Of mythic bootstraps

By Remi Watts

You did not get to university, nor got through university, nor achieved the success you have on account of your hard work and determination, and if you think you did then you’ve convinced yourself of one of our society’s most vicious, false and damaging lies. Shame on anyone who convinces himself or herself of the self-serving bias of self-driven-success.

The old adage, ‘to pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps’, was once a hilarious metaphor used to mock those who had convinced themselves that their success in life could be attributed to their own labours and grit, and not the fortunate circumstances in which they existed. Somewhere down the line, as threads of history twisted, swelled and pulsed, the metaphor came to be thought of as a witty observation on the ‘true capacities of man,’ a metaphor encapsulating the misleading rugged individualism, and not the blatant falsity that its underlying meaning reveals it to be. Bootstrap-style arguments are guilty of the bias of self-made-success, echoing the sorts of fictional stupidities of self-determination that you’d find in one of Ayn Rand’s harlequin romances.

Yes, I’ve worked hard, and yes, many others work hard too (that said, I’m slightly perturbed at the number of suburban kids claiming that their job at the mall is hard work), but success is determined by one’s economic base and not how obsessively individualistic one can be. I consider myself quite successful relative to my peers and to many of the people I grew up with, but that success is not and should not be predicated on some absurd rugged individualism. The moral and financial support I received from family and friends, the strong ethics reinforced by my community, the fortunateness that I was born handsome, athletic and charismatic, and the level of economic stability and opportunity afforded to a white male like myself in North America are the key factors to the degree of success I’ve achieved.

No amount of personal anecdotes about one’s suffering, striving, balancing of budgets, juggling of jobs or pure determination and effort lends any support towards the idea that success is self-created. Rather, such anecdotes reveal that the giver of personal fantasies of self-created prosperity is mired deep within a complex delusion of individualized grandeur, and have failed to approach themselves and the world with any degree of critical thought or humility.

Take, for example, the following two real anecdotes. The first is from someone who, for the sake of avoiding embarrassing her, we will call Sam. It is a prime example — echoed by countless numbers of people across North America — of the fantasy of self-made prosperity:

“I’ve paid for everything myself since I was 14. My car, my education, my rent, it’s all paid for through my hard work. Considering the fact that I had nothing to show for myself other than my grades, I didn’t play on sports teams and I wasn’t part of school teams. I have multiple disadvantages against me, and to be honest, half the time I’m surprised that I didn’t end up committed rather than in an institute of higher education. I work at a fucking shoe store for less than minimum wage plus commission (which most of the time still leaves me at less than minimum wage) and I’ve cut out all necessities that I don’t deem necessary in order to pay my bills, yet for some reason I still fail to see the point of stomping around screeching bullshit and blaming the banks and ceos who worked just as hard as anyone else to get to where they are. My dad is the manager of an oil company. Do I blame him and his colleagues for the fact that I can’t afford cable and right now I work a shit job in order to pay my bills? No. I don’t.”

The second anecdote, from Christian Louden (real name) is an excellent example of a thoughtful and honest vision of one’s own successes:

“I (more or less) dropped out of junior high, lied about my age to get a job, and helped support my family at the age of 14. I later went on to graduate from high school, and eventually university, thanks to student loans.

Hard work did not save me, luck did. I’m lucky my situation wasn’t worse, I am lucky I had friends and family to support me, I am lucky I was born white and male in one of the wealthiest cities in Canada. There are people who work much harder than I do, and they don’t get shit.”

Many of us work hard, many of us show determination. Some of us will succeed, some will not. The point is that we are not born in a vacuum, nor do we exist in one. Success is not created ex nihilo. We are born into an incredibly fortunate society, and to claim it was one’s own hard work that brought about one’s successes is to blind oneself in ignorant and arrogant fantasy. The appropriate response to the amount of success and privilege our society has afforded us is first to give appropriate respect where it’s due; and second, to address why other people — those at the fringes of our society (like aboriginal peoples or those condemned to poverty) and those in impoverished conditions across the globe — don’t have access to the sorts of opportunity we do. Hard work and determination are powerful values that rightly ought to be prevalent throughout society, but don’t make the mistake of leading yourself to believe that people become poor or rich on account of laziness or laboriousness — the circumstances of success are intricately tied to economic and social fortune, and are too complex to be reduced as such. Any bootstrapper/rugged individualist who would do so is as simple-minded as their arrogant simplification.

In the interests of promoting critical thought and intellectual honesty, I urge all people to recognize that this arrogant and misleading myth, that success is predicated on hard work, that one can ‘lift themselves up by their own bootstraps,’ ought to be annihilated.

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