How Fast Would Emerson Be Fired?

By now we all have a pretty firm grip on Emerson’s individualism.

He’s all about himself.

I’m not saying this in a bad way, but Emerson is highly independent and self-sufficient.  All Emerson, all the time.  This mentality has its benefits.  If we never had to interact with others we would probably be less stressed, more open, and more focused on ourselves.  But is Emerson’s individualistic view really practical today, especially in the workplace?

(Obligatory generic work/teamwork video marred by comical acting)

Think about any job description or application you have read.  How many of them cite “proficiency in working in a team-based environment” or “interpersonal skills” or “experience working in small groups” as a requirement?  Most, if not all.  Fact is, teamwork is a staple of the professional world today.  It is with these team-based environments that companies produce novel ideas, solve conflicts, and maximize their outputs.  In a Darwinian professional environment, Emerson-esque individualists would be hung out to dry.

“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” (Emerson 23).  While this philosophy may be rational and beneficial if we were locked in a room for the rest of our lives, this phrase is simply not possible to carry out today.  How many times do we, as University students, get placed in small groups with the intention of carrying out some sort of task?  Be it reviewing a paper, writing a lab report, or presenting a group project, if we are only concerned with ourselves we will fail to perform our duties to the best of our abilities.  In the context of the workplace this phrase seems just as blasphemous.  How can one claim to be working for a corporation, not for profit, hospital, or anywhere else while claiming to be focused on themselves and only themselves?  Just ask Joe Paterno and Mike McQueary of Penn State University.  This strategy does no good in the long run.

The other part of Emerson’s work which is not truly practical in the professional world is his notion that consistency is frowned upon.  “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.  He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.” (Emerson 24).  Ironically, it is consistency that is most rewarded in the workplace.  Inconsistency, in fact, is one of the great failures of employees at any job.  While working to our full capabilities on Tuesdays and Thursdays while taking Monday, Wednesday, and Friday off would be great, it wouldn’t get us very far in the professional world.  Consistency, on the other hand, is absolutely necessary to have a successful career.  Think about tenured professors or those who perform so well at their craft that they get promoted.  Back to the Paterno example, this is someone who tireless worked for the same University in the same position for 45 years.  How was he rewarded (despite his public embarrassment in the Sandusky case)?  A measly pension of $500,000 per year.(  )  Consistency undoubtedly pays off in the workplace.

It can be said that Emerson’s philosophy is too idealist to survive today.  Our lives are filled with, and thrive upon, personal interactions.  In the workplace as in life, one who is “self-reliant” today is destined to fail.

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5 Responses to How Fast Would Emerson Be Fired?

  1. megsavel says:

    I understand your argument, but I respectfully disagree with it. Perhaps I am missing the boat on this since a lot of people in class seem to be coming to this conclusion, but I do not think that Emerson is advocating for a society of absolute and complete individuals who refuse to work with or listen to anyone but themselves.

    “Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adoptive talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him.” (Emerson 35)

    This quote does a good job of explaining why Emerson is so insistent on people being individuals and relying on themselves. If someone focuses too much on other people and in trying to be as others would want them, they loose their own strengths by trying to imitate others.

    In thinking about Emerson in a modern day interview being asked about his ability to work in a team, I honestly don’t see him having much difficulty. He would probably say something along the lines of “I think it’s important to know what team members do best and letting them do that. Instead of everyone taking notes, the best note taker should do so. Not everyone should be in charge of project development, because some individuals are simply not “idea people” and are better at executing a specific plan once a course of action is decided upon. Other people are good at networking and should be allowed to focus on that.”

    In regards to consistency, I don’t think that Emerson is referring to inconsistency of action but rather of thought. “It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day” (Emerson 24). Emerson is trying to encourage people to constantly be re-evaluating their thoughts and how they view the world. As an individual grows as a person, they learn new things. Oftentimes people are so concerned with being accused of being inconsistent or of being a “flip-flopper” on issues that they neglect to change their voiced opinion on something even if presented with new information that makes them view the issue differently.

    I don’t think Emerson would be fired quickly from any modern job. I think he would be commended for the different ways in which he would approach a problem, for being a self-starter and for being able constantly re-evaluate if how he is doing his job is the best way to do it.

