When you hear self-reliance, what do you think of? Living off the grid in a cabin somewhere? Doing everything yourself, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps?
Do these images get at what it really means to be self-reliant, or is there a deeper and even more profound meaning to be grasped?
Indeed there is, and my guest today is here to help us unpack it. His name is Kyle Eschenroeder. He’s a regular contributor at AoM and we’ve just published a little pocket guide filled with his meditations on what it truly means to be self-reliant called The Pocket Guide to Self-Reliance. Today on the show, Kyle and I discuss what most people get wrong about self-reliance and how he defines it. We then get into specific tactics you can use to trust yourself more like spending time in solitude, developing an inner scorecard, not seeking advice when you’re first starting a big project, and using intentional introspection. Kyle and I then discuss how to jive self-reliance with belonging to a community and how to know if you’re becoming a self-reliant man. Developing a self-reliant mindset is more difficult than ever in our modern world, and yet vital to living a satisfying life on your own terms; you don’t want to miss this show.
- What do most people get wrong about the idea of self-reliance?
- Why self-reliance has more to do with your inner self than how you live externally
- That attributes that really capture the spirit of what self-reliance means
- The thinkers who have helped Kyle flesh out this idea
- Why developing this type of self-reliance is incredibly difficult
- What role does solitude play in self-reliance?
- Why digital solitude is especially important
- Why airplane mode is your friend
- Why you should partake in an “input deprivation week”
- What is an “inner scorecard,” and how do you develop it?
- How “the score takes care of itself” as long as you’re doing your part
- Why self-reliant people should ignore probabilities
- The merits of listening to advice versus relying on your own ideas
- What is “intentional introspection”?
- What does it mean to set your own law? How do you do it?
- The importance of embracing tradition
- How do you know if you’re becoming more self-reliant?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Pocket Guide to Self-Reliance
- My first podcast with Kyle on taking action
- My second podcast with Kyle on why action is the answer
- “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
- “Manners” by Emerson
- Thoreau on Media and Information Consumption
- How to REALLY Avoid Living a Life of Quiet Desperation
- Emerson’s Advice on How to Read for Greater Self-Reliance
- Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
- Nicholas Nassim Taleb
- On Caring by Milton Mayeroff
- The Spiritual Disciplines: Solitude
- Lessons on Solitude From an Antarctic Explorer
- Solitude and Leadership
- Declutter Your Digital Life
- Input Deprivation Week
- Everyone Takes the Same Instagram Travel Photos
- The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh
- 5 Tools for Thriving in Uncertainty
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
- The Pocket Guide to Action
- Stop Hacking Your Life
- My podcast with Jordan Peterson about his 12 rules for life
- My podcast with with Matthew Crawford about becoming an individual in an age of distraction
Connect With Kyle
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded with ClearCast.io.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When you hear self-reliance, what do you think of? Living off the grid in a cabin somewhere? Doing everything yourself and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps? Do these images get at what it really means to be self-reliant, or is there a deeper, even more profound meaning to be grasped? Indeed there is. My guest today is here to help us unpack it. His name is Kyle Eschenroeder, he’s a regular contributor here at AOM, and we’ve just published a little pocket guide filled with his meditations on what it truly means to be self-reliant.
Today on the show, Kyle and I discuss what most people get wrong about self-reliance and how he defines it. We then get into specific tactics you can use to trust yourself more, like spending time in solitude, developing an inner score card, like Warren Buffett, not seeking advice when you’re first starting a big project, and using intentional introspection. Kyle and I then discuss how to jive self-reliance with belonging to a community and how to know if you’re becoming a more self-reliant man.
Developing a self-reliant mindset is more difficult than ever in our modern world, and yet vital to living a satisfying life on your own terms, and you don’t want to miss this show. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/selfreliance. You can also buy a copy of the pocket guide to self-reliance at store.artofmanliness.com.
Kyle Eschenroeder, welcome back to the show.
Kyle Eschenroeder: Thanks for having me again, Brett. This is … I’m excited to be here.
