How To Master The Art Of Living To Yourself
As a man hungry for wealth and success, it is right that you commit yourself fully to your profession and the affairs relevant to it. But the sheer busyness of the world can make it hard for you to actually get anything done. Indeed, you should never confuse activity with achievement. The latter can only come through the calm, steady, intelligent application of mind.
To this end, the words of the great 19th century English writer William Hazlitt are poignant. In his essay “On Living To One’s-Self” he writes:
“What I mean by living to one’s-self is living in the world, as in it, not of it…it is to be a silent spectator of the mighty scene of things, not an object of attention or curiosity in it; to take a thoughtful, anxious interest in what is passing in the world, but not to feel the slightest inclination to make or meddle with it…”
Hazlitt is by no means suggesting that men of affairs ought to withdraw into a hermit-like existence. He was himself one of the great public intellectuals of the age and got involved in all manner of disputes over politics, philosophy, art, and literature. What he means by this statement is that the best life is one resigned to the world as it is. We should, he would say, make what we can of our talents and abilities, our aims and ideals; but we should make no attempt to change people, seek their approval, or solicit their affections. As he goes on to write:
“It is such a life as a pure spirit might be supposed to lead…calm, contemplative, passive, distant, touched with pity for their [other people] sorrows, smiling at their follies without bitterness, sharing their affections, but not troubled by their passions, not seeking their notice, nor once dreamt of by them.”
To live to yourself, in other words, is to be emotionally and psychologically independent and self-sufficient in your professional affairs. You must of course make friends, partnerships, and alliances in order to get to the top. However, you must not allow any one person or group of persons to act as validators of your value and worth.
This is a difficult thing to do. Humans are naturally sociable. Our instinct is to fall in line with some group of like-minded people; and once there, to seek the approval of its members and get involved in the drama and intrigue of their individual lives. This kind of engagement can only lead to distraction and drift, and to the ultimate failure to accomplish anything great in your own right.
To avoid this fate you must master the art of living to yourself. Here are three tips on how to do so.
We are constantly told of the good that comes with constructive criticism. There is in fact no such thing as constructive criticism. The purpose of good criticism is to take apart and examine—the exact opposite of construction. The competent critic must possess a sharp and penetrating mind, which is why criticism in its proper form is so rarely performed. What you are more likely to hear from your superiors and colleagues is mere commentary on your work. And as you may have noticed, it is usually a dis-jointed accounting of half-remembered facts loosely connected with what you have done. On some occasions, you may even meet with outright offense. You cannot let any of it bother you. Not being in good with your boss or your associates may temporarily set you back; but you must not let their valuations put you in a permanent state of discouragement and despair.
Closely related to the latter is your general reputation among those who work in your organization or profession. Gossip, rumors, and outright lies will form most of what constitutes your public reputation—if you have one. It is useless to push against this. The public mind, once it has got hold of an idea about someone—no matter how erroneous and absurd—will only let go of it to pick up a stupider and more outrageous falsehood. Do all you can to be well thought of by your colleagues. But you must not allow your reputation among them to have outsize influence on your thought and action.
A final way of learning to live to yourself is cultivating the enjoyment of your own company. It is sometimes good to spend whole days on your own—reading, thinking, writing, or finding other ways to recreate yourself. Doing this from time to time does not make you anti-social. It makes you more comfortable with being yourself and living to yourself.
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About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.