  2. miswain says:

    Could you imagine suing a company or a prospective employer who turned you down, and then citing their failure as “not supporting Emersonian qualities?” This post brings up a valid point. When I think of Emerson in the modern-day workplace, Steve Jobs immediately comes to mind: He had a very specific vision for every product he would create, he was a creature of habit and didn’t give a damn about what other people thought (repetitive black turtleneck, jeans, white sneakers, etc). Moreover, he was reportedly more of a reclusive asshole than a people-person…which is perfectly understandable.

    While Jobs is (at least in my mind) a triumph of Emersonian ideals in modern-day America, it is important to remember that not EVERYBODY can create their own companies at age 21 and build it into one of the most successful, formidable, highest-grossing corporations in the world.

    But what if he had not been his own boss? Jobs was obviously a very smart and capable man, but would he have been able to climb up somebody else’s ladder? This post really did get me thinking – maybe teamwork IS overrated. Maybe those who prefer to work by themself have been dealt a worse hand (in terms of finding employment) than those who “work well with others.”

  3. John Lee says:

    I will have to agree with the first poster in saying that your claim that Emerson would be quickly booted out of the modern workplace due to his beliefs is an oversimplification of the text. In Self-Reliance, Emerson never once discourages cooperation; instead, he discourages conformism of thought and action for the sake of “blending in” with the group. There is no reason to think that one’s ability to think independently (which Emerson champions) should interfere with one’s person’s performance in the modern workplace — indeed, if everyone was able to be original, U.S. innovation would skyrocket and the economy would more likely than not be in a better position than it’s in today.

    You also seem to be confusing Emerson’s espousal of individualism with some kind of support for selfishness, which it isn’t. Indeed, when Emerson writes “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think,” he is simply saying that one should form opinions independently, without being restricted by the thoughts and opinions of others. It has nothing to do with self-centeredness.

    Similarly, when Emerson argues against consistency, he means consistency of thought, not consistency of action as you seem to be interpreting it (“While working to our full capabilities on Tuesdays and Thursdays while taking Monday, Wednesday, and Friday off would be great, it wouldn’t get us very far in the professional world”). Indeed, when Emerson argues against consistency, he is simply saying that people should always be changing themselves and re-evaluating their thoughts and actions and not be restricted by what they did before — be open-minded. This, I think, would be a great motto for the modern American workplace.

  4. charliefilips says:

    This is definitely a smart and well written post, but I am more inclined to agree with the arguments posed by Megsavel and John Lee. Emersonian ideology undoubtedly advocates acting in accordance with your own constitution — “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature… the only right is what is after my own constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” (22) However, I don’t think its completely reasonable to assume that an individual following Emersonian ideals would be more likely to lose their job than someone that was more “team” oriented. Is it not in the best interest of an individual to preform to the utmost of their capabilities in the workplace so that they may secure all that is necessary to become self-reliant?

    Regarding the discussion on consistency, Emerson warns against a foolish consistency and criticizes those who are unwilling to change their opinions out of dogmatism. One of Emerson’s most popular quotes “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” (24) attests to the idea that it is unreasonable to be fixed in your thoughts or will when presented with more reasonable alternatives. Emerson isn’t referring to consistently in action, as megsavel note, but rather consistency of thought. I’m sure Emerson would be an advocate of consistency in action when it is reasonable and in the best interest of the individual.

  5. jtgilb says:

    Unlike many of the people commenting, I tend to agree with you in regards to Emerson’s applicability in the modern workforce. Maybe I am ‘oversimplifying’ the text like John suggests, but I think that in it’s core, Emerson promotes individualism by any means possible. I think that his ideals are inherently selfish and do not promote compromise, which is essential to working in a team. Emerson emphasizes functioning as an individual and not conforming, but a ton of jobs require that you work as one body and even go as far as to encourage conformity. For those of you suggesting that Emerson would work well in a group-I must respectfully disagree. Contrary to the poster above me, when Emerson states “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think,” I think that if we apply this to a working environment it would foster feelings of anti-team and individualism that often, isn’t fitting for a workplace. Rather, in some jobs (that revolve around monotony and not so much creative mindsets) being the same as everybody else is mandatory. What would Emerson think of this? And what about when he must be evaluated by his superiors? This is mandated in every job that I have ever had. Do you think Emerson would take criticism very well? No, I don’t believe so. Just some thoughts.

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