Brett McKay: So yeah, the last time we had you on, we were talking about taking action, the philosophy of taking action, and we partnered with you and published a book called The Pocket Guide to Action, which I know a lot of people have bought, and really enjoyed, and got something out of it. We’re actually coming out with another little publication of yours, The Man’s Guide to Self-Reliance. It’s a little booklet that you can fit in the back of your pocket, and it’s based on an article that you wrote, I guess it was last year, right?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah, yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It’s called A Man’s Guide to Self-Reliance. So, let’s start with, self-reliance is something that gets thrown out a lot. People, they quote the Emerson essay, and sort of use it as a manifesto of being independent, and thinking different, and all that whatever, you know, motivational stuff you see. What do you think most people get wrong about self-reliance, or the self-reliance that you’re talking about in this little book?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah, I think the fundamental thing that people miss when talking about self-reliance is kind of conflating self-reliance and self-centeredness. It’s not that at all, in my view. And I think also people come at it from a more physical point of view than anything. So it’s about being completely … being off the grid, or having a beard and growing your own food, or just doing kind of eccentric things in the world. So, it’s also easy to read his essay as a manifesto for narcissism, or a total dismissal of tradition, propriety, and kind of put you against society in general. And it’s, I think, I made a lot of those mistakes in some of my early readings of his essay, and I’ve been reading it at least a year for over a decade now, so every time, I get something more out of it, I think I understand something a little bit more thoroughly.
And some of it, so it’s also to read it as a call to do something huge, and remake the entire world, ’cause there’s a lot of quotes in there, it talks about, “Who would teach Shakespeare?” And quotes about achieving greatness in general. But fundamentally, the essay and its most important parts are about asking us to live our lives from our center and to actually pay closer attention to what’s inside us, outside of us, but in general just kind of come at the world from a deeper self-trust. And that doesn’t necessitate doing anything crazy, breaking society, denting the universe, or anything like that.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think it’s interesting how, I know a lot of people, when they were teenagers, and that’s probably the first time they read Emerson’s Self-Reliance, and they think, “Oh, my gosh, this is speaking to me.” And because you’re a teenager, and you’re dumb, you kind of read with that sorta self-centered, “I’m gonna be a rebel and different,” whatever mentality, when you clearly missed the point of it, and then as you get older, and you read it again, you’re like, “Oh, okay. That’s what he was actually talking about.”
Kyle Eschenroeder: Exactly. And I actually recently read one of his essays, it’s an essay on manners, which is all about propriety, and you see him balance these ideas of, “Yes, you can get away with a lot in society. If you’re being self-reliant, if you’re acting from your center, you will get away with a lot of eccentricities. But the crowd is only going to put up with you being so loud about such-and-such things.” And it’s not an expression of self just to kinda be loud and obnoxious. That’s not the point. The point is exploring those boundaries and trusting yourself. But, like you said, it’s not about becoming a narcissist.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, and another transcendentalist, a guy who had … is Thoreau, these are contemporary of Emerson. And that idea of, being self-reliant doesn’t mean you have to do something huge, and something grand. Thoreau obviously did. We were still talking about his work today. But I think what’s interesting about him, with his trajectory of his career, when he was a young man, he had this ambition to go to New York and just make a splash on the literary scene. He wanted to be a big name there. And he went out there, and he failed completely. Trying to write the great, whatever, American novel or whatever. So, he goes back and he goes to Walden Pond, and he just writes about nature and some other thoughts, and that little thing, he wasn’t even trying to be huge, and big, and important, that little thing, that’s the thing that made him huge, and big, and important, is when he started just following his bliss, whatever it is you wanna say.
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yes. I think that’s awesome. That’s a perfect example of self-reliance. And I think another aspect of that, too, that I think people put so much emphasis on self-reliance and finances, or being self-contained, taking no help at all. Of course, while Thoreau was writing On Walden Pond, it was on land owned by Emerson, right? So he was getting help to follow that inclination.
Brett McKay: So, okay. We’ve talked about what self-reliance isn’t. It’s not self-centered, it’s maturity, it’s an understanding, it’s just looking at within and following that voice inside of you. Doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to make a huge dent in the world. But let’s kind of get a positive definition of self-reliance. So, how … What are some of the attributes of self-reliance that you think are … really capture when Emerson was talking about self-reliance?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah, these things are so hard to define, and I think we spend a lot of this little booklet trying to get at what it is and what it’s not. So it’s one of those ideas you can point at from a bunch of different ways, but it’s tough to kinda wrap up in something tidy.
But if I’m gonna try to do that, I would say something like, “Maintaining sovereignty over the self in a connected, civilized world.” And I think that that points to the importance about being inner-directed in such a way that your decisions and opinions are defined primarily by your own experience of the world. Yeah, so I think that that kind of sums it up. “Maintaining sovereignty over the self in a connected, civilized world.”
Brett McKay: And so, as you’ve come up with this idea and as you’ve fleshed this idea out in your booklet, who’re some of the thinkers that have informed that idea, or your fleshed out idea of that definition you just gave?
Kyle Eschenroeder: I think Emerson is, of course he’s the guy who gave it a name, he made the idea click, and for a long time, that essay on self-reliance kinda served as close to a religious text for me. But the stoics, especially Seneca, have helped inform at least my conception of self-reliance, especially in the way they use reasoning to see things more clearly. I think Nassim Taleb is the modern thinker who’s informed my idea of self-reliance the most, and it’s partly because of his ideas but mostly just ’cause of the posture he takes in the world. He’s willing to say anything, piss off anybody, so I think, to some degree, he represents a certain mode of self-reliance.
