There are millions of self-help books and personal development blogs out there. Many regurgitate the same sort of tired cliches we see on shows like Oprah, while a few like this one delve a bit deeper into the grand mystery that is life. When I first started reading Steven Aitchison’s blog, I was instantly reminded of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, considered one of the greatest modernist writers of our time. Although he mostly wrote poems, he was also a prolific letter writer. Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of his correspondence with a younger artist whom he was mentoring, is a jaw-droppingly beautiful book that goes beyond discussions of art. The following are some of my favorite Rilke quotes, and how you can apply them to your own life.
Whatever job you have whether it’s your day job or the work that you consider your calling will only bring you satisfaction if you put every ounce of your being into it. If there’s a sense of urgency in what you are committing your time to, if you believe that your work is important, then it actually becomes so. In other words, purpose fuels motivation. Your thoughts and feelings mold your reality.
2. “Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.”
Many of us try to avoid anything that requires lots of effort, especially at the beginning of any task we wish to accomplish. I was certainly one who tended to quake in the face of difficulty. If it’s hard, I would tell myself, then it will be unpleasant, and I’d much rather experience what is pleasant than what is unpleasant. But, using this line of thinking, there was one thing that I did not take into account accomplishing something difficult is one thousand times more satisfying than skating by, doing only what is easy. Now, whenever I’m faced with a task that I know is going to be difficult, that may be a little beyond what I believe to be my ability, I set to work doing it. If it is difficult, I trust that it will be worthwhile.
3. “It is a tremendous act of violence to begin anything. I am not able to begin. I simply skip what should be the beginning.”
As mentioned in a recent post, we spend so much time in the waiting lounge. We think a lot about starting a project or fulfilling a dream without actually doing anything about it. Here, Rilke has an interesting way of dealing with this dilemma. He’s suggesting we just dive right in, without even thinking that we are beginning something. I suspect many people avoid their dreams precisely because of this fear of being a beginner. Erase beginner from your vocabulary; skip the beginning and get to work.
4. “Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”
Here, Rilke suggests that questions must necessarily be lived out in order to resolve them. Ask yourself what you want from life, do something about it, and don’t panic if you don’t find the answers immediately. Answers only come after a long process of trial-and-error, after living actively and confronting unknowns.
To those for whom these gems have resonated, I highly suggest reading “Letters to a Young Poet” in its entirety. It’s a wonderful meditation on the “big” questions, and I can say without hesitation that it changed my life. You can find some of Rilke’s full-length letters online here.