Bootstrapping, A Perpetually Incomplete Story

“No person will make a great business who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit.” ~ Andrew Carnegie

Taken in Amador County, CA – November 2017

Along with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; these colors don’t run, and …making America a more perfect Union among others; an oft stated American virtue is pulling oneself up by his/her bootstraps or bootstrapping.  One definition of bootstrapping states – to begin an enterprise or recover from a setback without any outside help.  Another description offers, to succeed only by one’s own efforts or abilities.  Bootstrapping is a rallying cry to always put our best foot forward irrespective of life’s challenges.  It underpins the narrative that no one likes a flake, crybaby, or carnival barker.  The personal ethos of so many, bootstrapping invalidates outrage when not paired with driving solutions.  Sending us atop corporate ladders, springing us out of bed before dawn to embark on long commutes, and giving us a second wind as we leave our main job to work side hustles, bootstrapping allows for accomplishing goals in a passionate, pride-inducing way.

My parents infused bootstrapping principles in as much of their rearing and teachable moments as possible.  “People don’t owe you sh*t,” they would lament.  “Anything worth having doesn’t come easily,” they would advise. “You better get the hell out of here,” they would demand in speaking of my economically depressed native town.  My parents’ goal was to increase my self-efficacy and shun co-dependency.  Never did they guide me to weaponize bootstrapping by insinuating fellow citizens were undeserving because their bootstrapping and overall life situations did not exactly mirror mine.

Hard Working Group

Proponents of “you get what you pay for” and “what you put into the world is what you receive,” my parents wanted to ensure I focused on improving myself by changing the things I could control.  For rural baby boomers working their entire adolescent and adult lives, this meant working hard for whatever I wanted in life. If I did not like a job, find another one then quick the unfavorable one.  If I like nice things and enjoy traveling, then I should legally build a life that would afford me such things.  All else we seek – acknowledgement, appreciation, comfortable amenities – are rewards you reap from hard work.  With that, bootstrapping is one of the most incomplete stories we tell ourselves in America.

As I got older, some of my parents’ bootstrapping direction proved spot-on, other renditions were found to be more nuanced.  They were correct; no one likes a chronic whiner — even though voicing your frustrations can be cathartic if paired with vying to make positive change.  Yes, running up corporate ladders is acceptable if said ladders are leaning against the right wall — meaning if you are pursuing endeavors aligned with your goals and values.  Totally, no one owes me anything — there is a sense of pride knowing the (in)tangible things I have accumulated were achieved because of my efforts.  Still, I did not achieve any of my goals solely because of my grit.  My parents, relatives, friends, favorable governmental policies and now my spouse Larry have helped me.  No one goes it alone.  One’s bootstrapping is not diminished because of this hard to ignore fact.

Personal Responsibility

If we really aim to live in a more perfect Union where no child is left behind, droves of people should not be judged for using government assistance – such as SNAP benefits – to reestablish themselves.  Sure, tax breaks – another form of welfare – provided to highly profitable multinational corporations are not immune to society’s tongue lashings.  Multiple assessments have shown tax breaks do not transform into higher wages for existing employees or more jobs for the unemployed.  The money saved is typically used to buy back outstanding stocks, provide executives higher base salaries, and inflate bonus packages, all of which are those decision-makers’ prerogatives.  Not all employers and boards of directors make these financial decisions on reallocate money saved from tax breaks.  Not all of them have too; only enough of them do.

Yet the tone of condemnation is different, depending on who is supposedly shunning bootstrapping.  The recipients of SNAP benefits are lazy and undeserving given their poor decision making and thus bleak circumstances.  There is no benefit of the doubt given to individuals starting their lives from a tough spot and needing some assistance in getting to a better situation. The initial thought and reasoning are grounded in malevolence.  The C-suite executives who willfully yet lawfully hire adept accountants and lawyers to exploit the very system that helped them ascend to their prestige are considered very smart, savvy, good guys protecting their hard-earned wealth, among other hypocritical praise.  Where is the bootstrapping here to ensure they nourish the very institutions that helped them?  I know, it’s different.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as a self-made insert title because of his/her fervent bootstrapping.  America has not become the military, social, and economic superpower it has because of any cohort of citizens endlessly bootstrapping while others allegedly drug the nation down with their so-called intrinsic failings or chronically making poor personal choices.

