Of mythic bootstraps

Publication YearIssue Date 

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.




\"[T]he saying of Themistocles holds good. When a Seriphian abused him—saying that he was illustrious not thanks to himself but thanks to the city—he answered that if he himself had been a Seriphian he would not have made a name, nor would that man have made one had he been an Athenian.\"

Tom, in defense of Remi, I offer you the classic Marxist understanding of the economic base to which he is definitely referring: it is not, as you say, that the economic base (Remi talks about fortune and structure) determines the constraints on our freedom. It was liberals who misunderstood Marx to be saying that economic base was something like \'we think we are free, but we are actually determined by the economic base\'. This is not what is meant. What is meant by Marx, and Remi too (if I understand him correctly), is that economic base is of and for our freedom, that base is the social substance which sustains our freedom.

What this article suggests that hard work does not relate positively to success. This is a lie. If this were
true, I fail to see why we live in the world we live in. Would the internal combustion engine have been developed without the hard work required to understand mechanics and chemistry? Was the effort displayed by the Wright brothers a meaningless exercise in futility? Would we have been able to put satellites in orbit around the earth? Would we have come closer to understanding the function of the body and the mind, and the means to remedy the ailments of either?

This myth is neither arrogant nor misleading. As the child in a family that moved to Canada with the clothes on our backs, I was able to witness firsthand that it was dedication to work, budgeting and saving that enabled us to reach a position of actually owning our house and having paid off the mortgage within ten years. I am disgusted by the continual expectation of reward for completing a job that I encounter with many of my peers. Many of them are transient workers hopping from job to job, citing that they wouldn\'t get a raise, and yet when I drill them on what they did, they always inevitably admit that all they did was the bare minimum, without showing any initiative or interest beyond their own selfish needs. Does the author of this article suppose Rowling\'s effort was the product of pure chance, and not the continued application of her faculties to create the first book which lifted her off her feet?

What the author fails to acknowledge is that society is based around an adversarial system. If there is one job opening and five applicants, it is of course clear that only one of them will get it. This person is not lucky, this person is just perceived as the most competent by the standards of the individual conducting the interview.

Then the quote, \"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.\" flies against what the author of this article tries to say. If the person making this statement was of the same opinion, why would the individual have ever attempted to complete high school, and even go as far as university? If the work required does not yield any benefits, why would the individual in question have gone on to university? It is granted that not everyone begins with the same financial situation, but this is what scholarships exist for, which, again, are handed out on the basis of excellence, not a misguided sense of being owed something by society.

Further, I could use the same expletives \"Sam\" used in describing what I do and have done to earn income, and find the same discrepancy of income between myself and my father (who I might add, had to begin at near minimum wage when we arrived in Canada). What I find remarkable is the suggestion that \"Sam\" is living in a dream world, without any further evidence provided about his circumstances.

If there really was no benefit to the application of oneself to their work, I would still be earning the same $9/hour I was six years ago as a kitchen dish washer. The only element of fortune present in success is timing, the rest is dedication and application of self.

As the one that the author named \"Sam\" in this article, I feel that I have a substantial amount to clear up. Firstly, this quote came from a conversation that I was having with some of my friends, and I was not aware that it was used in this article until a friend of mine posted the link on my wall. I find it extremely disappointing that Remi Watts, someone who I once respected as a journalist, decided to take my words, and twist them against me, alluding to the fact that I have a delusion of \"self-made prosperity\". Not once in our conversation did I say that I was prosperous, I only said that I was content with my life, and that I regard that I am responsible for myself. The reason that I currently hold a minimum wage job, and not a higher position, is that I returned from two weeks of approved vacation this summer to my higher paying job, to be informed that I was wrongfully being dismissed without compensation (which is currently being dealt with by the labour board), and due to the fact that I was returning from two weeks vacation, I was left scrambling trying to find a job with barely anything left in my bank account, so I took the first one that was offered to me (which, with less than 6 months under my belt there, I am now being considered for a management position based on my performance). I\'m currently in between semesters in my training to be an EMT (which is being paid for entirely through scholarships and my savings), and everything that I stated is the truth. I\'ve held a job without any gaps since I was fourteen years old (and according to Alberta labour laws, that meant that, like mr. Louden, I did have to lie about my age to get a job), I\'ve paid for mostly everything, and while, to an outsider, it may look like I\'ve spent my life living a life of privilege, I haven\'t. I\'ve dealt with having to give up a lot more than just cable, but I choose not to make my personal problems a public issue (another comment that I made in the conversation that this quote was thoughtlessly taken from, yet Mr. Watt clearly though this was not relevant). If that fact means that I\'m not putting forth a \"thoughtful and honest vision of ones own success\" then I suppose that\'s too bad.

So it\'s curious how the Opinion Editors Remi Watts took this comment and used it for his Op-Ed column especially when it come from a Facebook wall conversation. Did the Opinion Editor sent an email to \"Sam\" to ask her if it was okay to use her comments for this column? Or tried to explain the full context behind the comments and the conversation? If not, I\'m not impressed with this.

Even if it\'s \"okay\" to do so, it\'s still unethical for Mr. Watts to run a quote in his column without getting the \'ok.


I don\'t think that\'s what Remi was saying at all. \"Fantasy of self-made prosperity\" wasn\'t in reference to you- I understood it as being about politicians and \"pundits\" who believe that the only difference between poverty and prosperity is a little hard work.

\"Not once in our conversation did I say that I was prosperous\"

I think that was the point. Hard work can lead to prosperity or it might not. It\'s not right to assume that it will.

I\'m not going to comment on the ethics of possibly using a quote without permission (if that\'s indeed what was done) but I think you misunderstood Remi\'s point and unnecessarily construed it as a criticism of your character.

I have to agree with the previously comment from anonymous. Clearly this person who feels that they are the \"Sam\" from the article both misunderstands the point of the article (which is made doubly hilarious by the fact that she feels she\'s the person in the article), and thinks she has been wronged by the writer somehow. If the \"Sam\" from the article is even real (which I doubt), then why should the person who believes she is \"Sam\" even care? She claims the quote is from a conversation with friends, in the article it states the quote came from a public discussion. Either way the quote is not attached to anyone real (and is probably fanciful anyhow), so why would someone want to embarrass themself by connecting themself to the quote? As far as ethics go, in response to David, if the quote was public, then the quote was fair game — if anything Mr. Watts was doing \"Sam\" a favor by not calling her out in public. Why would \"Sam\" want intellectual property of her own ignorance, except to possibly garner attention down the road?
I don\'t know either Mr. Watts nor \"Sam\" but it really feels like whoever this \"Sam\" really is she has a personal vendetta against the writer, because the quote was, as the previous anonymous person explained, not an attack against \"Sam\'s\" character.