And then there’s an Indian sage, Krishnamurti, who really informed the experiential side of how I see self-reliance. And he just does such a great job at talking about direct experience and making it clear how much learning happens in direct experience that is impossible through secondary experience, through hearing other people talk about what they’re seeing or what they’ve done, and really focusing on all the learning that can happen from your direct experience.
And the person who’s changed my idea of self-reliance the most recently has been Milton Mayeroff, who is the author of this little book called On Caring. It’s a short book and really incredible, and he has some really potent ideas about becoming yourself through serving something else that really helps cut out that narcissistic possibility, or potential reading, of self-reliance. And his ideas on becoming more of yourself through serving another more intensely really kind of made a bunch of sections of Emerson’s essay pop that I kind of ignored before, ’cause maybe I just didn’t really get them. And I hate to talk about it in such vague terms right now, but we’ll touch on those later, I’m sure.
It’s also, self-reliance has been one of those central ideas that hit me early as a teen, like you were talking about, and so it became this kind of vortex. So everything that I’m reading brings itself to self-reliance in one way or another. And so now I have, in my commonplace book, where I kind of collect ideas, I have this huge section on self-reliance and things that point to it in different ways. Yeah, we’ll get to a distillation of a bunch of those in the next few minutes, I’m sure.
Brett McKay: Sure. And do you think this type of self-reliance that you’re talking about, is it hard to develop, and if so why?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah, I think it’s incredibly, incredibly difficult. We have interdependent relationships with everything, especially the people in our life so, and an extension of that, society. I think self-reliance is an internal thing, so it’s hard to create objective feedback loops that we would normally use to develop skills, and it’s contextual. So, even when we’re talking about it, when we try to define something, it’s very difficult, ’cause it’s a posture more then anything. So we can’t define a set of things to do, and then if you do those things, that means you’re self reliant, ’cause if you’re following something blindly … It doesn’t matter how physically independent you are from the world, that doesn’t mean that you’re … have a self-reliant posture. And beyond that, it’s just a constant practice. The default is to be pulled off-center, and it just takes a lot of effort and attention to remain self-reliant.
Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about some of these specifics, like practices, meditations that you can take or do to develop self-reliance. So, you started off talking about solitude. What role does solitude play in developing self-reliance, and what kind of solitude are we talking about here?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah, I think part of it’s … Solitude, we’re talking about it in a physical and mental. And I think solitude allows you to get in touch with your inner voice that can get drowned out in day-to-day life. And of course that only happens if you’re using solitude in a proper way. So, that’s … If you’re spending your time by yourself, but then you’re consuming random content or playing video games, that’s not getting you in touch with what you think and what you believe. That’s just outside distractions creeping into your physical solitude. So, it’s still kind of mental chaos.
So, I would define … Physical and mental solitude is an area in which you’re able to be physically alone but also be alone with your thoughts, so you can actually witness what you think, what you believe, and see how you’re considering things in life.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. And so how do you go about … ‘Cause I mean, secluding yourself digitally is hard, right? ‘Cause you have a phone, you might work on your computer. So, what are some things you do to digitally seclude yourself?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah, so that’s the tough one. Digital seclusion, I think airplane mode is our friend on our phones. Having periods of being unplugged is really helpful. And these are not novel solutions. One of the first things I recommended, on the first article you all ever published from me at Art of Manliness, was an input deprivation week. So, that’s basically removing yourself from any content consumption for a week. Deleting all content apps on your phone, games, or anything else that might be somewhere were you consume content. So that means no movies, no TV, no books, no input at all. Ideally not even music. So, it forces you into noticing your inclinations to consume, and instead you spend those times journaling, doodling, creating, working on something, talking with people.
And a ton of people have responded to that, had absolutely incredible results. I’ve been blown away. So that’s kinda the extreme, but you can do that to different degrees every day. So maybe you have an hour a day where you’re journaling, or you have an hour a day where you’re going on a walk with no podcast or no kind of distraction, where you’re just there.
And the idea behind this type of solitude isn’t that content consumption is bad at all. It’s not, and most professions rely on it. I think content consumption can help creativity, productivity, and general progress in life. But the point is to separate from that and get familiar with yourself, your inclinations, your style, your capabilities outside of this constant stream of distractions.
Yeah, and I think that way of creating digital solitude is similar to what we’re trying to achieve in moments of solitude physically from other people in general, too. So, it’s not that society is evil and that you should become a hermit, that’s a really bad idea. The point is that it’s important to be able to retreat from society so that you can get back in touch with what you think, want, feel, et cetera.
