So you’ve drawn up your list of New Year’s resolutions. Some are probably achievable, like giving up eating chocolate for breakfast. Others may be more daunting because they represent a long-held desire to take your life in a new direction, anything from changing career to renewing family relationships. If you’ve resolved to make a big change, I suggest having a companion by your side who’ll give you encouragement and inspiration. An ideal choice is the eighteenth-century German writer and natural scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In his book Italian Journey, Goethe describes an episode from his own life that offers three essential lessons for making 2013 a year of New Year’s adventuring.
It was the late summer of 1786. Goethe had just celebrated his thirty-seventh birthday and was facing a mid-life crisis. He had achieved fame as a novelist and dramatist in his early twenties, but now his literary work was floundering and almost everything he started he failed to finish. He was bored with his job, having spent a decade as a top civil servant in the court of the Duke of Weimar. And he was suffering from unrequited love for a married woman seven years his senior. Goethe was on the verge of a breakdown.
So he decided to escape. A few days after his birthday, without telling anybody of his plans, he jumped on a mail coach at three in the morning, with no servant and only two small bags, and fled south to Italy under an assumed name.
It was the beginning of a trip that lasted almost two years, and which not only rejuvenated his spirit but gave him a new direction in life. He sketched ancient monuments in Rome, observed local customs in Verona, collected rock samples in Sicily and forged friendships amongst his bohemian fellow travellers. Goethe’s aim was far more than to run away into anonymity or visit famous sites. ‘My purpose in making this wonderful journey,’ he wrote, ‘is not to delude myself but to discover myself in the objects I see.’ Invigorated by fresh surroundings, he emerged from his Italian adventure with a renewed self-confidence and recharged imagination that enabled him to write the greatest works of his career.
This story has resonance today for anybody contemplating changes in their life. No matter how clearly we recognise the troubles and challenges we face, or how many good ideas we have for transforming the way we live, it is always difficult to shift from the theory to the practice of change. Entrapped by our fears and habits, and reluctant to take risks or make mistakes, most of us baulk at the prospect of a step into the unknown – leaving an unfulfilling job, committing to walk down the aisle, or downsizing our consumer lifestyle. There is no pill we can pop to give us the courage and motivation to change. What insights might we gain from Goethe’s flight to Italy?
1. Break Conventions
Goethe’s sudden departure looks like a reckless, even irresponsible act. You can’t just abandon your job as first minister of a royal duchy without giving any notice. And it was folly for a literary genius to go gallivanting around Italy obsessively gathering mineral specimens when he should be sitting down quietly at home writing sublime verse. He left in secrecy, he said, because he knew his friends ‘wouldn’t have let me go if I hadn’t’. Goethe’s mode of travel displayed this same willingness to break social conventions. A titled gentleman of his public standing and financial means would be expected to have a private coach and a retinue of servants and letters of introduction, but instead he chose to make his way through Italy without hired help, and on any transport he could find, staying in tiny local inns and adopting casual dress so he would better blend in. He was determined to follow his own route and avoid stifling rules of etiquette.
Like Mary Wollstonecraft, Henry David Thoreau and so many other pioneers of the art of living, Goethe realised that he would have to swim against the social tide. So too we must recognise that if we wish to transform our own lives, we may have to defy cultural norms and risk standing out from the crowd. This could well happen if we choose to resign from a well-paid job to pursue a career that better reflects our values, or if we live in a home without a television set, or start talking about death at dinner parties. The price of being a pioneer is that we may be unable to keep up with the Joneses, or to receive their nods of approval. Yet at the same time we will be not only expanding our own horizons but also setting new standards for future generations, who will be able to look back at how we lived as a source of inspiration for their personal pursuits of radical aliveness.
2. Try ‘outrospection’ alongside introspection
Goethe’s desire to ‘discover myself in the objects I see’ should matter to us just as much as his capacity for breaking conventions. He believed that excessive self-reflection and navel gazing could be harmful, leading to emotional confusion and paralysis. His approach to following Socrates’ dictum ‘know thyself’ was not to ruminate about the state of his soul, but to launch himself into life, nurturing his curiosity about people, places, art and landscape. ‘Man only knows himself insofar as he knows the world,’ he wrote. This does not mean, though, that we should be filling our days with incessant activities, reducing ourselves from human beings to human doings. Rather, his point was that self-understanding comes not only from philosophical introspection but from experiential ‘outrospection’.
3. Act first, think later
The ultimate message from Goethe’s journey, however, is that if we truly want to change how we live, there may come a point where we simply have to stop thinking and planning, and take action. This idea has, over the centuries, gone by many names, from carpe diem to a leap of faith to the slogan ‘just do it’. It is about nothing less than choosing to make your life extraordinary, and living in such a way that your last years are not filled with regret for what you have not done. Although Goethe was in many ways a conservative person who sought a stable, secure life and domestic comforts, he knew that staying in Weimar was no solution to his problems. He had to shake himself up and break the pattern of his existence, even if he was unsure where his travels would lead him.
If ever we feel trapped by life, or hesitant about how to move forward, we can always ask ourselves what bold move Goethe might make if he was in our shoes. What would he do to seize the day?
This is an edited extract from Roman Krznaric’s book The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live. Roman is a writer and cultural thinker on the art of living, and a faculty member of The School of Life. @romankrznaric