The Problem with the Bootstrap Mentality
From a young age, Americans are told to man up, dream big, and work hard. With this magic formula, success will come our way. The flip side is that if we don’t work hard, we’ll fall hard — and that means that any failure is due to personal choice.
This attitude conveniently forgets the systemic problems and dumb luck that drive much of our experience. Here are some ways in which pulling yourself up the bootstraps is glamorized, yet harms our overall development and success.
Few myths are as damaging to Americans’ lives as the belief that hard work simply lifts one out of poverty. This attitude stems from the Just World Hypothesis, which holds that the world is basically right and good people are rewarded. Therefore, people who have had bad things happen to them must have done something to cause or deserve it. It’s an appealing idea because it allows people to shift the blame to the victim rather than admit that a system that benefits them might be unethical or broken. Or, it allows them to avoid uncomfortable feelings of pity and instead resort to judgment.
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Socioeconomic status and wealth are complicated, and despite some people’s best attempts to claim that CEOs work harder than anyone else, there are only so many hours in the week. The income disparity is the key. We really can’t compare a CEO putting in 80 hours a week with a low-income person working three jobs for pennies. Often, wealthy people become wealthy through family fortune, manipulative or unethical behavior, or simple luck of the draw. Similarly, poor people can work their darnedest and not move up the financial ladder at all.
Victimhood and Survivorship
Some people who have experienced domestic violence or abuse prefer to call themselves “survivors,” thinking that the word “victim” makes them sound weak or like they don’t have agency. While that’s a personal choice, I fear that their aversion to the word stems from the bootstrap mentality’s insidious cousin: the cult of personal responsibility. This attitude holds that people must accept responsibility for everything that happens to them, good or bad. After all, if all our success comes from our direct action and all our failure comes from our mistakes, we must be the cause of our own pain!
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Calling ourselves “victims” can seem like we’re letting our experience dictate who we are, while “survivor” implies strength and power. We’re afraid of being accused of causing the thing that hurt us. People who have experienced sexual assault or intimate partner abuse encounter this all the time: nagging questions about whether or not we did something to provoke the violence. But the fact is, it’s okay to call yourself a “victim” if you want — something bad was done to you! Similarly, people experiencing financial hardship are shamed for their spending habits, and society eagerly focuses on the illusion that tiny luxuries are the reason for poverty rather than admit that many Americans are facing dire financial circumstances due to no fault of their own.
Personal Development and Spiritual Growth
Finally, the bootstrap mentality and the cult of personality both hold that we must constantly be positive, forgiving, and humble in order to “grow.” We’re told that to be happy, we must forgive those who have done us wrong. We’re told that to be successful, we must “think positive.” The idea is that a bunch of individual steps toward happiness can erase years of trauma or self-doubt. The problem with this idea is that it insists upon individuals’ full responsibility for their growth and suggests that it’s a linear process.
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Your personal development is never done. You’ll experience periods of contentment and grace that are followed by periods of despair and anger. You’ll feel mature and accomplished, then pathetic and anxious. It’s part of being human, and we are tied to our circumstances, like it or not.
I know it seems like if we toss out our bootstrap mentality or the cult of personal responsibility, it seems like we’ve abandoned our path to personal success. But that’s just the thing: why standardize our measures of success? Why not instead define success for ourselves, and not approach every day as a giant to-do list?
Follow these tips for life without the bootstrap mentality:
Don’t forgive others for hurting you.
Do forgive yourself for making mistakes.
Don’t work harder to try to get head.
Do work smarter — even if it means taking breaks.
Don’t accept blame for things that weren’t your fault.
Do accept gratitude for the good things you did.
Don’t assume that your good deeds will return to you.
Do good deeds for the sake of being kind.
By rejecting the bootstrap mentality, we reject the idea that our fates are tied to our every actions, and we’re instead forced to pursue life in a more holistic way. We allow ourselves rest days and mistakes, and we learn to grow more during those times. We acknowledge our negative circumstances and work to escape them rather than staying in toxic jobs or relationships. And most importantly, we accept responsibility only for the things we did, rather than what others did to us. With a lighter heart and head, we ironically can then accomplish much more than we could with a bootstrap mentality.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.