10 Minimalist Lessons from Jean Jacques-Rousseau

Jean Jacques-Rousseau was a writer and philosopher in the 18th century who was influential to the Romanticism and Enlightenment movements. His politically-charged work The Social Contract, is largely credited for influencing the American and French Revolutions.

So what does any of that have to do with minimalism?

Romanticism was a reaction to the new values formed out of the Industrial Revolution. Rather than accepting that man was merely destined to be an interchangeable worker in the factory system, Romanticism suggested we should be following our own inspiration and creativity and emotions rather than blindly accepting the social norms of the day.

Sound familiar?

Rousseau eventually even decided that the comforts of city life and his minor celebrity status were hurting his creativity. He decided to simplify his life and move to a small cottage in the countryside to focus on his writing. How’s that for 18th century simple living cred?

Rousseau’s writings read like an Industrial Revolution Seth Godin, encouraging us to challenge ourselves and those around us and avoid being another cog in the machine. Here are ten minimalist lessons from Jean Jacques-Rousseau’s writings.

Be unique.

Take the course opposite to custom and you will almost always do well.

Whether you are trying to figure out how to stand out in a crowded niche topic or just looking for what makes you happy in life, breaking free of what you “should” do is a great way to find your own brand of success. Rousseau’s writings encourage introspection and questioning society’s standards rather than blindly following someone else’s lead.

Seek freedom.

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in shackles.

This quote is from his work The Social Contract, which is credited with inspiring the American and French Revolutions. While this quote is mainly referring to Rousseau’s belief in the power of a people’s republic system of government, to me it evokes images of debt. We start our lives free of debt, but many people start acquiring it almost as soon as they start to earn their first paycheck. We are told we have to take out loans to pay for cars, houses, schooling and more, all of which locks us into a cycle of owing banks and businesses monthly payments out of our hard-earned paychecks. Don’t let debts keep your money and freedom in shackles.

Be more than your job.

It is difficult to think nobly when one only thinks of earning a living.

Rousseau and his Romanticism contemporaries were reacting to the changes of the Industrial Revolution, but sadly not much has changed in the past 25o years. A lot of people are still trapped in dead-end jobs living paycheck to paycheck while working for someone else. Rousseau saw the factory environment as different form of dictatorship.

Practice, practice, practice.

However great a man’s natural talent may be, the act of writing cannot be learned all at once.

Substitute writing for whatever your passion is. Are you putting in the hours to pursue your dream or are you wasting time watching TV and making excuses for yourself? I shudder when I think of all the wasted time in my life I could have been learning and practicing.

Patience is bitter, but the fruit is sweet.

I’ve quit several hobbies and passions because I wanted an immediate payoff without the years of practice required to achieve it. Stay patient and keep practicing and learning. Rousseau’s early musical works and writings were failures, but he kept practicing and eventually achieved success.

Be motivated by the right factors.

Fame is but the breath of people.

Rousseau originally gained notoriety not for his writing, but for his music and operas. Although a celebrity during his time, he shied away from the spotlight. Sadly today many people are willing to trade their dignity and privacy for a brief 15 minutes of fame, when fame shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself. I write a lot about creating art and working on your masterpiece, but doing so should not be about gaining RSS or twitter followers, but providing a gift to the world.

Be thankful to those around you.

Gratitude is a duty which ought to be paid, but which none have a right to expect.

As I wrote in my post last week, gratitude is a concept which has been on my mind a lot recently. Throughout the process of writing and launching my eBook, there were many times I had to ask others for information, advice or help and any success I achieved is definitely the result of the wisdom I received in return. The flip-side of that is that when helping someone else, do so without the expectation of compensation. Give freely without trying to tally up favors and you will almost always be rewarded for doing so.

Maintain self-disciple.

Our greatest evil flows from ourselves.

Inside-Out Simplicity by Joshua Becker tackles this concept in a big way. We can simplify our possessions, homes and spending all we want but it still won’t make us complete and actualized human beings if we don’t also conquer our own negative habits and impulses.

Carefully choose when to say yes or no.

Those that are most slow in making a promise are the most faithful in the performance of it.

I’m sure at some point in your life you’ve known or worked with someone who was unable to say no. People like this are ridiculously over-committed and rarely fulfill even a fraction of the tasks to which they’ve said yes. By saying no gracefully you can become someone who is trusted to complete a project on time and with quality those times you do actually say yes. Say no more often in order to keep your promises.

Focus on quality over quantity.

People who know little are generally great talkers, while men who know much say little.

Bloggers focus a lot on posting schedules and frequency, but who would you rather read – someone who posts five mediocre articles each week or someone who releases just one high quality post each week? Make sure you are never writing, blogging, tweeting or speaking without something important to say. Never post anything you aren’t proud of just to follow an arbitrary posting schedule.

Choose memories over possessions.

The person who has lived the most is not the one with the most years, but the one with the richest experiences.

This quote sums up the minimalist mindset nicely. Rousseau spent almost 20 years of his early life traveling, which greatly impacted his later writing career.

Check out the other Lessons in Minimalism posts here. If you are interested in reading more about Jean Jacques-Rousseau, many of his works are available for free via Project Gutenberg or as an Amazon Kindle edition.

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