Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps
“Travis, this sounds like ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ !”
There have been a handful of times over the course of my journey as a speaker when someone has come to me afterwards and said something similar to this phrase. For clarity, when people say ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ the implication is that a person can change their situation without any outside help. Whatever the situation, a individual, purely by their own will and self determination, can change their reality. No help needed. To be clear, I don’t believe in any such idea. At a minimum, two people had to come together to form you in the womb. I’m pretty sure none of us created biology.
Temperature Controlled Buildings, indoor plumbing, WiFi internet, paved roads, electricity, public transit, public libraries, grocery stores, fitness facilities, free media outlets etc. My question to the person who doesn’t want to be told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is, did you build any of these things? Where you able to control for the fact that you were born in America?
I often listen to the How I Built This Podcast on NPR. The show documents the stories of entrepreneurs and the businesses they have created. The host, Guy Raz, at the the end of every episode asks a question: How much of your success is due to luck and how much would you attribute to hard work? In the 100 or so episodes I have listened to, I have only heard one person say that it was all due to hard work. The vast majority of people say that both luck and hard work play a role. Many people say that it was mostly luck.
The mostly luck people are interesting to me because they will often list off factors similar to the ones I listed above: being born in America, having two parents that raised them in a stable environment, coming along in the internet era, etc. They list environmental factors that many of us take for granted in America. I don’t think we truly understand how game changing clean water, access to jobs, grocery stores, and the internet truly are. The person that claims I’m telling people that they don’t need any help is not recognizing the fact that I am encouraging people to understand that they have resources built into their environment that they may be taking for granted.
We has modern humans inherent the benefit (whatever that is) of those human beings that have come before us. The collected knowledge, infrastructure, scientific/technological advancements and so on, give us (particularly in the Western World) the ability to do things that weren’t possible just 50 years ago. Are there problems? Of course there are. There will always be problems and unintended consequences. But the idea that someone moves themselves forward purely by there own efforts in life is simply a logical fallacy. To advocate for/against the idea of ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ is to advocate for/against something that doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as self-made.
A much more helpful idea would be to focus on the skill of maximizing what we already have. We have to understand that more often than not, resources and help come in a form that we didn’t imagine or desire. I know you want a personal trainer at a nice gym but can you afford that? Maybe YouTube and Your living room can help you get started down the to regular exercise. I know you want a new car because your current vehicle isn’t reliable but is there another way to solve that problem? Maybe that Public Bus that runs in front of your apartment would be a good way to commute. You could listen to audio books and podcasts on the daily trip.
Perspective is an individual choice. If a person truly believes that their lot in life is in no way transformable by their own efforts and that the only way it can change is by the intervention of an external force, then that’s certainly their right to believe. It’s also a person’s right to believe they they can control their own perspective and believe that all manner of adversity can become a tool for personal growth.
One of the greatest challenges of life is having an experience of the world that is not what you want it to be and then working on your perspective in order to change that. It’s the internal/intangible problem versus the external/practical problem. Something that I don’t talk about enough because I take for granted that we have all internalized it is the fact that the regular practice of gratitude is so massively important to personal growth and resilience. It is incredibly easy to take for granted simple things when we don’t take regular time to appreciate them. Add to that the way our world lionizes the rich and famous so that we are constantly reminded of the extravagance that we don’t have.
This is a large challenge of being conscious human beings. We’re not robots and we are not driven purely by natural instinct. We tell stories of how the world works, however incomplete they may be. We are consciously aware of the opinions of others. We are consciously aware that someone else’s material existence is greater than that of our own. And on and on… Envy can be a relentless juggernaut to our happiness and contentment because it doesn’t seem to take much conscious effort to fall into.
The great key here is to remain focused and not be distracted by the knowledge of what others do or don’t have. That knowledge is simply there to help us have a more granular picture of the varying realities of the world. This helps us better understand reality. Focus on your own goals and regularly practice gratitude for where you are.
This is a simple mental habit that needs practice. List 5 things daily that you are grateful for. Make them simple everyday life things. Also, describe one difficult experience that you are grateful for and why.