Many sunsets ago, I wrote a blog post talking about why I thought that the “bootstraps” narrative of economic mobility is problematic. I saw the narrative as problematic for a number of reasons, but one of them was due to this notion that we can succeed by ourselves without any help from others (because, in reality, all of us who succeed need the help of other people in one form or another).
This fact, the fact that we all need the help of others in order to succeed, brings me to an alternative to the bootstraps narrative. What I propose is something that I will call here the “community narrative,” named after the fact that all of us need a community of people helping us along the way in order to succeed, whatever success looks like to us.
To highlight this fact, let’s think about one of the classic cliché stories we often hear from the bootstraps narrative: the person who comes from no money at all within their family but becomes wealthy through “hard work.” In this situation, it is possible, even probable, that there was hard work, but various people along the way from poverty to success needed to recognize the hard work in a way that helped advance the formerly poor person’s education/career. This could be anything from a school able to give a full scholarship to the person when they were a student, to a group of influential people recognizing the person’s talents, to a helpful mentor (or set of mentors), to some complete strangers who were willing to take a chance on the product produced by the formerly poor person. In the story I told highlighting the bootstraps narrative, there could theoretically be anywhere between one or two and several thousand people who help the formerly poor person become wealthy along the way—hardly befitting of the notion of one pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. But it is befitting of the idea that we all need a community of people in order to succeed.
Getting ourselves away from the classic cliché stories we often hear with regard to the bootstraps narrative, one must consider and confront the fact that all of us need some help from others in order to succeed. Everyone with a strong education needed a strong institution (or institutions) to accept them into the place(s) with the strong education; every person in a high-level position (unless they run their own company) was hired by someone and likely came with letters of recommendation from a variety of other people; every entrepreneur needed a group of people who believed in the product(s) or service(s) provided; and every politician needed votes from their constituents in order to take elected office. In all these cases, a person who has succeeded needed a community of people in order to succeed—bootstraps simply wouldn’t have been enough. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single industry where you’re able to succeed without a community of people helping you in ways small and large along the way.
While it is possible that someone at some point may come up with a better explanation than my community narrative to explain how some people succeed, I hope that what I propose at the very least helps move a few people from the previous bootstraps narrative—an ill-advised narrative, for a multitude of reasons.