I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines; let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
It is difficult to add something new to such a straightforward text. Perhaps some context will provide you with additional understanding. The year is 1841. The revolutionary war is over. The civil war won’t begin for another twenty years. Americans are caught in a crisis—of identity and of complacency. The ingenuity and courage America was built on are crumbling at the hands of cautiousness and diplomacy. Men are failing to be men; failing to forge new paths. Instead they imitate men of the past and meet uninspiring results.
This situation is precisely what makes Emerson’s essay as timely today as it was in 1841—for he knew, “The Scipionism of Scipio is precisely that which he could not borrow.” Or, that which makes a man great is exactly what everyone else does not have. Why try to borrow someone else’s greatness? Of course, a critic might suggest that Emerson is anti-collaborative. While he was very much a solitary man, the logic does not depend on Emerson’s personal preferences. Who could argue that a team does not benefit from unique skills and diverse perspectives?
The text is explicit about the ‘manly’ virtue of trusting intuition and speaking your mind. Yet, the implications of self-reliance on business are more crucial than a simple badge of courage. Innovation happens where ideas connect in new ways. Learning to trust your intuition and speak your “latent conviction” will enhance the potential for interaction between ideas. The value of this enhanced interaction will not be immediately visible on an earnings report, but will be immeasurably valuable in securing long-term sustainability.