In this essay, Emerson champions the individual. He encourages each person to listen to his/her inner voice. This essay is very much in opposition to things like conformity. Emerson writes, "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist." Shortly before this, he writes that self-reliance is the aversion to conformity. In other words, it is the opposite of conformity. Instead of going along with what is socially popular, the individual should be bold enough to be different.
Emerson adds that the self-reliant individual should also be willing to change. He writes that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." In other words, doing the same thing over and over again is simplistic, something done by people with "little minds." The self-reliant individual will be abnormal to the conformists. Since he/she does not conform to society and is willing to practice inconsistencies and differing viewpoints, he/she will look odd to other members of society. Emerson says this is quite alright. He gives examples of famous thinkers who were also misunderstood: Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. "To be great is to be misunderstood." Society wants people to be consistent, to follow the rules and ways of thinking that society prescribes. Emerson wants people to do the opposite.
Emerson also warns against being awed by great buildings or by great historical figures. He says that the ordinary individual is just as capable of individual genius in his/her own way. Self-reliance is for everyone, not just the famous geniuses he's listed earlier (Copernicus, Galileo, etc.). Emerson notes that the self-reliant individual should not rely on intermediaries, institutions, or authorities to find his own truth. He claims that adherence to tradition stifles creativity. With religion, for example, if the answers are already established, how can the individual discover new, creative ways of understanding God and moral truths?
Self-reliance is about looking inward. Reliance on outward things (society, conformity, property, and material possessions) is a mindless activity. The self-reliant person looks to him/herself for answers. This is the only way for the individual to truly understand his potential.