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In a world that constantly preaches the values of self-determination and individual achievement, there remains a pervasive belief that anyone can succeed if they just try hard enough. The idiom “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” has been the epitome of this self-made success narrative, symbolizing the idea that with enough determination and effort, one can overcome any obstacle and achieve greatness. But as we delve into this topic, it becomes apparent that this notion is nothing more than a romanticized facade, designed to perpetuate the myth of meritocracy and ignore the deeply ingrained systemic barriers that hinder upward mobility for many individuals.
While it is true that hard work and perseverance are essential ingredients for success, it is naïve to assume that everyone starts on an equal playing field. Socioeconomic disparities, discrimination, and systemic inequalities often place some individuals at an inherent disadvantage right from the start. Picture a person born into poverty, lacking access to quality education, healthcare, and basic resources. How can they possibly pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they lack the means to even own a pair of boots?
Furthermore, the bootstraps analogy fails to acknowledge the advantages that individuals born into privilege possess. Privilege can manifest in various forms, such as having wealthy parents who can afford to provide a safety net, having connections within influential networks, or simply belonging to a demographic that faces fewer social barriers. These advantages, often unseen or undervalued, create an uneven playing field where success becomes less about personal effort and more about the circumstances into which one is born.
Additionally, the bootstrap narrative ignores the systemic barriers deeply entrenched within our societies. Issues such as structural racism, gender inequality, and other forms of discrimination perpetuate disparities that continue to hold individuals back from achieving their full potential. It is important to recognize that no amount of personal willpower can dismantle these deeply rooted barriers that permeate our institutions and perpetuate the cycle of inequality.
In conclusion, the idea of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps may evoke an image of resilience and personal triumph, but it is ultimately a flawed concept. It fails to acknowledge the systemic inequalities and barriers that individuals face, often beyond their control. Success is not solely determined by personal effort, but rather by a complex interplay of socioeconomic factors and systemic structures. By understanding and addressing these systemic issues, we can begin to create a more equitable society that empowers individuals to overcome their circumstances and achieve their full potential, irrespective of their bootstraps.
English is full of expressions that make no sense without context and even less with it. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is the best example I can think of. This expression isn’t just literal nonsense—it’s figurative nonsense.
You can’t physically pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Go ahead: put on some boots, grab the straps, and try to pull yourself off the ground. You won’t manage to “pull yourself up” in any meaningful sense because gravity is a thing. You can pull yourself up by a chair, a rock-climbing grip, or someone else’s hand; you cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps, or anything attached to your body. If you could, transportation infrastructure would look very, very different because humans would be capable of levitation.
Pulling yourself up requires relying on something—or someone—else. You need help, which makes “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” a nonsense expression on a literal level. But the idea the expression is now meant to point to—that a lone individual can succeed through their own work, with no help from anyone else—is also fiction.
You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and thinking you can is fantasy.
The evolution of nonsense
The expression “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was originally used to refer to a task that’s impossible. It’s believed to come from the German author Rudolf Erich Raspe, who wrote about a character who pulled himself out of a swamp by pulling his own hair.
It’s a fun mental image, right? There’s a certain cartoon logic to it, even if it sounds painful. That’s probably why the phrase evolved to be about bootstraps, instead of hair, and stuck around for over a hundred years.
In the 19th century, the expression was mostly used to refer to impossible tasks. Here’s an example from Bryant & Stratton’s Counting House Book-Keeping in 1863:
The person competent to construct a system of philosophy on such a basis, would be able to show how a man might lift himself by his own boot-straps, or get rich by taking money from one pocket and putting it in the other.
People understood the expression “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” to mean “attempting to do something absurd” until roughly the 1920s, at which point it started to evolve toward the current understanding: to do something without any outside help.
To be clear: I’m not saying that the current usage of the expression is “wrong.” Idioms mean what they mean, regardless of the literal meaning. In the case of bootstraps, though, I think the physical impossibility is noteworthy.
Let’s talk about Monopoly
There’s an experiment involving the game Monopoly that I’ve thought about every month for the past ten years. In the experiment, which was conducted at the University of California Irvine, people just hung out and played Monopoly (which sounds pretty chill).
There was a twist, though: a coin toss meant roughly half the players started with twice as much money as the others. If you’ve played Monopoly, you know that having that much money basically ensures that you’ll win, but the players didn’t see it that way. The people with twice the cash, when asked, thought they won because of their amazing Monopoly skills.
“They don’t talk about the flip of the coin,” said Paul Piff, the researcher who conducted the experiment. “They talk about the things that they did. They talk about their acumen, they talk about their competencies, they talk about this decision or that decision.”
It’s human nature to take credit for positive outcomes, even if there’s a lot of luck involved. This isn’t to say that those players don’t have skill—there’s a good chance they made many Very Good Monopoly Decisions. But the best Monopoly player in the world would have a hard time winning against someone who starts with twice as much money as them.
That’s where “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” breaks down, to me. No one gets to where they are in life on their own—at least, not entirely. Everyone benefits from the resources they have—not only financial resources, like in the Monopoly game, but also the people around them.
Here’s Piff, the Monopoly researcher, talking about exactly that:
I think across all people, it’s universally true that there are things that you benefit from that you did not contribute to. There are things that you benefit from that you did not build; there are things that you benefit from that you did not make. You benefit from the roads that are built, from people that have helped you along the way, from the mentors that you accidentally found yourself in the same classroom with.
This isn’t to say that hard work doesn’t matter; it’s just to say that it’s not the only thing. No one pulls themselves up by their bootstraps. No one can.
I got this job at Zapier because a friend I made on Twitter thought I would be a good fit for it. I got the job before this one the same way. My friends helped me out, knowing that I’d do the same thing for them in a heartbeat. I’ve worked hard at every job I’ve ever had, but I’ve also been lucky to work with so many people who helped me become a better version of myself. The truth is that none of us does anything alone—and that we shouldn’t expect anyone else to.
This isn’t something you should feel guilty about, by the way. It’s just something you should know. Hopefully, it will motivate you to help others.
In conclusion, the idea that one can pull themselves up by their bootstraps is a flawed concept that fails to acknowledge the systemic barriers and inequalities that exist in society. While individual effort and determination are important factors in achieving success, they alone cannot overcome the various social, economic, and historical factors that can limit people’s opportunities.
The notion of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps implies that anyone can achieve success and upward social mobility solely through their own hard work and perseverance. However, this implies a level playing field, where all individuals start with the same resources, support, and opportunities. In reality, this is rarely the case.
Social mobility is heavily influenced by factors such as social class, race, gender, education, and access to resources. Systemic inequalities prevent many individuals from having an equal chance to succeed, regardless of their efforts or talents. Discrimination, lack of proper education and healthcare, unequal economic distribution, and other structural issues further contribute to this disparity.
Moreover, the idea of self-reliance overlooks the importance of social connections and support systems in achieving success. It fails to acknowledge the role that family, friends, mentors, and community play in providing resources, guidance, and opportunities. Individuals who lack access to such networks may find themselves at a significant disadvantage.
Instead of perpetuating the myth of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps, it is crucial to recognize and address the wider systemic issues. Solutions should focus on creating more equitable societies, addressing systemic barriers, providing equal opportunities, and promoting socio-economic mobility for all individuals. By acknowledging these structural factors, we can work towards a more just and inclusive society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their full potential, regardless of their starting point.
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