Self-Reliance Questions and Answers
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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To Be Great Is To Be Misunderstood

In "Self-Reliance," what does Emerson mean by "to be great is to be misunderstood"?

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In "Self-Reliance," as the title indicates, Emerson tries to persuade young people just graduating from college to follow their own hearts and souls in seeking their paths through life. He is encouraging them to reject conforming to conventional expectations, because he believes that everyone alive has been equipped with a special destiny. He is convinced that the world will advance and become a far better place if people soul-search and do what God meant them to do in life rather than what their parents or society expects them to do.

Emerson is aware that young people will be ridiculed for following their hearts and listening to their souls. Therefore, he wants to prepare them for the opposition they will inevitably meet in attempting to be their own people. He reminds them that pursuing greatness won't be easy. He tells them bluntly that to "be great is to be misunderstood" so that they will not be surprised when they are misunderstood. He is trying to persuade them to embrace the pain...

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