Essential Life Lessons from Ralph Waldo Emerson

Note: This is a guest post by Josh Lipovetsky of Film Insight

Ralph Waldo Emerson. A literary pioneer. Not only did he find the basis of Transcendentalism, or Bright Romanticism writing; he made great contributions to the field of personal development, and gave us some great practical ideas about living, that we will ponder upon for centuries to come. He valued the individual over society, and had many works of literature to enforce his views. In his works, there were many inspirational quotes that reflected what an individual is. Emerson’s highest values were: courage, peace, and the power of the individual.

I have selected 6 quotes, which represent Ralph Waldo Emerson’s views on life. Each quote has its own meaning, and its own method of practical application.

“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.”

Isn’t it true? Every opportunity, every chance that you take in life, is the sacrifice of another opportunity. By choosing to become a writer, you are sacrificing the opportunity to be something else, like an accountant. So what is the point of it all? The point is to stop worrying about missed opportunities, because you have no idea what could have been. Maybe if that milk hadn’t been spilled in the past, you would be in a better present situation? On the other hand, you might also be in a much worse present situation. Opportunities come and go; it is up to you, the individual, to make the best decision for yourself. Weigh the pros and cons of each decision, and know that you are giving up another opportunity. It could be better, it could be worse. It’s all part of the human being experience.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Let’s face it: There are always going to be certain people, that don’t want you to succeed. People who look at you weird when you do something right. Too many people act like robots in today’s society. They do what is expected of them, get their rewards, repeat. Expectations, Rewards, Repeat. Emerson could not stand this repetitive cycle. He believed that society turned people into something that they weren’t born to be. And as a person got older, it was harder and harder to break free from the strong grasp of society. What does it take to be yourself? For one, it takes a lot of courage, one of Emerson’s most favorite traits. Whenever someone goes against society standards, they will take a lot of heat for it. This resistance from others is just a sign that you are doing something right. No one said that being yourself was easy. Difficult? Yes. Rewarding? Extremely. In the end, the people that are able to go against the grain of society are the truly great people in our world.

“We are always getting ready to live, but never living”

When I get my promotion, I’ll really start living! When things have settled down, then I’ll do it! These are common phrases that you hear from people. Will the dust ever settle? No. Will you ever get the promotion? You might, but then you’ll come up with another excuse not to take action. The truth is that there are hundreds, if not thousands of excuses you can make not to take action. There is always a little voice inside your head, afraid of failure, and afraid of success. Your ability to truly live is dependent upon your ability to ignore that counterproductive voice inside your head. What you’re hearing is the voice of complacence. The moment you stop listening to it, is the moment you begin your real life. Until then, you will always be getting ready for a change in your life. But getting ready for something, and actually doing it, are two different things entirely.

“Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.”

Life is all about learning new skills. Once you have acquired these skills, you must constantly seek to improve them. In your industry/job, there will always be people who are up-and-coming. These people will surpass you, unless you are constantly seeking to improve yourself. Like my former teacher once told me: “The moment you are satisfied with what you have, is the moment that someone else will take your spot in the race of life.” Emerson believed that life is about growing, and there was no point in living if you don’t constantly grow. No matter what you know, or how many skills you possess, there is always more to learn about your respective interests. You can always do a better job, regardless of how good you are at what you do.

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”

Destiny is overrated. Yeah, I said it. There are too many people attached to the idea of ‘fate’, and ‘destiny’, that they believe they can lay back, do nothing, and their fate will take over. Well I have some bad news to those people: Your destiny is not looking very good! Is there any wildly successful person, off the top of your head, who got to where they are by doing nothing? No. People who are truly great don’t rely on the concept of fate/destiny. There is no proof/evidence to support its actual existence. So here is one of the keys to life: Live life like fate and destiny don’t exist. Decide what you want to be, pick out your future, and make your own destiny. After all, whoever we think we are, we become!

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself”

Perhaps Emerson’s most powerful quote. Ultimate power to the individual. Who else but yourself can bring peace into your life? It hurts to say this, but horrible things happen every day. Murder, kidnapping, rape, you name it. It happens to amazing people. The external world is never peaceful. But you don’t have to suffer at the hands of other people. Until the day you die, you can choose to be at peace with the world. You can let go of your surroundings, and be one with nature. One of Emerson’s friends, Henry David Thoreau, believed in the peace of nature. He spent a couple of years submerged in nothing but the beauty of nature itself! Now that is how you find peace! But I’m not saying that you need to spend years in the wilderness to be at peace with yourself. I’m saying that you need to acknowledge your spirituality, and the peace that has been within you since birth. When we learn to find peace within ourselves, the world around us changes. We attract more external peace, while radiating a signal of internal peace! It’s strange, but that’s how life works. From the inside-out, not the outside-in.

