In 1841, the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote an essay called, "Self-Reliance." It was a call for each of us to avoid a shallow conformity to society's expectations, while confidently living our own lives according to our own values. The term became a short-hand for the tradition of self-sufficiency or "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps." The concepts of the "rugged individual" and the "self-made" success are part of that tradition.
Self-Reliance also refers to the idea captured in the Boy Scout motto, "Be prepared." There is a deep tradition that each of us should be able to take care of ourselves, and our family.
I think that tradition is still strong and continues to be found in our desire for success, for entrepreneurship and our desire for a secure future.
But the concept of Self-Reliance flies in the face of other traditions that are, perhaps, just as strong.
Our concepts of insurance, community, even extended family are all ways in which we try to avoid the sense of being alone in a big, scary world. We are social beings and we form alliances of every sort, from religious and political associations, to fraternal groups and civic organizations. No one wants to be totally self-reliant if we can avoid it.
I see these twin desires for independence and communal inter-dependence as a sort of continuum or pendulum.
As I see it, we increasingly live in an inter-connected world and this week, that hit me hard.
The company that hosts my website had major problems, intermittently on Monday, then for most of Tuesday and Wednesday. We had no email, no website, no e-commerce, and no customer service. For most of three days, I lost my business! And there was nothing I could do about it.
During those three days, a funny thing happened. I noticed I was eating an apple from New Zealand, and that my shirt had been made in Viet Nam. I remembered that my "American" truck was assembled in Canada, of parts made around the world. I read a book that was written in England but printed in South Korea, while I sat under a light bulb made in China, that was powered by electricity generated on the Columbia River a couple hundred miles away.
I came to three conclusions:
1. Self-Reliance is a good thing.
When inflation and insecurity were rampant in the 1970's, lots of people became "survivalists." They stock-piled everything from food and water, to guns and gold. Today, I see that happening again. When it's driven by fear, I doubt that's a good thing or a healthy motive. But the idea of marching to the beat of your own drum, and of being "prepared" with skills, tools and resources to take care of yourself and your loved ones is a good thing.
Whether it's having some savings, a few days food stored in the pantry, or an emergency plan for the family, storms and disruptions can and (eventually) will happen. The Boy Scouts are right to "be prepared."
2. Our world is ever-more inter-connected and inter-dependent.
In many ways, that is a good thing. My New Zealand apple was delicious! But an inter-connected world is vulnerable to disruptions, from power outages to strikes, to riots in distant parts of the world. Our small, mutually-dependent world makes us rich, but creates its own risks. Mature people recognize, understand and prepare for those risks.
3. I suspect success is about balancing these two forces.
Successful people "march to the beat of their own drummer." But successful people also "play well with others." Success is about finding and pursuing your own dreams and living your own life in the context of a large and connected world. No one can be truly successful without rich relationships, a vibrant community, and willing customers. Too much dependence makes us vulnerable and insecure. That's not success in my book! But too much independence makes us lonely and isolated, and that's almost a definition of failure in life.
Long ago, Emerson recommended Self-Reliance, and he knew something vital. Every child must find their own way and learn to speak with their own voice. But we also live on a small planet with a degree of inter-dependence unknown in human history. Success is learning to balance these two things. Live your own life, based on your own ideas, strengths and resources. And, learn to be a valued contributor in a vibrant, connected and multi-cultural world.