“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”—Henry David Thoreau
Upon graduating from college—more than a short time ago now—my roommate and I set out on an adventure across the United States. We wanted to celebrate the achievement of earning the sheepskin trophy we called a diploma, while we mourned the impending doom of embarking on a career in the workplace. It was a farewell tour to the good life of freedom and independence from “The Machine” of modern capitalism—or so we thought.
One of our first stops was Boston, Massachusetts, to visit a good friend attending Harvard Law School. While there, we made the short trip out to Walden Pond, just down the road in Concord. I personally wanted to see the place where Thoreau made his noble stand against society, isolating himself in a cabin and crafting one of the greatest literary rebellions against the status quo in modern history.
It wasn’t until recently, when I picked up a copy of Walden, that I was dumbfounded by the basic premise of his masterpiece: The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. It was a wake up call!
After a decade in the workplace, this phrase hit me harder than ever, and I thought to myself, “Have I become one of the masses living a life of quiet desperation? Where did a decade go so quickly? What have I achieved? Why have I not made the cover of Rolling Stone?” Furthermore, how does it come to a point in our careers, or in our lives, that we get to a place of quiet desperation? Where was that class in the university? Who majored in Mediocrity? Who went to get an MA in QD?
Nobody plans on settling for the status quo. Nobody enters the workforce and says, “I want to be average! I want to be mediocre! I want a dull and boring job!” Yet, the line between great and average is often very thin and can creep up on us if we are not diligent.
The truth is, we want to be great! We want excellence, meaning, and worthwhile achievements in our life and in our work. There is a voice inside of everyone that craves greatness—a call to live, lead, and love at a higher level.
Thoreau’s exposition was less about the judgment of such lives that have lost their way, but rather a call for individuals to reach beyond settling for the monotony of everyday life—those who have forgotten how to lead themselves. This American classic has encouraged me to continue to be diligent in reaching for my dreams, through the art of self-reliance and a passion to reach for higher levels. As Thoreau concluded, near the end of his book, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
Don’t settle for quiet desperation. Work well and lead the life of possibility you were meant to live.
Jason Diamond Arnold
Co-Author of Situational Self Leadership in Action