The human spirit is as strong as can be. However, society has gradually weakened it. As children, we are born with our own respective traits, attitudes, and beliefs. We are our own person. However, as we get older, we conform to society, and lose our sense of individuality. But you know what I say? No! Emerson refused to give up his right to be different, and refused to conform to society’s standard. This is what every human being is meant to do. To go against the grain, is to find your own way of life. To do it your way, like it has never been done before!

Josh Lipovetsky started his business, Film Insight, when he was just 16 years old. He started it while hospitalized, after being inspired to write about life. He incorporates the ideas from our favorite movies, and personal development. If you like movies, and learning about life, you will love his website!

Photo by iChaz


  1. Nice post. I agree with most quotes although I think the first one is a bit negative. I like to think that life is made by opportunities, so even if it could be true that if you choose to do something you are losing something else, in reality you are moving accordingly to a specific path.

  2. What you wrote is true, and life is made by opportunities. However, Emerson just wanted people to know the truth about decisions/choices. I guess the first quote is pessimistic, but we can’t have everything. We make the best choices for our future, and go from there.

    Thanks for the comment, Oscar!
    Josh Lipovetsky.

  3. Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of my favorite writers too, and these quotes resonated with me. But as I get deeper and deeper into self-help and personal growth literature, there is a nagging question that keeps popping up in my head.

    Do we really need to keep mastering more and more skills? Do we really need to grow? What’s wrong with the person who finds joy in the skills he has and spends his lifetime doing the same job, career or activity over and over.

    While traveling the world excites me, there are others for whom staying put is the most joy of all.

    Being yourself and being at peace with yourself may not involve continuous growth as defined by the world. Sometimes staying put and being happy with less is going against the grain, and yet if it’s a source of happiness, it’s what must be done.

  4. I live these quotes!!

    Opportunities are there constantly and for me when one door closes I have always looked at the fact that there are thousands of other doors that I haven’t even tried. In some ways I like rejection in that I get to explore new opportunities. Bu |I also realize that when I take an opportunity, it means that I am also rejecting other opportunities. Its not a negative to me, its merely living.

    Growth can have different meanings to everyone. But there is truth that if you do not expand yourself you may not grow. Must we grow? No, if that is the individuals choice. There is nothing wrong with repetition, but I would say that even those who find comfort within doing the same thing over and over is still growing. There will be some newness in what they do. Otherwise it would be akin to watching re-runs over and over, planting the exact same flowers in the exact same manner every year – in essence not changing anything. It would be like the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. I do not know anyone who would like that life, or even lives that life.

    This is a great series of quotes and some may end up in the book I am working on.

    Thanks for sharing these.


  5. I think you have chosen some good quotes.

    I specially like this one: “Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.”

    When you know about the brain aspects of making changes in your life and how much we humans are habitual, you also know that it takes some courage to go beyond your comfort zone.

    Best regards,
    Claus D Jensen

  6. Hi Josh.

    That first quote is great because we sure do always give up something to get something. We can only do one thing at a time, so the other things we are not doing are left on the backburner. This is okay, as long as we are glad about what we are doing.

    That second quote about how being ourselves when everyone wants us to be something is a reason why I am glad. I avoid most of the self-removing influence that is out there, and am the better for it. It is easy to get labeled and packaged and anything of that sort, but it is worth it to not let this occur.

    That point about getting ready to live, and never living, is something I also keep in mind. I make sure that what I am doing is fulfilling right now, and also has future value. There has to be both elements, or else that day of good won’t ever be today.

    I sure enjoyed all of these.

  7. Flora, I guess that we don’t need to keep mastering more and more skills. If you are fine where you are; then you definitely should keep doing more of the same. However, we must constantly improve our existing skills, or keep our mind active, because our brains constantly need to be working. That’s a great point! Anytime that you are happy, you are growing. Because; in certain ways, happiness=growth. I appreciate your opinion.

    John, that is awesome that you live these quotes! I do as well, and so did Emerson. Rejection is definitely the best source of feedback that we have in our lives; in terms of whether we are on the right path or not. Emerson didn’t mean the quote of opportunities in a negative way (as I interpreted it), but rather a restatement of facts.

    Funny that you mention Groundhog Day; I saw that movie for a second time about a month ago. I was so inspired by it. I wrote about the film on my website, and I really think it’s a great character study. The way that an angry, pompous, and sarcastic celebrity; became a kind and generous soul. Sure, it took a lot of time. But in our lives, we have a choice. And it can start today! I would love to read your book when it comes out, if you can e-mail me! Thanks!

