How many times have you seen this quote, on mugs, inspirational posters, magnets, greeting cards, paperweights, you name it. It is a credo for taking life by the horns and going after the things you want.
Or is it?
I recently learned that this quote is incomplete. Here it is in its entirety:
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler. ~ Henry David Thoreau
In fact, even this, while universally attributed to Thoreau but with no source noted, seems to be paraphrased from something he wrote in Walden:
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favour in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. 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.
Ironic, isn’t it, that the veritable poster child for simple living has had his words put on posters of misty mountain sunsets or powerful ocean waves and plastered in corporate boardrooms and lobbies as a rallying cry to go out and work more, earn more, and have more?
Yes, go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Yes, live the life you’ve imagined. But what Thoreau is really saying here is that complicated dreams produce complicated lives, and these complicated lives require a lot of work to maintain. When we focus on what it is that we are really looking for – love, companionship, community, interesting and meaningful work, new things to learn, comfort, security – we find that our perspective shifts so that we are content with less stuff and more grounded in ourselves and our world.