Thoreau on the Neccessity of Selling Your Work

I’ve been listening to a downloaded copy of Thoreau’s Walden during my commute and this story stuck. If you can see past the 1840s cultural insensitivity, the story asks a powerful question.

Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. “Do you wish to buy any baskets?” he asked. “No, we do not want any,” was the reply. “What!” exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, “do you mean to starve us?” Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off — that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed — he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man’s to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?

So I have to ask… how does one study to avoid the necessity of selling baskets? What do you think? What did Thoreau mean?

19 thoughts on “Thoreau on the Neccessity of Selling Your Work”

  1. Isn’t this but the study of self? A person has to know what is valuable to herself in order to begin to answer that question; it is more than just escaping materialism, which of course is the first argument that would be put out here. No, a person must know what makes them truly happy; what brings misery; what their version of success is; and how they want to be remembered. They have to know their own character. Once you’ve done that, I imagine it is pretty easy to figure out how to live a life of creation without the need to market…or to know that you must market your work in order to meet your goals.

    Interesting thoughts to consider, especially as I am faced right now with only working part time and going back to school, and taking on debt to do it. Why am I here, again?

    Thanks for another great post, Steve.

  2. Kim,

    I love your comment…
    What makes you happy?
    What makes you miserable?
    What is your vision?
    How do you want to be remembered?

    I’ll tell you, this makes me happy!
    A conversation on the web. I need to ask more questions on this blog, because I love your answers.

  3. It almost sounds to me like he is talking about living a life of simplicity. He says, “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind.” Perhaps he is making the point that we don’t need to be wealthy in order to be successful. Instead, we need to determine what we believe is personal success.

    Of course, I could just be reading my own thoughts into the piece! 😉

  4. Awesome question, Steve… and I loved Kim’s comment as well. It does have to do with a person’s own goals and how they want to live their life.

    One of Thoreau’s main lessons was “Simplify”, so I imagine part of the study of not having to sell baskets would be the questions “Why do you have to? Can another change be made that would eliminate the necessity?”

    And thanks for the pointer to Walden on LibriVox. Add another 15 hours to my listening list! 🙂

  5. Excellent question Steve. It is my opinion that in order to avoid having to sell, you need to first figure out what others want and need. Then you make your product/service meet their desires. All that is left is letting them know it is available. They will sell it to themselves, especially if they know that it was their own idea’s you used in the creation.

  6. Replace “weaving baskets” with “drawing cartoons” and that’s why I start and run companies to make money, and draw cartoons because I want to 😉

  7. “instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.” I see this as a question of how do I order my life to both 1) meet my very real needs (avoiding the “quiet desperation”) while 2) living in a meaningful self-directed way.

    “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind.” Let’s not overlook that successful businessmen are looked upon positively because they tend to create value for society. Also, we’re social creatures and status recognition is likely hard-wired – at least to a degree – regardless of our attempts to downplay its impact.

  8. In one respect, he was learning to simplify his material needs, but it seems more as a means than an end. From what I little I remember of Thoreau – fine, you added to the books I want to get to – his weaving was in terms of a life, learning to live and participate with clarity.

    Life Without Principle has much about his feelings on moneymaking.

  9. At one point in Walden, Thoreau is looking at a large box where railroad workers drop their tools for the night, and he muses that we’d all be happier if we lived in those boxes we can just fit into.

    I almost died laughing. I thought at first he wasn’t serious, then it occurred to me he was deadly serious, and didn’t realize the irony of the point he was making: those boxes look like coffins.
    Now I’m telling you this because I have a bias, and I don’t want to be “look how smart I am” blah blah. I’d rather disclose I have some problems with Thoreau.

    Here the number one problem is the question of capitalism and justice. The assumptions the Indian made are assumptions our society forces us as citizens – not just economic actors – to make. We have to believe that to live, we have to be productive.

    Thoreau almost explodes this idea. The key sentence is his list of mistakes the Indian made:

    He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy.

    The middle idea about changing perception is sandwiched between two considerations of necessity. If Thoreau had said that the Indian could have made a sale through persuasion alone – well, he’d be right on the money. Instead he emphasizes being aware of another’s necessity, and then moves to what is necessary for his own freedom, which is being able to create and not care what others think.

    What gets buried, obviously, is the question of justice. It isn’t like Native Americans have been treated very well by all those who enjoy freedom here. Maybe making baskets was all this man could do in the face of starvation – Thoreau’s writing doesn’t seem to take that possibility seriously.

    Instead, Thoreau assumes something like this: Aristotle heavily implies claims about survival become claims to empire. One starts by trying to list and obtain necessities, and before you know it, everything is necessary. I think Aristotle is exactly right. But Aristotle doesn’t say that claims to survival are wrong; in fact, the only reason why he is a bit dismissive of survival is because he wants a truly just order.

