Self-Reliance Is a Myth and Also Vitally Important
A Shift in Focus Toward Self-Actualization Avoids This Conflict
Self-reliance is both a myth and incredibly important for happiness. To avoid this dilemma we should shift our focus from helping people become self-reliant to helping them become self-actualized.
First, please allow me to make the case that self-reliance is a myth. For one, I recognize that I am not self-reliant. Gail, my wife of almost 34 years, has shared the financial load during our marriage at least equally. She supports me in a variety of other ways as well.
Earlier, I was raised by caring parents who provided a great home. While they were fond of reminding us we weren’t rich, we also never went hungry or worried about food. There was never a question of whether I’d go to college, only a bit about how I’d pay for it.
My entire education was in public schools, except, perhaps my time in business school at Cornell, which is operated in part as a public university and partly as a private one. Chances are good that you helped pay to educate me one way or another.
For most of my career, I’ve been self-employed. Sometimes I employed others. In all those roles, including my current effort, I have relied on customers and clients. That is true today. (Hint, hint.) I am also reliant upon contractors today and employees in the past who make my work possible and much more pleasant, allowing me to do what I enjoy and do best most of the time.
(Recently, I’ve begun to appreciate that every way in which I can identify support received that others did not constitutes a form of privilege.)
The people who are most self-reliant are often the folks we think of as the most impoverished. Nomadic goat herders in Somalia or Kenya, unsheltered people on the streets of major cities around the world or street kids in Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai. These folks often receive the least support from others but even they are not fully self-reliant.
Forbes famously ranks its 400 richest people in America list on a ten-point scale of being “self-made.” George Soros is among those who score a 10, indicating he is completely self-made because he “survived the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary before immigrating to the U.S.” Even he is not purely self-reliant, I’d argue. He’s received all the benefits of being in America, the land of opportunity. He’s relied on smart people to help him grow his wealth over many decades.
No one is completely self-reliant.
Self-reliance is, however, essential for happiness. Mazlow’s famous hierarchy of needs puts self-actualization at the top. It is what we can experience, he argues, after satisfying more basic needs from food and shelter to love and relationships. Feeling self-reliant is essential for self-actualization and happiness.
As you read my arguments about the myth of self-reliance, you may have bristled a bit, feeling that in some way, I was calling into question your achievements and success. I feel the same way. This newsletter didn’t write itself. It isn’t crowdsourced. I wrote it all by myself (on a computer I didn’t build, using the internet that I didn’t create, for Substack which I neither pay nor own).
Of course, I’m not a psychologist but it seems pretty clear to me that we humans naturally take pride in our accomplishments. We love the medals we win for reaching the podium in our age group in a fun run. I’ve often bragged about winning my age group in a 2011 10k in which I was the only male competing in my age group.
You probably have bigger victories to feel proud of and you should feel proud of them. A feeling that you accomplished something largely on your own effort is important.
Nonprofits and faith groups often work to help people become more self-reliant. The goal bothers me because no one is truly self-reliant. It also pleases me because I see how important the feeling of standing on your own two feet can be. There is an irony in helping people become self-reliant. By definition, if they receive help, they aren’t self-reliant.
Notwithstanding that semantic problem, when people learn to do more for themselves and require marginally less assistance from others, they are generally happier. That’s a goal I enthusiastically embrace.
Perhaps, all we need to do is shift the focus from self-reliance to self-actualization. I suspect George Soros feels rather self-actualized. On the other hand, Somalian goat herders, unsheltered people in cities and street children may not feel self-actualized. Their focus on survival prevents that.
Let’s see if we can shift the focus together. When we talk about others becoming more self-reliant, it is easy to believe the concern is selfish rather than generous. We could be more concerned about reducing our tax burden or charitable giving than with the happiness of the people we’re ostensibly trying to help. If we focus on their self-actualization, we remove the selfish benefits from the picture.
What do you think? Could you support a shift in focus from self-reliance to self-actualization? Share your thoughts in the comments.