying a park has a large ‘ripple effect’ that can change the world for the better even if it is on a small scale.
Emerson lasts mentions that if you have a child or care for one in your custody that to ensure their health and happiness is one of the great joys of living and contributes to improving the world in a measurable way. Giving back to nature and to other people is a consistent theme in this quote by Emerson and to redeem a societal condition such as creating a garden, raising a child, or being a mentor to a friend who needs your help will not only be doing good for you but for others as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson finishes his quote to sum up success in life and having a good life as coming down to fundamentally whether because you lived, did others live easier because of your presence? Was someone or something healthier, happier, or more fulfilled because you were there? These are important questions to ask yourself. In your life, are you just in it for the fame, fortune, and your own personal gratification? Or are you living your life to leave a legacy that can do some good in the world in some measurable way?
Emerson never mentions personal gratification such as having a lot of money or being popular as keys to a life well-lived and I agree with him. Emerson prioritizes the fact that after we depart from this Earth, what will we be remembered by? What contribution to others and our society did we make? Are people in our lives better or worse off because of your existence? That is what true ‘success’ means in the long-run and that a life well-lived should be based around. I hope that you take this excellent quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson to heart as I have. It’s a brilliant piece of wisdom that gives each of us steps to make the most of our remaining days on this Earth. Let the joy, laughter, beauty, conscientiousness, and unselfishness among other characteristics that he mentions as being the keys to a life well-lived guide you in all your days here.