    Claus, isn’t that the truth? And even when you have broken past your comfort zone, it takes daily effort and courage, to maintain your life. Life can catch you off-guard at any moment, and cause you to fall back into a downward spiral. It has happened to me many times. Luckily, I usually notice within a week or two. When it happens, I usually make a drastic change in my lifestyle. Lately, I have developed a morning and afternoon routine. So far, so good! Thank you for your comment!

    Armen; when I got sick 2 years ago, I began to realize how limiting society is. Being a hospital patient; I got to meet such a kind group of staff. It got me thinking: I wish that people in my school could have acted this nice to each other. Society, in the past, has greatly limited me. But now that I see the bigger picture, I am refusing to conform. ‘Let Me Be Myself’, as 3 Doors Down says it. It’s a great song about the constraints of society. Thanks a lot for the inspiring words!

    Thank you for all your kind comments guys, and thank you for taking the time to read it. It was very nice of Donald to post it. I hope you all have a wonderful year in 2010!
    Josh Lipovetsky.

  8. Very fascinating quotes. For some reason, quotes that make me think, truly motivate me. Emerson had his head screwed on. 🙂

  9. jennifer blanchard
    jennifer blanchard

    I LOVE this post. Thank you SO MUCH for writing it. I fight every single day of my life to be who I am. I go against everything my family believes, most of what my friends believe and almost all of what society believes. I do this because I want to look back on my life and feel like I accomplished everything I wanted to and lived the life of my dreams.

    My favorite Emerson quote of all time is: “…Decide that what you know is more important than what you have been taught to believe.”

  10. This post is great. A lot of the content on here resonated with me. Prior to reading this post, I didn’t know much about Emerson, but I will have to do more research on this great man. The quote that resonated well with me by Emerson was “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” I think this is something a majority of bloggers in the field of personal development and success actually go through, because they are constantly (for the most part) writing about ideas that are true for them and their spirit, and may at times from others get not so great feedback, as blogging to some people not accustomed to how it works, may pre-judge the situation..Excellent post.

  11. Okay, this one spoke to me the loudest:

    “We are always getting ready to live, but never living”

    I lived most of my life that way. I was always trying to get the promotion at work, make more money, have more things. Gosh, I was absolutely miserable. Part of that misery was a disempowering belief that “stuff” would make me happy. Another part of that misery was being so out of touch with the present moment. I didn’t feel ALIVE. I just felt like I was going through the motions.

    It’s good to revisit these times in our lives and to re-embrace the lessons. Still today I can find myself resorting back to my “old ways,”

    Thank you for this moment of awareness.
    I really enjoy reading your blog.


  12. Great reflections and frame.

    The more I learn about Emerson, the more I appreciate his insight.

  13. Thanks for your post. I love your ending.

    And it reminds me a quote from one of my coach.

    “If you want extraordinary life, do not do ordinary things like others.”

    He taught me to be brave to being different.

  14. […] Latumahina presents Essential Life Lessons from Ralph Waldo Emerson posted at Life […]

  15. […] exposition of several meaningful quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a clarion call to our modern predicament.  We sit in gilded cages of our own devising, watching […]

  16. hi! these are nice qoutes!!!
    i learned new things and inspired me a lot…
    Life has so many o

  17. I’d add: “It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man.”

    Emerson was something of a zealot and his thinking remains radical even today. To gloss over his weirdness is to do him a great injustice.

  18. I am not much of a reader of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I do like his quotes. I think that my favorite one was the one about being yourself, regardless of what society says. That is very tough to do, and it takes a ton of courage. And yes, many people, if not most, do simply become robots and do what they are told; unfortunately, this can become a very rewarding process. But, keep in mind, people who chose to be different – Gandhi and Lincoln, for example, became some of the greatest leaders the world has ever known. Interesting post, and good to hear some people are willing to think different!

  19. Welcome and thank you for having this post
    he was a lover of integrity, rare quality
    I have came across this free audio with a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson on Napoleon!

  20. I absolutely love Emersons quotes. The first one is basically what is konwn in business as an opportunity cost. Great post, loved it!

  21. I especially love this quote.

    “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself”

    Actually no one can be as harsh as oneself, sometimes, we blamed ourself in a most serious way.

  22. Almost developed a soft corner for Emerson
    Loved probably all of his quotes
    I am writing an essay on him and this has really helped me lotss ….!!!

  23. Thank you so much for this. I actually picked the last quote to use in my essay and I was having a hard time expressing my thoughts about it until I read this. this has helped me a lot. thank you so much.

  24. Does anyone know in what book/ essay/ speech Emerson said the quote: “to
    be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is
    the greatest accomplishment”? I need to cite it for an essay

  25. I love this blog post! I refer to it often.

Comments are closed.