Brett McKay: I just, it’s kinda related, I just saw this thing online this week, where this travel photographer put together a collage of all the travel photos on Instagram, and they all look the same. There’s certain motifs, like the one, like the hands, there’s like the girl in front and the guy holding the hand, you know what I’m talking about?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brett McKay: That’s become, everyone does that. Or like … And I think that the point goes that that’s what happens whenever you don’t make time for seclusion. You just end up doing and mimicking what you see other people do, instead of trying something new when you’re alone. Because you don’t care, right? It’s for you. But that thing you might come up with by yourself might be the stroke of genius. But you never know that unless you kind of disconnect yourself from what’s going on around you.
Kyle Eschenroeder: Right, right, yeah, exactly. When you’re planning trips around the goal of having a certain Instagram photo, you’re not gonna have the time or room for, yeah, that more quiet desire that’s more true to you, to go off and do the thing that could actually make an interesting impact in your life.
Brett McKay: So, another sort of tactic or practice that you advocate for in becoming more self-reliant is developing your inner score card. What’s that, and how does that help you become more self-reliant?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah, so this is an idea from Warren Buffett, and your inner scorecard, you could call it a yardstick that you use to judge yourself. And it’s created by you, for you. And you can contrast it with an outer scorecard, which is basically what other people think of you. So, if you’re using an outer scorecard, you’re judging yourself based on reactions you’re getting from random people around you. And if you’re making decisions based on the outer scorecard, then it’s almost impossible to make a contrarian decision, which means it’ll be just about impossible to realize incredible returns. Whether it’s an investment idea, or an idea for a business, or anything else, it’s gonna be difficult to break out, and it’s gonna be difficult to stay sane, because the world is really fickle in how they judge you. And if you’re relying on them for guidance on what to do next and how to think about yourself, you’re gonna end up just really confused and kinda in a bad place.
So, but if you stick to your inner scorecard, you’ll be able to reliably make better decisions and handle the ups and downs that come with those decisions more easily, because you know that you’re following the rules you set for yourself. And it gives you some reliable standard to judge yourself by. I kinda see it as a tool to go with the saying, “Don’t care what other people think.” And that’s not to be taken all the way. So, I came across a really interesting Warren Buffett quote the other day. He said, someone asked him why he loved going to work every morning, and he said, “Because I get to paint my own painting, and I like the applause.” And so that brings up kind of a difficult question, which is: can we care about what other people think and still remain self-reliant?
And I think that we can as long as we retain our dedication to the internal scorecard, that we select the people whose opinions we care about at least somewhat carefully, and make sure that we know when they’re wrong. So, having an inner scorecard can help you determine whether or not the applause or booing you’re getting from the crowd is valid. And just to be conscious in general that somebody else’s opinion is driving us, and to what degree. I think that there’s a balance to be had there. So, using the internal scorecard is kind of the primary thing, without pretending that nobody’s opinion matters to you. Which I think is impossible in a world as interconnected as ours and as a member of a species who’s so thoroughly social.
Brett McKay: So, the inner scorecard also comes in handy for, not just for opinions but also just outcomes you have no control over, right? If you’re an entrepreneur, or even a coach … I know a lot of sports coaches kind of have this idea of the inner scorecard. Bill Walsh has that book, The Score Takes Care of Itself. John Wooden had something. And their whole thing was like, it doesn’t matter what the score is on the board, as long as we hit these internal metrics that we have for ourself, that was a success. ‘Cause that’s all you can do, and sometimes there’s nothing else you can do besides that.
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And sometimes there’s things that are outside of your control. So, they know that focusing on those metrics are going to give them the best chance at a favorable outcome. So, the score takes care of itself after you focus on these things. But you’re not focusing on the ultimate score, you’re focusing on each play, and he goes through the whole book. But yeah, exactly, you’re focusing on your internal scorecard that is designed to create the best possible outcome. Even if those outcomes are kind of … They can be lumpy returns or just, there’s always probability that plays a role, so you do your best, and sometimes you don’t lose, but like you said, if you stay true to those internal metrics, you’ve still won.
Brett McKay: And that kind of leads to the next point you talk about in the book, is self-reliant people ignore probabilities. Why should self-reliant people ignore probabilities?
Kyle Eschenroeder: I think, and so I should preface this by saying that we shouldn’t ignore all probabilities in general, but I think the self-reliant person is going to ignore probabilities about the chances of accomplishing what they want to accomplish. So there’s a few reasons for this. First, Peter Thiel said, “You are not a lottery ticket,” a famous investor, and I think that that’s … You are not a lottery ticket, so any set of statistics inherently ignores huge factors that will actually determine your chance at success. So, they don’t take into account things like your experience, your network, your team, resources, your talent, your grit, ingenuity, commitment. All sorts of things. These are massive indicators of success, and any measurement is going to miss them, for the most part.
