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Emerson on Talent vs. Character, Our Resistance to Change, and the Key to True Personal Growth

“People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

“Cut short of the floundering and you’ve cut short the possible creative outcomes,” Denise Shekerjian wrote in contemplating the capacity for “staying loose” that many MacArthur geniuses have in common. “Cheat on the chaotic stumbling-about, and you’ve robbed yourself of the raw stuff that feeds the imagination.” And yet part of the human paradox is that even in the face of overwhelming evidence for this uncomfortable truth, despite full intellectual awareness of it, we continue to seek certainty and resist change, stunting our personal growth with stubborn self-righteousness and staunch defiance of the very discomfort from which self-transcendence springs.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the same indispensable volume that gave us the great philosopher on the two essential requirements of true friendship — comes a layered and immeasurably insightful 1841 essay titled “Circles,” exploring the pillars of personal growth and how we can learn to stop resisting the very things that help us transcend our self-imposed limitations.

A century and a half before psychologists examined “the backfire effect” of our ideological stubbornness, Emerson considers how we arrive at our beliefs and why we have such a hard time with the uncomfortable luxury of changing our minds:

The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own. The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end. The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel, will go, depends on the force or truth of the individual soul. For it is the inert effort of each thought, having formed itself into a circular wave of circumstance … to heap itself on that ridge, and to solidify and hem in the life. But if the soul is quick and strong, it bursts over that boundary on all sides, and expands another orbit on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave, with attempt again to stop and to bind. But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast force, and to immense and innumerable expansions.

The balance of steadfastness and spontaneity that jazz legend Bill Evans saw as necessary for his art, Emerson sees as necessary for the art of personal development:

Let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker… Yet this incessant movement and progression which all things partake could never become sensible to us but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul.

Illustration by Rob Hunter from ‘A Graphic Cosmogony.’ Click image for more.

In a sentiment that Bertrand Russell would come to echo nearly a century later in his ten timeless commandments of learning“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Emerson considers our resistance to change, both as individuals and as a culture:

Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series… The new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism.


In nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten… Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath or covenant to secure it against a higher love. No truth so sublime but it may be trivial to-morrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.

Life is a series of surprises.

But Emerson’s most pressing point has to do with how this courage for embracing uncertainty and change — especially unwelcome change — is the foundation of what we call character:

The difference between talents and character is adroitness to keep the old and trodden round, and power and courage to make a new road to new and better goals. Character makes an overpowering present; a cheerful, determined hour, which fortifies all the company, by making them see that much is possible and excellent that was not thought of. Character dulls the impression of particular events. When we see the conqueror, we do not think much of any one battle or success… The great man is not convulsible or tormentable; events pass over him without much impression. People say sometimes, ‘See what I have overcome; see how cheerful I am; see how completely I have triumphed over these black events.’ Not if they still remind me of the black event. True conquest is the causing the calamity to fade and disappear, as an early cloud of insignificant result in a history so large and advancing.

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from the unusual and wonderful ‘Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters.’ Click image for more.

He returns to the notion of life’s self-evolving circle:

The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment. The great moments of history are the facilities of performance through the strength of ideas… They ask the aid of wild passions… to ape in some manner these flames and generosities of the heart.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures is a sublimely rewarding read in its entirety, full of enduring wisdom on discipline, language, love, beauty, ethics, illusion, self-reliance, and nearly every other substantial aspect of the human experience. Complement it with fifteen ideas for self-refinement through the wisdom of the ages, including one from Emerson himself.

Published January 26, 2015




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