Truth or Lie

The most popular version of the bootstrapping narrative is the most self-aggrandizing parts of it.  This story in crafted in various forms.  For example, I have heard awe-inspiring stories leading with “tired of purchasing expensive watches, John and Jane Doe just purchased a factory, cut out the middlemen, started making their own and selling them cheaper.” Another incomplete fairy tale would coo, “having started in a garage by a couple of guys, x company now has a market value of y dollars.” One of the most fabled include, “he started from nothing and through his grit charted his path to the top of x industry.”  By no means am I refusing to acknowledge people’s hard work. I am no stranger to hard work, grit and determination.  I am not downplaying people’s hardscrabble beginnings transforming into well-deserved higher standards of living.  I am not implying entering new markets; establishing businesses; complying with overbearing regulations; hiring, training and retaining productive employees are easy business practices.

I am saying we should tell a more nuanced story about bootstrapping.  From above, John and Jane Doe may very well have worked 20-hour days, seven days a week to launch their hypothetical watch factory.  They may have camped out for several weeks on friends’ couches in New York City or NorCal to convince venture capitalists to invest in their idea.  They probably initially managed their own financial books in Mead spiral tablets with Bic pens, not with an iPad Pro app.  When not begging for money, they may have spent 10 hours a day building watches by hand.  This is the bootstrapping story we readily receive; the version disproportionately calculating our self-worth and righteousness in criticizing others.

However, John and Jane Doe may also have been trust fund babies making raising capital a non-issue.  They could have inherited a building from relatives, making access to commercial real estate in which to build their watches that much cheaper/easier.  They may have been raised by socialites, whose parents ran in circles making access to watch-building intellectual property readily available to John and Jane.  This version is less sexy.  It does not cast people in a superior or superhuman light.

People’s current lot in life result from diverse circumstances.  Not a firm believer in luck, preparedness and opportunity converge to give some of us a better life.  In the case of hypothetical John and Jane, they could have been people whose preparedness – largely shaped by their parents’ affluence, social standing or even legacy preferences at an ivy league school – met opportunities – precipitating from being well connected to shot callers able to remove barriers as needed. This does not make John and Jane bad people, it simply tells more of the story around bootstrapping.  It deflates the notion I did it so why can they, when really, I was we.

Bootstrapping has become a dog whistle in America, casting some segments of the population as undeserving, lazy moochers and others as hard working real Americans who are well within their right to take their country back — from whom is entirely unclear.  It has lost its purity in inspiring us to achieve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, becoming adulterated by hyperbole of America falling from its global pinnacle of influence due to people taking jobs they do not deserve among other racially charged foolishness.

Diverse Hard Working

As with any story, this narrative of distorted bootstrapping is not dominant within everyone’s psyche. Some of us still turn to bootstrapping as the ultimate motivator, as a passion originating from within the depth of our souls, to achieve great things.  Bootstrapping is becoming better recognized in the different forms it takes.  It may be the coarse hands of a Midwestern farmer who has managed to fight off Monsanto or chronically greasy fingernails of a southern shade tree mechanic who built his own automotive repair shop.  It very well may be the studious immigrant supported by her family to become a naturalized citizen in Pacific Northwest or single mother once on governmental assistance turned successful small business owner in Northern Virginia.  Some of us celebrate this diverse bootstrapping by heralding the richness it offers Americana, spreading the financial and social capital resulting from immigrants starting globally significant enterprises, and acknowledging how some of our brethren are changing their views to be more inclusive and loving as we work hard alongside each other to make our nation a more perfect Union.