On Henry David Thoreau and “Eat the Donuts”

In this lengthy post titled “The Inferno of Independence,” Frank Chimero summarizes the dissonance and reflections one might feel when doing a solo project, working as an entrepreneur, and/or working independently. I particularly liked this analogy to Henry David Thoreau and the concept of “Eat the Donuts.” Contrary to popular belief, Thoreau didn’t live totally alone in the cabin that he built; his mother and sister visited him and supplied him with cookies and donuts:

The quote comes from my favorite talk of the conference, by Maciej Ceglowski of Pinboard. “Eat the donuts” is a bit of a tangled metaphor that requires a small summary of Maciej’s talk, so I’ll try my best to be brief.

Maciej spent the better part of 20 minutes looking at Henry David Thoreau’s life and work (specifically Walden, of course) as a template for cultural criticism. Maciej was more artful and didn’t summarize things quite this bang-on, but I want to get to the donuts as soon as I can.

A lot of things can be held against Thoreau, mainly his privilege. Thoreau came from a well-to-do family that allowed him the finances to build that cabin in the woods, and, of course, it takes a certain amount of affluence and privilege to be able to “opt out” of the dominant culture, stand back, and critique it. Still, Thoreau was a man with clear principles that embraced those with less opportunity than himself, and attempted to define the good life as something accessible to anyone. He valued convening with nature, going slow, stepping back, and—this is the donut part—accepting help. Thoreau was independent and he isolated himself, but he was not alone. Each week, his mother and sister would come to the cabin with pastries and donuts. And you know what? Thoreau ate those goddamn donuts.

Maciej’s lesson, through Thoreau? While living an independent life on principle, you should not refuse the help so generously offered. “Eat the donuts.” Take the good things as they come to you, and do not be ashamed or bashful to accept help.

And—if I can be so bold as to add something—make the donuts, too. Do that for the people who are building their cabins and pursuing their independence. If you’re living your dream, you need all the help you can get. Dreams are hard, and much too much work for just one person alone.

Bravo. Highly recommended reading the entire post.

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I also like Frank’s extension of independence becoming co-dependence over time, once you unveil your thing for the world:

Once the work is done, it’s not yours anymore. You draw the comic, write the book, make the app, and then it makes its way out into the world. And it starts to talk back to you. It’s the weirdest thing—if the thing you make goes anywhere, it’s because other people carried it. Your thing becomes our thing. This is deeply unsettling, but it is also a beautiful situation that binds us to one another. So much for independence. It’s a false dream. What we really have is co-dependence, and what we desire when we speak of independence is equity and autonomy. Those are our goals.

We need each other, no matter what. The trick is producing the best terms—the ones most beneficial for everyone—that prioritize longevity, sustainability, and creativity over flash in the pans that burn out quick and get buried. That track is for investors who want to buy low and sell high, and the confidence men who skip town once the cash changes hands. It’s not for the creative people who put their identity in their work. If you make things, you’re playing the long game. There is no rise and fall, no sell it off and start again, because this is you, and if it goes, you go.

2 thoughts on “On Henry David Thoreau and “Eat the Donuts”

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