While the title of Emerson's famous essay "Self-Reliance" might lead one to believe that his purpose was to encourage people to be self-supporting, rather than relying on charity or a handout, his intent was different. He was encouraging young men to follow the dictates of their conscience, of the voice of God speaking within their souls. He was encouraging them to be nonconformists in accepting whatever God-given task they had been assigned, even if it flew in the face of convention. "Imitation is suicide," he wrote. He also declared, "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string."
His friend, Henry David Thoreau, exemplified this sort of non-conformity. Thoreau wanted to "front life" and to really live fully before he died. He therefore followed an unconventional path, existing for a time as simply as he could in a small cabin, writing about his experiences there.
Emerson felt that society as a whole, not just the individual, benefitted if each person followed the dictates of his own soul. Becoming a lawyer, for instance, just because it was safe and acceptable, dragged down not only the person doing it, but the entire society by depriving it of richer benefits. Emerson wanted people to become completely alive to their deepest selves, believing this would make the world a more vibrant place.
Emerson also believed that people should have the courage to change their minds. There is no shame in this, he said. He wrote, instead, that
With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.