Jessica Helfand | The Self-Reliance Project


Robert Frank. Lusk, Wyoming, 1956. Of Frank’s work, Lou Reed once said, “Robert Frank is a great democrat. We’re all in these photos.”

Emerson’s text is widely available to read online, but this new Volume edition—produced with Design Observer—elevates his wisdom through the printed word. With twelve essays from Jessica Helfand’s Self-Reliance Project: pledge now and order your copy today!

Modern-day car travel (remember that?) is aided by technologies that navigate on our behalf. Such is the genius of global positioning systems: with them, we can choose routes, avoid potholes, skirt traffic, even select the cadences of our voice guidance. (My children once changed mine to an Australian woman, and suddenly, it was like having Nicole Kidman with me wherever I went.)

Make a wrong turn, and your GPS adjusts accordingly. It’s course correction—in real time—otherwise known as recalibrating.

Not a bad idea, recalibrating.

Think about it. Removed from the fabric of the familiar, you feel rudderless. Distanced from proven routines, you feel unsettled. But to measure your worth against what life looked like until last month is a fool’s errand. While it’s understandable to want to replicate known behaviors (and thus repeat the likelihood of your prior achievements), relying upon what used to be is counterintuitive. Or at least it ought to be.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously loathed conformism, especially if it meant fidelity to one’s previous accomplishments. (What you did last month, for example.) Be not the slave of your own past, he wrote in his journal in the summer of 1838. Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep, and swim far, he added a few days later, so you shall come back with new self-respect, with new power, and with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.

New self-respect? New power? And an advanced experience?

Can you imagine?

To recalibrate means only that you’ve been rerouted: your destination remains intact. (The idea here is to relocate your expectations, not eviscerate your self.) Along the way, suppose you were to nourish your well-deserving soul? Read poetry? Rediscover fiction? Run in place? Fall in love with some new thing, or even revisit what’s right in front of you in a new way, and fall in love with that? (Revisiting, like recalibration, is an adjustment—not an overhaul.)

For now? Plunge in. Dive deep. Swim far. And dream big. Consider the gift of protracted solitude as a chance to temporarily reroute your momentarily derailed journey. You’ll still get where you’re going. You might even go further. And who knows? Those potholes might just take care of themselves.

The Self-Reliance Project is a daily essay about what it means to be a maker during a pandemic. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox here.

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