It's a little bit unfair for me to use this title, given that I haven't actually finished Walden (yet). A better title might have been, 'Why I Probably Ought to Finish reading Thoreau'. I know the gist of events well enough, from what I've read so far, and a few articles that hover around the edges of the book -- At the mid 1800s, a new-englander named Henry David Thoreau has some trouble situating himself in 'normal' jobs like factory work and teaching. So he lives in a small cabin on his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson's land. There he savors each day and spends as much time in his natural surroundings as possible.
Several contemporary folks come to mind who would be of a mind with Thoreau (they might even say so explicitly). I want to find out how they got to that mindset and sustain it, and act on it. They disregard a desire for mounds of cash; they meet their basic needs and then some. They carve their own paths, take risks, and have low ego. They're clear-eyed.
Maciej Ceglowski went from his studio art background into some webby stuff, abandoned that to start a dead-simple bookmarking site he still runs, and now seems to have become something of an independent journalist.
Shane Carruth left a safe and prestigious career as a software engineer to tell stories and make films. Having found that lacking, he's striking out toward something else yet.
Dolly Freed wrote a book and lived from her garden, went to school to work at NASA, and finding the indoors stifling, became an outdoor educator. She opens her book with mention of Diogenes, who we might consider one of the least beholden people ever.
Aaron Swartz was a child prodigy programmer who wanted to give it up to change hearts and minds toward progress with his writing. He worked to make information more free.
Susan Fowler self-educated her way to university in Arizona, then to physics at Penn, against advice. She did software as a backup plan and then pivoted to writing.
Yet, their success in self-reliance may come with some stipulations. For some, economic privilege or education may have brought self-reliance more within reach. And for others, this independence may incur great cost.
Thoreau's advantage was access to land. I suspect not many folks had a landed mentor willing to provide rent-free housing. There's a whole literature about how he was not as self-sufficient as he seemed, though Donovan Hohn dispels a lot of it. Thoreau probably gave up access to certain people, possibly to having a family, and -- not directly related, he died quite young.
Swartz may have had some advantages early on in access to people with influence (possibly via Stanford?). Though any of these advantages he put to good use, advocating for free access to information for all, not only those who can afford it. He believed so strongly in the causes he advocated for that he gave his life for them. He was hounded to his death by government agents.
Freed mostly did well in her goals of 'being part of the great chain of being', and living a serene life. But she mentions in an update to her book Possum Living that she had to cut herself off from her father who helped shaped her world view.
Fowler is now positioned very happily in her life, though the tone of this update makes me feel like there is some advocacy for material success and influence that is hard for the rest of us to get to. Contrast to some of the more Freedian goals. Still, Fowler faced harrassment and worse in her strange year, and paid a price again when taking a risk to talk about it.
These clear-eyed self-reliants have lessons for us, for me. The gap between my respect for these folks and my emulation is a wide one, and identifying why will be for another time.
As with most stories told about a person's life, the events appear clean and inevitable in retrospect. My summary fragments can't do justice for these folks' stories. Luckily they also set an example with their transparency, each having left written records or lectures where you can find more details. They didn't hide things, they challenged shame, and they held at bay the paralysis of anticipated regrets.