Self-Reliance in a Digital World

When I was four years old, I had surgery on my lower back. I spent months in the hospital and longer doing physical therapy. I hated physical therapy.

As part of the rehab process, I exercised with parallel bars every morning. It was to keep my muscles from stiffening and learn how to walk to the best of my ability. One day I threw a fit.

I don’t want to do this — this is boring!

Grandpa stormed into the living room and sat me down. “You’re going to have to learn to do things by yourself,” he said. “Nobody is going to do anything for you in life just because you’re handicapped.”

While he could have softened his words, it was the first time I learned about self-reliance. Take responsibility for yourself. Don’t expect others to do things for you. Rely on your own wits and internal resources.

It was a term Ralph Waldo Emerson popularized with his 1841 essay Self-Reliance. I saved the Cliff’s Notes from high school, so I’ll paraphrase some key points here:

• Self-reliant individuals trust their own judgment.
• They’re unconcerned with reputation, approval, and the opinion of others.
• They maintain independent solitude in a crowd.
• Revise opinions and ideas when necessary.
• Don’t mind being misunderstood.
• Are focused on the most important act of all — creating.

It took me a while to realize, but self-reliance is an essential quality to cultivate in life. In our digital world, it’s a matter of survival. To see why, let’s go back in time to the day the world changed forever — January 9, 2007.


I was in my room posting selfies on MySpace while Steve Jobs was delivering his keynote address.

“This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two and a half years,” he told the crowd. Jobs unveiled an invention that ushered humanity into the 21st century: the iPhone.

There were smartphones before the iPhone, but they weren’t that smart. My Blackberry had tiny plastic buttons with a mini screen and barely browsed the web. When the iPhone came out, it leapfrogged everything. Now you had a superpower in your pocket; the touchscreen itself was magic. It transformed the way the world worked.

Let me spout off some names:

• The App Store
• Siri
• Google Maps
• Uber
• Spotify
• Instagram
• Tinder
• TikTok
• FaceTime
• Emojis

These are some of the technologies the iPhone paved the way for. And they all emerged within 10 years from its release. A decade may sound like a long time, but it’s not compared to the millions of years we humans lounged in the savannas. Today the world is moving faster than ever, and it ain’t slowing down anytime soon.

Things are moving so fast that it’s difficult to know how to adapt. What do you even adapt to? Once you acclimate to one thing, everything changes again.

Life in an ever-changing world demands self-reliance. It’s a requisite for maintaining balance in hyper-speed. Now, more than any other time in history, it’s imperative to trust your judgment, be fluid, flexible, and roll with the punches. Basically, you want to be like Bruce Lee.

You know his famous quote, be like water?

Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.
You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.
You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Now water can flow or it can crash.
Be water, my friend.

Being like water means adapting to circumstances and bending to what life throws at you. When the world around you slows down, sometimes that means to speed up. And when it accelerates, you may need to step on the breaks. In any scenario, you draw upon your inner resources to guide you in the right direction.


It’s easy to become disoriented at hyper-speed. Groups are more susceptible than individuals. It’s hard to know whether our tribe is going in the right direction or not, even when it feels like it is. Reminds me of an argument I had with a friend.

“It’s Yanny!” she exclaimed.

No, it’s Laurel.

An audio clip went viral in 2018 that had people wondering: is the voice recording saying Laurel or Yanny? Half the internet heard one thing; the other half something different.

I did some Googling, and there’s a simple explanation for the phenomenon. It’s an auditory illusion caused by how our brains pick up and interpret frequencies. Various factors influence it, like age and genetics. Some people can hear high frequencies; some can’t.

The creator of that clip came out and said the word was Laurel. But it didn’t change most of the minds of those who heard otherwise. We heard Yanny with our own ears, so it must be true! And we’ll continue believing it even though it’s false.

This brings up an interesting point about the human brain. As incredible as it is, it’s prone to illusions and cognitive biases. One, in particular, is commitment & consistency bias. We want to be consistent with our past actions and beliefs — that’s how the brain works. It’ll fight tooth and nail to prevent us from changing our minds. Even if that means believing something nonsensical.

Then our biases merge with the forces of the internet:

• Variance – The internet cuts out the middle and leaves the extremes by nature.
• The Mass Mind – We become one with the crowd as we do at a concert or sporting event.

Individual biases + Variance + The Mass Mind is a recipe for psychosis. And you can see this play out all over. With most issues, people split into Team Laurel and Team Yanny by default. The line between wisdom and madness is blurred.

In times like these, self-reliance is crucial. Because what’s best for the group often conflicts with the individual. Richard Feynman said, “It is a lot better to walk alone than with a crowd going in the wrong direction.” Today, your internal GPS is the only navigation you can trust.

As an individual, you have the freedom and personal autonomy to step back from the crowd to see truth. To examine ideas and opinions and revise when necessary. And rely on your wits to determine when it’s better to side with the group and when it’s best to walk alone.


Walking solo can be daunting, but it gives you the upper hand in a digital world. As we go deeper into the Internet Age, power is shifting from institutions to individuals.

You’ve got sorcery in your pocket that the wealthiest kings a hundred years ago couldn’t dream of. More computing power on your iPhone than the first Apollo mission had to go to the moon. And the ability to communicate with the entire world at your fingertips. What do you want to say? How do you want to leave your mark?

I tried answering those questions for years but realized I was asking the wrong things. Deep down, underneath layers of resistance, what to say is already there. And leaving your mark is a byproduct. A more important question is who needs you the most?

We humans are social creatures that need each other to survive. Together we’ve built skyscrapers. Gone to space. Cured diseases. Built the internet. And we’ll do more. But behind every feat is an individual who spearheaded the charge. Who embraced being misunderstood, ignored the naysayers, and made something out of nothing.

Wherever you are, there’s a project, person, or community out there who needs you and only you. The tools are there, and the opportunities are abundant. But what’s scarce is the courage to go through the process of finding it.

Armed with self-reliance, you’ll slay the scales of resistance. And when the dragon is gone, who needs you most will actually find you.