So, I have this friend who owns restaurants, and he was trained as a manager at Burger King, he thoroughly understands the business side of owning a restaurant. So, when he opens a restaurant, they’re gonna have a much higher rate of success than an athlete who made a bunch of money and wants to open a restaurant as kind of an ego thing. So these are two … Restaurants in general have pretty high failure rates, especially over three or five years, but that rate of failure, the probability of success or failure is going to be dramatically different depending on the person, the financing, the situation.
So that’s the first thing. The second thing is, and this is also inspired by an investor, this one Ben Horowitz of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. He wrote this book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, and in it he says something that’s really interesting, and it kinda points to what you were talking about. He says, “It matters not whether your chances are nine in ten or one in a thousand, your task is the same.” And the point being that you have to find a way regardless, so why worry about the chance you have of getting there? Because that’s just gonna be a distraction. So, in The Pocket Guide to Action, I use this quote from Plutarch that also highlights this point, maybe even in a more badass way, he says, “Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy but where they are.”
So, it doesn’t matter how hard the obstacle is. You have to overcome it, once you pick a direction. And again, if we focus too much on the chances that something might work out or might not work out, then we’re not focused on what we need to do to make it happen. So, to kinda sum this up, in general, we should not use probabilistic thinking to determine what we wanna do, but once we choose our direction, we should use probability all we can to help us get there.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. That makes sense. Alright. So, going back onto this idea of, you mentioned the guru, the Indian sage guy?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Krishnamurti.
Brett McKay: Is he a guru? I don’t know if that was … Do you think people naturally like to trust their own experience, or do they like to go to the comfort of, “I’m gonna ask for advice or see what other people have done”?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah, I don’t think that’s the inclination at all. Actually, Krishnamurti has a really, one of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Krishnamurti, and he said, “The primary cause of disorder in ourselves is the seeking of reality promised by another.” And primary cause, that’s a big claim, and I don’t think it’s far off. ‘Cause you see this … I have a lot of experience with this in, I used to help people start e-commerce companies. I could tell, right away, who was gonna succeed and who was not. The people who were going to succeed were people who took whatever suggestions we gave them, tried them out, took a ton of action on it, and found new obstacles. Or found that, “Hey, this isn’t working for me in this situation.” So, people that were willing to fail with little pieces of information, without a complete picture, ended up making a ton of progress.
People who failed without fail, who just did not progress, are people that kept coming back, week after week, wanting an entire explanation of a whole process. “Tell me how a business works. Well, a business is one of the most abstract, difficult problems to solve in general, and if you’re not willing to gain the knowledge that comes with direct experience from that, you’re not gonna make any progress. Nobody can tell you exactly how to do it. People can lay out frameworks, they can lay out general rules, pitfalls to avoid, but if you’re unwilling to actually try to sell something, it’s never gonna work.
And so, yeah, you see this in … It’s the phenomena of the wantrepreneur, it’s like there’s a whole industry serving a group of people who have jobs, that are kind of dissatisfied with them, or very dissatisfied with them, and they don’t actually wanna take the risk of moving on or starting something, but they wanna feel like they’re making progress. So, there’s a ton of people offering advice that may or may not work, but it’s not actually designed to take action on, it’s just designed to sell to people who wanna feel like they’re doing something, like they’re becoming self-reliant. When in fact they’re just sinking further into stagnation.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve had that same experience. I get a lot of requests from people to pick my brain about, “How’d you get started with the podcast? How’d you grow The Art of Manliness?” And I would give advice to people, pretty much all the time, but then I discovered something. I’d follow up with these guys three or six months later, and I was like, “Hey, how are things going? Did you get started?” And pretty much nine out of ten of them had not. They had not taken action, and they were like, “Well, you know, I’m still planning, I’m still looking into it.” And so now my policy is, if someone asks me, “Hey, I’m thinking about starting a blog. Can I take you to lunch for an hour and talk about it?” And I was like, “How about this? You get started, come back to me six months after you’ve started, and come with specific questions or roadblocks you hit.”
And I found those conversations, when people take me up on that, are much more productive, because the advice that I could give them about starting a blog probably wouldn’t be very useful ’cause I started mine in 2008? And the whole ecosystem online was different as it is today. I got a lot of traffic from delicious.com or whatever, and that does not exist anymore. So that wouldn’t be useful advice. People have to experience on their own to figure out what works for them and what doesn’t work, and maybe go to someone when you come up to a problem, when you’ve cranked all your widgets, and you couldn’t find out an answer, then maybe go get some advice.
