Thoreau on Personal Development

Updated: Oct 14, 2020


This is the second post in a series of posts examining Henry David Thoreau’s seminal book Walden. To read the first post, click here Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to live simply, and, in so doing, he sought the most efficient means of personal development.

He believed in a life free of distraction so that he may “follow the bent of [his] genius” wherever it may lead. He implored the reader to throw off convention, live according to their own nature, and that if this is done sincerely, the human potential will stretch far beyond our current horizons.

“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.”

This summer I read Walden(public library) at Walden Pond, and though its prose led me to a deeper appreciation for nature, I couldn’t help but feel that its true value came in encouraging the reader to aspire to something greater.

Thoreau used the specifics of his own experiences to describe the universals which govern our own. In going to the woods, Thoreau pursued the exact endeavor of which he was called, reminding us to have the awareness to listen to, and the courage to act upon, such a call in our own lives.

Whether it be success at work, athletics, or in relationships, we all have a woods we seek. What Thoreau can teach us is an undying faith in ourselves, our path, and our efforts. Had Thoreau not gone to the woods, he would not be Thoreau. Each of us must ask,

What are my woods?

Once we hear that call, we must have the patience to delay gratification, as the more worthwhile your endeavor the less likely you are to be praised in the immediate.

Personal development is a slow, daily process in which our habits compound upon themselves, often unnoticed.

I find that my greatest victories are those for which there are no trophies. When I see a stranger on the street and quietly and genuinely wish him well. When in a conversation with friends I listen and attend to their words completely, feeling joy for their personal successes as though they are my own. When I practice complete presence, even in something as simply as turning a door knob.

This is when I am most human.

“The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”

Naturalists praise Thoreau for what he did in the woods. The rest of us can derive meaning from the fact that he went to the woods. He heard an unfamiliar call and he answered it.

We are each tasked to become something greater than what we are, and as our lives are most fulfilling when lived at the edge of our comfort zones, our greatest joy will be found in the pursuit of our highest self. As Thoreau said:

“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.”

…by a conscious endeavor.


If you want to read Chris’s latest book on personal development, check it out here.

If you would like to be coached by Chris personally, click here.

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