Commentary: The Cruel Irony of Bootstraps

“People should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”

It’s a concept of self-reliance and independence that has become the quintessentially American idea of our time. Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is no longer just an idiom, it has evolved into a core value that is central to much of our civic and political life. To varying degrees, self-reliance has become a guiding principle for the ideology on both sides of the political aisle.

My father believed strongly in the idea of the “self-made man.” Though he has been gone for several years, his core values still color the lens through which I view the world. Like my father before me, I too believe that with enough hard work, perseverance and sheer strength of will, I can overcome any obstacle that life puts in my path. I firmly believe in the ideas of self-reliance and independence.

Yet ironically, the phrase we use to describe this idea is a complete perversion of what it actually means to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. In fact, our modern definition seems almost cruel when you consider the phrase’s original meaning.

Imagine that you’re busily walking along the road of life but don’t notice that rock in your path. The toe of your boot then awkwardly hits the rock mid-stride, causing you to tumble and fall into a hole on the side of the road. As you look up from the bottom of that hole, you know that you have to do something to get back on your path, so you grab the straps on the side of your boots, pull up really hard, and hope that doing so will magically lift you out of the hole.

Unless you have the power to suspend the laws of physics and nature, it is a physical impossibility for anyone to literally pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. In fact, the absurdity of even bothering to try is central to the original meaning of the phrase.

A century ago, if you said of a person that “he is trying to pull himself up by his own bootstraps,” you were actually ridiculing him. You were saying that this man was a fool for trying to do something that we all know to be so obviously impossible.

In our modern American political life, we celebrate independence and increasingly expect that people rely only upon themselves. We look at a person struggling to make ends meet and say that if they only worked harder, they’d be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. What once was seen as a foolish attempt to do the impossible has now become the expectation of the times in which we live. There’s a cruel irony to that phrase.

I am hardly a wealthy man, but I own my home, am sending five children through college, and have a job that pays me a fair salary. I live a comfortable life. Though my father’s values still permeate my being, I am also fully aware that I am hardly a self-made man. I am not solely responsible for any success I might enjoy. My place in this world is not entirely of my own making.

My father was with me throughout my childhood, teaching me through his words and actions what it means to be a good man. There are millions of children who are forced to grow up without learning from the wisdom of loving father.

For six years I attended Iolani School, a highly regarded college preparatory academy with exceptional facilities and teachers that instilled within me a passion for knowledge. There are millions of children in this country that cross drug-infested neighborhoods and pass through metal detectors just for a chance to attend a class in a crumbling school building.

I am a graduate of Tufts University, a highly regarded institution that is considered one of the top 25 centers of academia in the nation. There are millions of bright and talented people in this country that will forever be denied job opportunities because they lacked the financial means to obtain a college degree.

Bernaldo Daniel Bicoy. The author’s father. Submitted.

Mine is but a modest life, yet even the most successful among us are dependent on the love and generosity of others. The brilliant and innovative Microsoft founder Bill Gates approaches his own achievements with an enormous amount of humility. “I am not a self-made man,” writes Gates. “My parents started me off in life with every possible advantage.”

Self-reliance and independence are worthy values. We should teach our children the importance of hard work, perseverance and sheer strength of will. These are the characteristics that made ours the most prosperous nation in the history of the world. But we all need to recognize that our success in life is never entirely of our own making. Every one of us who leads a comfortable life has been the beneficiary of some combination of a loving parent, an inspiring teacher, a guiding mentor, a generous benefactor, or some other caring person or institution that helped us on our road to success.

Thus, we should have empathy for those unlucky ones among us who have been dealt a bad deck of cards and been denied the blessings we enjoy.

“You want to incentivize the top performers,” said billionaire and legendary investor Warren Buffett. “[We] don’t want equality in results, but do want something [so] that those who get the bad tickets still have a decent life.”

That’s why charitable giving is so important to the health and success of our nation. Whether you give of your love to your child, your time to friends in need, or a contribution to a charity dedicated to serving others, your generosity helps ensure that everyone has an opportunity to thrive.

The man who has fallen off the road of life will never be able to climb out of the hole if he tries to pull himself up by his own bootstraps. He’ll return to the path only when we as a society reach down and extend the hand of friendship.


Bret Bicoy is president and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected].

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