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah, exactly. I think part of … One of the mechanisms that you’re using there is actually tricking folks to get direct experience so that they actually end up trusting themselves a little big more with the problem. “If I make any progress, or show Brett that I’ve tried anything, then he’ll give me some useful advice.” So, you’re tricking them into like, “Oh, wait, I can solve all these problems myself, and then when I come up to a really hard one, Brett can give me specific of how he dealt with similar problems in the past,” right? It’s probably different technology, but the shape might be similar. And so at that point, your advice is probably gonna be invaluable and fun to give, because it’ll be used, and he’ll have momentum, or she’ll have momentum.
And yeah, I think when people ask for too much advice upfront, they’re robbing themselves of that direct experience, which is a much more important teacher than, I think, anybody else.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and if you’re a college student, this also comes in handy. Because I knew a lot of college students who would, or I did this too when I first started it, my freshman year, is I would go to the office hours and sort of just vomit questions all over my teacher, and they were overwhelmed, and we didn’t really make any headway. And they, I think I had, finally, one professor who was like, “Here, here’s what you do. Go back, read this stuff, try to answer all these questions on your own. If you hit a question you cannot answer, then come talk to me, we’ll set up an appointment about that specific question.” And then from then on, that was my strategy going into teachers’ appointment, during office hours. I had one or two questions, that was it, to ask them. And everything else I tried to figure out on my own.
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah, that’s awesome that you figured that out early, you know?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Kyle Eschenroeder: See, yeah. Advice is just so confusing if you don’t have anything to do with it.
Brett McKay: So, again, this bias should be not towards seeking advice but like, action first, like going back to The Pocket Guide to Action, questions later, maybe.
Kyle Eschenroeder: Exactly, yeah. Questions that are action-oriented. If you’re asking a question about starting a business, then you should be ready to take action on the answer you receive, very close to immediately. And of course it’s different if you’re starting a podcast, a blog, or some kinda lifestyle business where the risk is low. Shooting a rocket into space …
Brett McKay: Right, right. Don’t ask any questions on that.
Kyle Eschenroeder: It’s a little bit different.
Brett McKay: Just do it. Develop, make a launch pad in your backyard. Yeah, that’s bad advice, right. Yeah, I think as the stakes get higher, you might need to get lots of counsel and advice to get that going.
Kyle Eschenroeder: And even then, Elon Musk just kinda proves that it’s relative, right? ‘Cause as far as rocket-builders go, he’s asking far fewer questions, doing far fewer calculations than, say, the incumbents. But he’s also, he’s taking huge risks and making much quicker progress by a lot of measures.
Brett McKay: Yeah, he’s probably … His action is, “I’m going to hire a consulting company to give me advice on building a rocket,” or, “I’m gonna hire this firm to do the legal work, et cetera.” He’s not just … He’s taking action, but on a different level.
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah, yeah.
Brett McKay: So, another practice you talk about is intentional introspection. What is that, and how do you implement it in your life?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah, so I think it’s just being aware of the relationship between you and the world. So, it’s noticing when you’re aiming at something because of an external scorecard or an outer scorecard, and you’re having a bad time, and you’re actually bad at the thing that you’re aiming at. So, on the flip side, it’s noticing your strengths, when you’re likely to get into flow state, of that kind of thing. Implementing this is just about increasing awareness, and that can be helped along with meditating or journaling, but … Maybe another part of implementing this is just realizing that you don’t have to be good at what you think you have to be good at. You can pick a different way, and you can make something else work, something that you haven’t considered yet.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I like that a lot. And then another point you make, and I think this is one of the points of sort of self-reliance that can give people pause, or at least it gives me pause, is this idea of making your own law. Becoming a law unto yourself. Because if you follow that to that logical conclusion, that would be very bad, because people would say, “Well, I’m going to steal. I don’t think it’s wrong to steal ’cause my personal law says it’s not.” So, what’s going on there? What’s the nuanced take on making your own law, and how do you go about setting your own laws while not being above the shared laws that make civil society possible?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Awesome, yeah, I’m really glad we get to talk about this. So, I think to set your own law is just to remain dedicated to what you believe to be right, regardless of the opinions of those around you. I think it’s determining the path that you’re gonna walk down and continuing to walk down it regardless of what’s happening around you. And so it’s kind of respecting those inner contours of your experience. So this means paying close attention to your world, your experience.
What I don’t think it means it kind of bootstrapping, a whole new system of beliefs, or creating something that’s completely antisocial. So there’s traditions to be bucked. I don’t think anybody in their right mind can look closely at what gives them meaning in the world and want to do serious harm to others. And of course there are people that feel that way, I think they’re psychopaths or extremely misguided, I think they’re generally people that are not trusting themselves but trusting somebody who is, like, mad with power. And of course that’s a subjective claim, but I think it holds up just to how I experience the world.
