The great thing about motivational quotes is they represent wisdom and offer insight for us in our own lives, conveniently boiled down from a pile of words. The drawback, of course, is that you’re only reading a small part of whatever the quoted person was trying to say, usually twisted into some new meaning in its abbreviated form. As I’ve re-read and re-discovered Walden, as you may expect many old, familiar quotes pop up. This particular thread from the Conclusion chapter, takes on a much deeper meaning when you consume everything Thoreau wrote (the oft-quoted words in bold):
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves… The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”
“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 things. 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.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
As romantic a notion as building castles in the air is, these words seem just a little too up with people for general consumption on their own. Like one of those motivational posters you see in offices around the world. But taken in the context of the rest of the paragraph, they become more meaningful. Thoreau is reminding us that we all fall into routines as individuals, and also as societies, but if we only have the courage to break out of those routines in focused pursuit of loftier objectives, the universe aligns to support us in achieving these objectives.
Reading Walden again, I’ve realized that I glazed over much of it the first time I read it as a teenager. The words simply didn’t mean as much to me then as they do now. But isn’t that the case with everything? We all pick up a little wisdom as we move through life. But we also pick up bad habits, assumptions and biases, and become the sum of the parts around us. Choose your path, establish those tiny, sticky habits that move you towards your objective, surround yourself with the right people and you will pass that invisible boundary Thoreau describes. Routines can build you into something much greater than you imagine, but they can also hold you down. Get off the worn-down mental path and see the world in a new way.
“The universe is bigger than our views of it.” – Henry David Thoreau
Speaking of the universe, it seems to align with the way I’m thinking at a given moment. I know that’s not entirely accurate, I just notice things more when I happen to be thinking about something related to it, like suddenly seeing white Honda Accords everywhere as soon as you start driving one. So upon posting this article I scanned Twitter briefly and what do I find but George Mack’s Twitter thread about High Agency, which he heard about from a Tim Ferriss interview with Eric Weinstein:
“High Agency is a sense that the story given to you by other people about what you can/cannot do is just that – a story. [A] High Agency person looks to bend reality to their will. They either find a way or they make a way. [A] Low Agency person accepts the story that is given to them. They never question it. They are passive. They outsource all their decision-making to other people.
So a Low Agency person believes the world is as people say it is. That’s just the way things are. A High Agency person believes the universe is bigger than our view of it, as Thoreau so eloquently states it. Be the change you want to see in the world. and what is more High Agency than “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.”?