    In other words, Thoreau skips from “survival” to “freedom of the intellect,” and misses that in between lies the political problem of “justice.”

    What can this teach us about our business affairs? Simple. Darren Rowse makes a beautiful point about blogging, that the more helpful your blog is to people, the more it will be visited.

    I, on the other hand, have succeeded in creating a thoroughly useless blog.

    The truth is that useful and useless are dependent on the other. Not everything in life can be useful: considerations of justice are most certainly useless. But all of us would fight tooth and nail if we felt we were being treated badly.

  10. Oh you have reminded me why I love Walden so much. I may have to take it off the shelf for a fresh read. The way I read this is that we can get so caught up in the search for bigger, better, faster, more that we can end up internalizing culturally dominant beliefs about success which end up ruling our lives. We end up spending so many hours trying to get our piece of the pie, and a nicely sized one at that without every really asking ourselves if we even like pie! That’s the whole dragon slaying metaphor of Nietszche’s that I write about and The Four Agreements deals with this as well. We have to take in those cultural beliefs and images of what we are supposed to want and decide if we really do. There are often more costs than benefits in some of our pursuits. That awareness later in life is what lead so many into the “mid-life crisis”.

  11. Steve I am a long reader of your blog so I have a small suggestion.

    Why don’t you make weekends (usually people write less on weekends) “questions days”? I think that would be a real success!

  12. I am talking about you asking questions.

    It would be something different from what you’ve done so far, but I think once a week it would do really good.

  13. I think Priscilla makes some good points. Kim’s comments are also right on. It’s crucial to know yourself, this can be tough at times since it requires honesty (and can also be a somewhat negative experience).


  14. Thoreau wanted to live independently, that was the whole point of the ‘experiment’ of moving to the small cabin next to Walden. Having to spend time making things to please others (to sell to others) breaks that whole idea. This further explained in this passage….

    “For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study. I have thoroughly tried school-keeping, and found that my expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion, to my income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into the bargain. As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure. I have tried trade; but I found that it would take ten years to get under way in that, and that then I should probably be on my way to the devil. I was actually afraid that I might by that time be doing what is called a good business. When formerly I was looking about to see what I could do for a living, some sad experience in conforming to the wishes of friends being fresh in my mind to tax my ingenuity, I thought often and seriously of picking huckleberries; that surely I could do, and its small profits might suffice, — for my greatest skill has been to want but little, — so little capital it required, so little distraction from my wonted moods, I foolishly thought. While my acquaintances went unhesitatingly into trade or the professions, I contemplated this occupation as most like theirs; ranging the hills all summer to pick the berries which came in my way, and thereafter carelessly dispose of them; so, to keep the flocks of Admetus. I also dreamed that I might gather the wild herbs, or carry evergreens to such villagers as loved to be reminded of the woods, even to the city, by hay-cart loads. But I have since learned that trade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.”

  15. ashok – you bring up this point of justice that Thoreau has, apparently, missed. The man who is probably most remembered for his treatise on the topic of civil disobedience and for it’s influence on civil rights movements across the globe…completely misses the issue of justice in this paragraph. I think what you miss is his point. Regardless of his situation, the Indian doesn’t need to sell the basket. He is talking about sustaining ones self by only ones self and nature. Don’t rely on someone to buy your baskets. Don’t rely on someone to hand you justice. When evil came and asked its bit of Thoreau, he refused, and so justice might not have been served on to him, but he was just. Just like Socrates. Plato’s teacher. Who was Aristotle teacher….one can see the ancient Greeks in Thoreau. Eastern philosophy as well. I often come to him, seeking them, as he makes both more appropriate and interesting being so much closer to the lives we live now.

  16. I enjoyed reading all the above (which is rare for me). You are all thoughtful, considerate people, aiming for truth!

    Walden has been a favorite of mine for many years. So much so that I may be able to point in the direction of similar works, and hopefully share some things that have delighted me and may delight you.

    Try Voyaging on a Small Income, by Annie Hill. The Rubaiyat, by Omar Khayyam. The Wind and The Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. All about simplicity, and there are so many more!

  17. This quote is related to the theme of simplicity in Walden. Why do we have to sell a lot of baskets? Ans: To make money so we can buy things. Thoreau is telling us to work on being happy with less things and you won’t have to spend all your time selling baskets and can focus on more important pursuits (according to Thoreau that means self-reflection, knowing yourself, etc.).

    There are a bunch of other great passages in Walden that make similar points:

    * he became a teacher but found that it took up a lot of time and involved many expenses (work clothes) etc. that it was too much of a trade off. Instead he found it best to earn a good wage as a day laborer and by living simply he could earn enough to live for the rest of the year by working for only 3 months or so.

    * he had 3 pieces of limestone (paperweights or such?) on his desk and found that they needed to be dusted everyday, so he threw them out of the window. He found the benefit of these things not enough to justify the dusting which took time away from more worthy pursuits

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