So, yeah. It’s not a call for being totally psychopathic. And like we talked about at the beginning of this essay, Emerson himself, even though the wording in Self-Reliance the essay is so romantic and powerful, and some of that can, if you just take one quote, it could be seen as like, “Let’s throw off all traditions, all propriety, and be totally … just forget about anybody else’s existence in the world. But I think if you temper this with some of Emerson’s other essays, especially his essay on manners, we wanna be loved as humans, at least by some people, and the only way to do that is by acting in a way that’s lovely, as Adam Smith might say. As exuding loveliness.
So, I think anybody who’s honest with themselves about what they truly want and what’s important with themselves in life isn’t going to be totally antisocial. You don’t come to the conclusion that you’re gonna do harm to humanity and that that’s how you’re going to get love in this life.
Brett McKay: And related to this, making your own law, is this idea I think people get from the essay Self-Reliance and sort of transcendental thinking is making your own values. Knowing what you value. But my podcast with Jordan Peterson, couple weeks ago, he made the case that it’s impossible to create your own values. He says it’s not possible for you to create your own values and those values to give you significant amount of meaning in your life. Do you think that’s true, or would you quibble with that?
Kyle Eschenroeder: So, I think it’s mostly true, and I would quibble with that, a little bit anyway. So, I love that interview, and I’m really happy that I get to talk about it with you. Peterson used, in that conversation with you, as I remember it, I think he said that we can’t create meaning, but we can kind of discover and co-create it. I think his wording, “co-create,” paired with discoveries is really potent and useful. So I think this is also a good time to bring up that I don’t think that the self-trust we’re aiming for in becoming self-reliant is strictly based on our conscious ideas. So, I think that it’s actually a deep trust in your ability to navigate the world, including society.
I think that one of the most effective paths to this self-trust is actually faith in a kind of capital B, capital O, Big Other. So, for Emerson that was nature, for Christians it’s God, for more secular folks I think it’s possible with a cause, something bigger than oneself, or mythology. So, the law that you set in serving this other is the law that you’re setting for yourself. And these laws are generally shaped by patterns or underlying rules beyond the grasp of consciousness, I think.
So when we talk about, when it comes to self-reliance, setting your own laws and abiding by them, it’s usually more of selecting what you find to be most true to yourself. It’s not just coming up with it, inventing it. So, I think that we have to set our own laws, but it’s more about being aware and discerning than it is about defining and creating values out of thin air. So, like Peterson said in that interview, it’s very difficult to foist meaning on something, because it tends to either be there or not, so yeah, I think it’s more of a process of co-creation, discovery, and discernment.
But, as a side note, and this is kind of the minor quibble I have with the Peterson piece, is that I do believe that we can consciously create meaning, but I think it’s a slow, very weak process, and we’re much better served by taking advantage of both our instincts, the meaning that’s already there, the values that we can see within ourselves and that have kind of been developed through thousands of years of narrative work by our ancestors. So, in some … I think, yeah, you’re gonna have a bad time if you think you can just sit down, write on a piece of paper your values, and pulling those out of thin air. I think you’re better served by discovering values and choosing them consciously from your experience in the real world.
Brett McKay: Yeah, this reminds me a lot of a conversation I had with Matthew Crawford, a couple years ago, guy who wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft, but the one interesting book we talked about was The World Beyond Your Head, and one of the points he made, the cases he made, is that if you really wanna become an individual, this is kinda saying what you’re saying, you need to submit yourself to, he called it tradition, but it could be something bigger than yourself. And you might think, “Well, that’s kinda weird, that’s counterintuitive. How would submitting yourself to tradition allow you to become a unique, independent, individual?” And his case was like, you have to have a framework in order to differentiate yourself. If you’re just sort of trying to be different from everything else that’s different, that’s hard to do, ’cause you don’t have a framework, “Okay, what is different?”
But once you have that framework, you’re able to adjust things, and make tweaks to it, and you can actually see that this is something new and different. And the example he gave were these organ makers. They restore and make classic organs, and they use the traditional way, I mean, they’re very fastidious about that, but they also make innovations. They’re kinda adding to it and doing little twists, especially in these … He thinks that these guys, they have a more solid sense of self because they’ve submitted themselves to the traditions of classical, hand-made organ making, because they can see how they are different, because they are submitted to themselves, to that tradition. Did that make sense?
