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Thoreau’s Formula for a Successful Life


Success is less obvious than it seems, but at the same time it is also closer than we think: according to Thoreau, the key lies at the core of what we truly desire.

Success can be a complicated category. For many, this is an incredibly relative reality, which depends on our perspective and the criteria we use to judge it. “Successful” can be used to describe a person who is skilled at making money, but who is also a talented artist; successful is a person that lives peacefully, precisely aware of their own needs.

With such vastly different circumstances, is it possible to determine a type of “common denominator” shared by all successful people?

We don’t know for certain, but we can play with the idea. We can turn to H.D. Thoreau and think of success from a different perspective, more romantic perhaps, but subversive in terms of our era’s hegemonic definition.

As we know, in a given moment of his life, Thoreau decided to live in the forests of Walden, Massachusetts, with the purpose of reflecting on human life. His homonymous book bears witness of his meticulous and sensitive, simple and profound, examination. This fragment can also be found in that same text, where the American author suggests one of the paths that lead to success:

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.


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. Shall we with pains erect a heaven of blue glass over ourselves, though when it is done we shall be sure to gaze still at the true ethereal heaven far above, as if the former were not?

Is there such a thing as a formula for a successful life? We don’t know, and it’s likely that Thoreau didn’t either. In any case, his recommendation has been made: pay heed to your desire, recognize what it is that you really want, and do what you must to make it come true.

To paraphrase a motto of the Renaissance, would not satisfaction be its own reward?

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