There’s a lot of talk these days about self-reliance. According to some, our lot in life – our success or failure – is all up to us. As GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain recently said:
“Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself. It is not someone’s fault if they succeeded, it is someone’s fault if they failed.”
According to psychologist and social scientist Dacher Keltner, Cain’s perception of self-reliance is common among the rich. As MSNBC’s Brian Alexander reports:
…rich people are more likely to think about themselves. “They think that economic success and political outcomes, and personal outcomes, have to do with individual behavior, a good work ethic,” said Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Because the rich gloss over the ways family connections, money and education helped, they come to denigrate the role of government and vigorously oppose taxes to fund it.
This focus on self-reliance can be found among the non-rich as well:
…a strong allegiance to the American Dream can lead even regular folks to overestimate their own self-reliance in the same way as rich people.
As behavioral economist Mark Wilhelm of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis pointed out, most people could quickly tell you how much they paid in taxes last year but few could put a dollar amount on how they benefited from government by, say, driving on interstate highways, taking drugs gleaned from federally funded medical research, or using inventions created by people educated in public schools.
However, focusing solely on individual self-reliance ignores the reality of our dual particle/wave nature. None of us exists in a vacuum; we are all dependent on people and forces outside of us. As Albert Einstein once said:
A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of others.
Our focus on self-reliance can even blind us about our selves. Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer-winning book The Denial of Death, noted:
We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our lives. We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us. This power is not always obvious. It need not be overtly a god or a stronger person, but it can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life, that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his own center.
This preoccupation with self-reliance flies in the face of today’s interconnected world. It also limits our potential. To understand this, think for a moment about computers. A computer by itself can make you productive in doing things like managing a business’s finances or writing a book. But a computer connected to the internet can do so much more.
The same applies to people. To succeed in life it’s not enough to simply be self-reliant; we need to be connected to the world around us as well.