A Life Well Lived According to 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.”

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.

On Leadership

There are a number of keys and steps that it takes to become a good leader. There are also many interpretations of what a good leader can be, but I believe there is also a specific formula of characteristics, habits, and traits that separate the good leaders from the bad ones. It is extremely useful nowadays to go over the themes and the values that often make up the blueprint of a good leader whether you are referring to a business executive or to a prime minister. I particularly rely upon using books and other reference materials for further analysis, which help to highlight the importance of leadership when operating under difficult circumstances.

Especially when it comes to working within an adaptive leadership framework, you have to be able to address different challenges and crises that arise which may cause you to adapt your leadership style to fit the times. In order to meet these challenges, a leader has to be open to new ideas, be able to self-reflect, and stay true to the overall vision or goals at hand even when obstacles are thrown in the way.

Each modern and historical leadership figure that you can think of was an adaptive leader since they were not following a specific script or manual and had to sometimes improvise or change their beliefs or views when the time came for it. Still though, these leaders had a steadfast vision, were good communicators, and had the trust of their constituents and colleagues to carry out the work they were doing even under high pressure situations.

The most useful example for me of displaying adaptive leadership in action was the movie “Invictus”. That movie portrays an excellent example set by the former President of South Africa and human rights icon Nelson Mandela as an adaptive leader. He did not let his past experiences of being jailed unjustly in Robben Island cloud his ability to forgive and bring his country together to fight for a better future. He was open to compromise, dialogue, and reconciliation to heal a very divided country.

I think that even if we do not consider ourselves to be a natural leader, it would do us a lot of good to put ourselves in other leaders’ shoes to decide how we would act if we had been the leader in those situations. I believe it would be very beneficial for anyone to do role playing scenarios, either historical or modern-day ones, where someone is forced to put our leadership abilities to the test and see how they would do when evaluated by counterparts or colleagues.

Being a principled leader takes time but can be rather straightforward when you really think about it. Anyone can have principles that they stand for but that does not necessarily make a good leader. There are other qualities that make a good leader which involves having a deep sense of who they are including their strengths, weaknesses, and how they can tell their story. Even if a leader has principles, they may not be morally sound or ethically fashionable, which is what someone can conclude when you consider the actions of controversial leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

When you contrast these principled yet morally compromised modern leaders with positives historical examples of real leadership from the likes of President John F. Kennedy or Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, you can get a better sense of how a leader can be principled in their decision-making but still a bad leader in terms of reputation. The Kennedy brothers still had principles, but they were based in sound morals and humane values as well as an ability to reach out for advice and counsel before making an important decision. They were decisive but not arrogant. Both men would be considered well-versed in exercising what is known as emotional intelligence. Under immense pressure, they were able to not let their ego or personal feelings get in the way of making a fateful executive decision that prevented World War III.

I have learned through my own life experience and by reading about other people that a leader must be able to put him or herself in difficult situations where their ability to exercise leadership will be tested. Being able to open yourself up to risk, setbacks, and failure can help to mold a true leader as overcoming adversity has helped many people in the past to rise up to take charge when their community, their country or the world needed them.

You do not need a stirring personal narrative to be a good leader, but it does help you build a strong connection with others. Sharing your story and connecting that story to the larger society is a very powerful tool that can make you stand out as a leader. I believe that a leader should always aim to be authentic when they connect with other people and to see themselves as not the center of attention but a small part of a larger story. To be transformational and a servant of the people, you have to put your ego aside. Those leaders who are the most developed as individuals are those who know themselves well.

A leader must not only be successful in leading himself or herself but also in successfully leading a team to achieve goals and in working together collaboratively. In order to lead a team, every member must be open and honest with each other. Accountability is a key aspect of being a team leader both to themselves and the rest of the group in order to be a more cohesive force.

While the leader has to hold the team members accountable for how they work and what they do, the leader must expect that the team members can also hold their leader fully accountable in response. Each member of the team must live up to the duties expected of them because if just one of the team members isn’t pulling their weight, then everyone on the team will suffer as a result. A true leader will not let the weight of the powers and responsibilities given to them let it go to their head. True leaders must be humble as well as selfless in how they set the example for the rest of the team or organization that they are in charge of.

In a group setting, each member of the team including the leader must be willing to have difficult conversations and point out both the positives and negatives that are ongoing within the team. Sometimes, I believe it is best to pull a team member aside to have a private conversation if the matter is really serious but if it is a consistent yet small error that is hampering progress, then that should be brought up in the team meeting. However, it’s best for the leader or any members to gossip or talk negatively about someone in a passive-aggressive manner.

I, myself, am wary of a hierarchical structure when it comes to leading teams. It creates an unhealthy dynamic where the team leader may not be accountable to anyone in the group but himself or herself. They may be able to critique their team members flaws without any fear, but the team members would not be able to do the same to the leader. The hierarchical system of leadership should be considered imperfect in its nature and I think it’s best to consider a more collaborative approach to the concept of leadership where the team or group take turns becoming the leader at different intervals in order to better understand what it’s like to lead the group rather than just stay on the sidelines and carry out orders from above.

As a leader, you should be willing to bring together qualified people of different skill sets and capabilities together in the hopes of achieving a common goal that you have set for your team. There is an inherent importance of being open with your teammates as well as a willingness to accept your own boundaries within the team or organization. In order to be an effective leader, one must realize their own limits within their given expertise and skillset. A good leader will not try to do everything or infringe upon the necessary work of other team members. Building a true sense of collaboration and cohesiveness instead of competition and infringement is key in order to achieve the goals and objectives you set as a leader.

Being vulnerable with your team members is a key part of being an effective leader. However, there’s a balance that you have to have as a leader. You should be open to having difficult yet necessary discussions with all team members, a few of them, or just one-on-one if the discussion is extremely sensitive. I believe it’s best to be open and honest with your team members rather than closed off and withdrawn. You should act with transparency when it comes to your decision-making process and the actions that the team as a whole should implement. It’s also necessary to not sweep things under the rug and let a small issue become a big one. A leader should also admit his or her own shortcomings, which will let others in the team be more comfortable around you in expressing their flaws as well.

When constructive criticism is warranted both for the leader and team members, it should be discussed. Before criticizing, I think it’s important to follow the rule of saying one or two nice things about the work the team is doing before discussing what should be improved upon. Any kind of critical feedback should be preempted by a positive remark that would soften the blow of a negative comment that could be taken the wrong way. A true leader will let himself hear open feedback from the team he or she is leading and implement those changes to improve the results of the team. Also, it’s the most important job of a leader to delegate responsibilities and tasks well enough so they are not responsible for too much or find themselves to be too prideful to bring on new team members.

Lastly, I think another distinct priority of a leader should be to always actively look for the most qualified people and bring them onboard. Having the diversity of background and of opinion can build a strong team but you must also have a variety of opinions available to you so as to avoid groupthink within the ranks. A leader should be aware of their strengths and weaknesses at all times and be humble enough to fill in the gaps with wise counsel, strategy through the addition of others who compliment his or her area of expertise. Any leader can only go so far in life and in work by themselves, but it is the team, the organization, the army, or the people that the leader builds who can help that leader build their legacy in the history books for their good governance and fair decision-making.