Individualism, or the pursuit of self reliance over communal control, has long held an ambiguous role in its relationship with the hopes, needs, and desires of society.

Individualism is vital in any society for continued growth and progression. A progressive community is one where everyone can contribute their own unique ideas, and a group is more effective than any one individual due to the continued variance, improvement, and expertise brought by several individuals who garner knowledge and enthusiasm in different subject areas. John Steinbeck argues, “And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in all the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.” Crucial to aid in the needs of society is the collaboration of thousands of brilliant minds, bringing different aspects of knowledge and technology together to forge a link to a solution. Ultimately, conformity not only limits improvement, but it also interposes an unnatural way of living, teaching human beings to comply with an unattainable standard that can never realistically be upheld.

Humans were made with stark differences, and no two organisms will ever be found to be the same, but that does not make it any easier for individuals to deviate from the “normal” standard to find his or distinct purpose. As a result, some argue similar points as Bernard DeVoto, who conveys, “The trouble with the sacred individual is that he has no significance, except as he can acquire it from others, from the social whole.” Significance, prominence, and success are all subjective, varying from the eyes of one to another. Mother Theresa made her mark on the world and considered herself successful far before the world bestowed upon her civilian honors such as the Nobel Peace Prize. Galileo Galilei sought to ascertain the wonders of the spatial unknown, finding his research significant despite contradictions to known church theories, and he believed he was successful during his lifetime despite not attaining world fame until after his death. The “needs of today’s society” aren’t set in stone, and one’s individual principles may be the cure to cancer or the identification of unknown elements. If Marie Curie would have conformed to societal stereotypes of women garnering the duty of a homemaker, the world of science may never have had such instrumental discoveries in radioactivity. She, despite the doubts and insults hurled at her, instead pursued her own individual interests and passions to the dismay of society, who deemed her efforts meaningless with regard to the greater emphases of world poverty and even simply care for the home. Balkissa Chaibou, much to her community’s chagrin, sought individualism through refusing to conform to traditional practices of arranged marriage. Her now international campaign urges girls of all ages to stand up to practices that shut down their voices, and she fights the forced marriage of girls. Instead of hindering the focus on societal needs, her individualism instead brings increased attention to it, as she now pursues equality for women without regard to geographical boundaries. Frederick Nietzsche argues, “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” Many times, one’s own well being is the freedom to express thoughts and emotions. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance, he advocates to “insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him.”

Ultimately, conforming to another unnatural standard not only is ineffective, but it also hinders improvements in all aspects of society.

Greed and individualism become synonymous to ambition and selfishness when in actuality they are not one in the same. Those in society fortunate enough to have experienced a variety of viewpoints and education should continue to ponder the blurred line between individualism and societal desires by first distinguishing these from conformity. People today continue to face challenges when prioritizing fitting in or standing out, following others or voicing their own opinions, imitating or trendsetting. Self reliance is not a thing of the past, and in the modern era just as much as in history, ordinary people continue to bear the burden of distinguishing themselves, and in such way altering the course of human history.

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