Kyle Eschenroeder: 100%. 100%. Yeah, I think we can see, just in the people in your life, at least in mine when I look around, the people who have dedicated themselves most thoroughly to either a faith, or a cause, or an idea, something that they’re working desperately towards … Maybe “desperately” is not a great word, but intensely focused on. And that’s something that’s beyond themselves, and that’s not just to serve their own ego, but it’s beyond their ego. They are way more self-reliant, way more self-trusting, and way more just balanced and centered in the world than anybody whose career is one giant ego play, or someone who is super dedicated to self-development. These are people that are, if you spend your life just improving yourself, you’re gonna be way less centered than somebody who’s dedicated themself to something bigger.
Brett McKay: So, here’s a question. Say you start doing these practices, and you’re striving to take this posture of self-reliance that we’ve been talking about, how do you know if you’re becoming a self-reliant person? ‘Cause with losing weight, you can go, “I’m losing weight, I’m getting stronger, ’cause I can add weight to the bar,” those things are really easy to track. But how do you track whether you’re becoming more self-reliant?
Kyle Eschenroeder: So, I think one of the biggest tells that you’re becoming self-reliant is that you begin to, by default, respect your experience and kind of stop rejecting your life as it is. So, you’re operating in a way that embodies the understanding of that Emerson quote that, “Envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide.” So, you’re growing, but not in a way that rejects your current situation. Continuing to course-correct, but without remorse about where you’ve been or past choices. You’re taking advice from others, but only as kinda more data points in decision that you know that you’re gonna have to make yourself.
So, those sort of things.
Brett McKay: I like that. And do you think it’s possible to become like a self-reliant sage? Perfectly self-reliant? Or are we gonna be spending most of our lives, failings exceeding that self-reliance?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Yeah, I’ve never found a self-reliant sage. I am very, very far from that. So, I think … And every time I’ve met somebody, this happens, I meet somebody, I’m like, “Oh, man, they’ve got it down. They found it. That guy is perfectly self-reliant, that woman is perfectly self-reliant.” If I get the chance to meet one of these people, and to talk with them, and engage with them over any period of time, I’ve been proven wrong every single time. So, with this type of thing, I really love this, it’s a quote from Confucius, and he said something, I’m paraphrasing, he said, “At 15 I started, at 30 I was really getting going, at 40 I had no doubts,” and then he keeps going until at 70, he finally met his ideal. He kind of peaked at 70, he reached the pinnacle, and that’s … If I can make a little bit of progress every decade, I’m gonna be super happy about it.
But even with that kind of far-out promise of just slow improvement, I think I’ve seen gains just in the last decade show up fairly quickly. I think the returns are really fast. Especially in talking about some of the specific things we discussed earlier, I think, yeah. The benefits can come pretty quick, and then you just realize you keep hitting walls and getting thrown off-center, and I think it’s more about the progress than destination, for sure.
Brett McKay: Right. Keep … The score takes care of itself.
Kyle Eschenroeder: Amen, yeah.
Brett McKay: Well, hey, Kyle, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work in general?
Kyle Eschenroeder: Awesome. Yeah, well thanks again for having me, Brett. I know I saw this every time, and it might be getting old, but I think it’s really incredible what you and Kate have created, and I’m just really honored to be associated with it in any way. So, thank you.
Brett McKay: No, thank you.
Kyle Eschenroeder: The best regular writing that I do is in my newsletter that goes out most Sundays, not all, and you can get that at kyleschen.com/letter, so it’s K-Y-L-E-S-C-H-E-N.com/letter. And I dig into my favorite ideas that I found that week there. I know at least Kate reads and likes these every once in a while.
Brett McKay: I do, too. I read them every time I get them. They’re fantastic.
Kyle Eschenroeder: That’s awesome. Yeah, that’s a super high compliment for me, ’cause I know your inbox is just incredibly bombarded. So that’s super cool.
Brett McKay: And I also like how it’s not every Sunday, ’cause it’s always a surprise. And that’s actually, that’s great for the dopamine, it’s like the slot machine effect going on, it’s like, “Am I gonna get it this week?” And it’s great, so.
Kyle Eschenroeder: I believe it’s because of that, because of your advice, so thank you. It makes it more fun for me as well. In general, my best kind of irregular writing goes straight to you guys at The Art of Manliness, so everybody’s already in the right place to get that.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Kyle Eschenroeder, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Kyle Eschenroeder: Thank you, sir.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Kyle Eschenroeder, he’s the author of the book The Pocket Guide to Self-Reliance, it’s available at store.artofmanliness.com. Also check out Kyle’s website at kyleschen.com, and check out our show notes at AOM.is/selfreliance, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy this show, if you got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes, or Stitcher, or whatever it is you use to listen to our podcast. Helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you so much. Please share the show with a friend or family member if you think they’d get something out of it. We’d also appreciate that.
As always, thank you for your continued support. ‘Til next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.