Pulling Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps and Other Tall Tales

Posted: August 31st, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Comments Off on Pulling Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps and Other Tall Tales

Last night I responded offhandedly to a tweet about being a high school dropout. (The person to whom I responded actually had a diploma, I believe, but used the phrase “practically a high school dropout”.) Most tweets are fire and forget, but that one stuck in my head. So earlier today I ended up firing off a series of tweets on my own circumstances as a teen parent.

In the process, I pointed out that all the “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” stories are basically, as @niais so aptly put it, bullshit. I’m well-respected in my field among the people who know me and I make a pretty good living. I’m a long way from those years as a poverty-stricken teen parent, years that lasted into my thirties, though things steadily improved for the most part. I know how those stories work from the inside.

And those people who think they did it all themselves are simply self-deluded. I had quite a few “lucky” breaks along the way and help from other people. At least some of that I can probably chalk up to my privilege as a straight, white male since it’s unclear if the opportunities would have been afforded me otherwise. But I had the advantage of safety net programs, such as they are, to buffer some of the worst of it. The military provided me opportunities, a limited GI bill for part of my college education, and a VA loan for my first home. There were other structures and systems supporting and helping me, many of them geared to help someone like me.

So yes, I’m smart. I’m good at what I do. And I have worked hard to overcome obstacles. That part of the bootstraps tall tale is typically true and hard work, at least, is usually necessary. The best stories contain elements of truth. But those are not sufficient. Somebody has to provide the bootstraps. And the structures must exist to help keep you from falling on your ass when you pull them. Some of the people, structures, and systems that helped you achieve success will be apparent. Others will typically operate below your level of awareness. They are all necessary.

The stories are inspiring. And that’s not bad. It’s important to work hard. People need to know that it is possible to overcome hurdles, however high. But when we come to believe the lie that anyone is “self-made” the stories can become destructive instead.

Anyway, my tweets on the subject were apparently of interest to others, so I storified them below.


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