Barack Obama made a speech in 2012 in which he made a now-infamous statement: “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.“
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: this was taken out of context, of course. Indeed, these days context seems to be so malleable and dismissible it’s almost cliché to say sound bites are taken out of context. But I digress. If you read what he said leading up to this “incendiary” statement, Obama probably should have stated “you didn’t build that alone.”
One missing word can change so much. One missing word, and his detractors had a field day claiming Obama was anti-business, anti-entrepreneur, and anti-capitalist. Actually, they probably would have criticized him even if he had included the word “alone.”
Regardless, Obama’s speech contained an important lesson many of us tend to forget: throughout our lives we are all supported by other people, in ways big and small.
Correcting the Cult of the Rugged Individual
In our age of modern convenience, we often delude ourselves into thinking we’re totally self-sufficient. This mindset is an extension of the American mythology of the “rugged individual.” We have long romanticized the image of the self-made man, who achieves great things with no apparent help from others.
There is a fundamental error at work here, born of a myopic view of success that has long plagued our society. As I mentioned earlier, human beings can all-too-easily lose sight of context. When we fixate on a person and their achievements, we often overlook or forget the context of that individual’s life history. In general, successful people have spent years of effort to achieve their eventual success. The “overnight success” is just as fallacious as the rugged individual.
Remember to celebrate the ruggedness of your own ambition, and also recognize the vital people who helped you build your “that,” whatever it may be.
Let me be clear: I believe we must respect the rights and agency of individuals. I also believe it is up to each of us to take the initiative in our own lives to accomplish our goals. We shouldn’t depend on anyone else to do the hard work on the path to success. We all need to take personal responsibility and exercise some ambition to obtain the results we want in life.
However, we are long overdue for a clarification of what it really means to be a rugged individual. We need to stop believing in larger-than-life superbeings who miraculously arrive on the scene solo and are instantaneously famous because they’re “a genius.”
The Self-Motivated Man
When we see people who we consider “self-made,” they are actually “self-motivated.” They have pushed themselves beyond their comfort zones. They have worked long and hard on making their goals a reality. They have dragged themselves out of the human inclination toward comfort and conformity, in order to strive and bring their dreams to life.
But even the most motivated individual needs help. Take a moment to think about your own life, and who helped you along the way. Really concentrate on what others have done for you, and how it changed your life for the better. While you’re at it, think about how you’ve helped others as well.
If it helps, here are some things to consider:
- Who was the parent, teacher, high school principal, etc. who believed in your dreams right along with you?
- Who was the banker that loaned you the money to help you start a business?
- Who were the customers who paid you for your goods or services?
- Who were the employers who took a chance on you when you had no experience to justify getting hired?
- Who was the tow truck driver who got you and a broken-down car to the nearest garage?
- Who were all these people? They were your support system. Even if it was for a few moments in time, they were your helpers.
Yes, you can be rugged, which we can translate as being “resilient.” Ruggedness can also be described as grit, the cultivatable ability to persevere over the long-term. But even the most rugged of individuals can’t achieve everything alone.
So, remember to celebrate the ruggedness of your own ambition, and also recognize the vital people who helped you build your “that,” whatever it may be.
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