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Hudson ’14: Being independent

Success literature has largely remained unchanged for hundreds of years. From the New Testament to Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich,” pundits have called thrift, discipline and hard work the foundations of a good life. These values remain necessary for those seeking success today. But they do not guarantee success. Today’s world demands that a person not simply embrace thrift, discipline and hard work, but also become independent.

Independence means different things to different people. Some define it as freedom to do as one pleases. Some call it reliance on oneself. I consider an independent person to be someone not controlled by others in matters of opinion or conduct, thinking or acting for oneself, a definition adapted slightly from an entry on Dictionary.com.

Thrift, discipline and hard work are components of independence, but independence is larger. It is possible to be thrifty, disciplined and hardworking and not independent. For instance, one may be all of these things and yet still be emotionally dependent on the approval of another. Independence is setting goals one wants for oneself and executing plans to achieve them.

Unfortunately, independence is often criticized as unrealistic. Critics claim that independence means regarding people as isolated beings that shouldn’t cooperate with one another. This is not what independence means. Independent people seek out and cooperate with others who bring value to their lives.

The challenges of today’s world are a great incentive to develop the goal of independence. Young adults — even those with degrees from Brown — face economic and philosophical obstacles today. Economically, the United States is in poor shape. Until only recently, the U.S. unemployment rate had been above 7.5 percent for the longest period of time in the Bureau of Labor Statistics records. College students today graduate with an average of $26,600 in student-loan debt. According to a study published earlier this year, 128.8 million people — about 41 percent of the U.S. population — are enrolled in at least one government program.

Unfortunately, the future is not getting any easier. Social safety net programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, continue to draw money out of younger adults’ paychecks but may not exist when those adults become seniors. These programs are part of an estimated $87 trillion in government unfunded liabilities. What’s more, our politicians don’t seem up to the task of reining in these spending excesses. A recent Rasmussen poll found that 37 percent of Americans believe that zombies would do a better job of running the country than the federal government does. The economic situation is not good, but the philosophical one is worse.

The dominant philosophy today is that society is responsible for the future of individuals. We have a president who says, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.” In other words, individual effort is due to society’s efforts. We have accepted the idea that government spying on every American is necessary for the protection of society. Concerns over individual privacy are an afterthought. Unsurprisingly, we have a feeling of malaise in the country. A Rasmussen poll taken in August showed that only 29 percent of Americans believe the United States is heading in the right direction.

With this said, there is plenty of opportunity to succeed in today’s world. With the growth of the Internet, access to information has become easier than ever. The importance of formal education is declining as fields such as computer engineering demand more on-the-job learning. Social media hampers government’s ability to control the news. These factors all reduce barriers to self-education and self-improvement.

Taking advantage of today’s opportunities in the world will require the ability to think independently. Without thinking for oneself, how can one recognize something, evaluate it and act on it? For this reason, independence is a confidence in one’s own mind. It is reliance on oneself to think. The ability to love, learn, listen or commit any other act are all derived from the degree of confidence in one’s own ability to understand reality. These ideas are not mine. Credit is due to Ayn Rand, novelist and philosopher. I encourage everyone to read “The Fountainhead,” which for me was the greatest expression of the connection between independent thinking and a good life that I have ever encountered.

The ability to think independently is not just a trait of literary characters. It exists in real people who have used it to lead successful lives. Thomas Edison is a clear example. Edison acquired 1,093 patents during his lifetime. He persevered through hundreds of failed attempts to create an incandescent light bulb. He was not limited by his lack of formal education. In fact, writer Mark McCormack once said, “If Thomas Edison had gone to business school, we would all be reading by larger candles.” Edison is a reminder that cultivating one’s own mind is vastly more important than pursuing formal education.

Thought is not the only component of independence. Positive self-esteem is also critically important to success. Psychologist Nathaniel Branden defined and explained self-esteem as one’s own evaluation about oneself, which cannot be given to someone. Healthy self-esteem must be cultivated by acting in a manner that increases self-respect.

Branden’s idea has immense relevance to the world today. Today, most of society tells us emotional health comes from giving to or serving others. While helping others can be a worthwhile goal, it is dangerous to make it the sole goal. Ultimately, to live for someone else is not a virtue but an act lacking in courage.

Mental and emotional independence allow a person to reap rewards many years down the road in life. Steve Jobs captured this in his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. Jobs told the audience how he dropped out of Reed College after six months but continued to take classes there in what interested him. He also talked about how important it was to his biological mother that he attend college. Jobs’ drive to continue learning at Reed, even after he dropped out, demonstrated a confidence in his own ability to think. His decision to drop out despite the importance his biological mother placed on a college education demonstrated high self-esteem independent of others’ thoughts.

Jobs called his decision to drop out “one of the best he ever made.” His decision reaped great rewards later in his life. Jobs credited the Mac’s typography to a calligraphy class he audited at Reed. His decision to drop out — a decision that ended up being a great one —  was supported by his mental and emotional independence. Without these two qualities, he might never have created Apple.

Not everyone should drop out of college. But everyone should make decisions with mental and emotional independence.

Independence and its two components, confidence in the mind and a high sense of self-esteem, are the foundations of a good life in today’s world. Each of us should take the time to consider whether our daily actions are an advance toward or a retreat from independence.