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Positively Speaking: Bootstrapping


By Toby Moore

For Capital Region Independent Media

Headshot of man named Toby Moore
Toby Moore

One of the prevailing messages in the United States is that anybody can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and create a better life for themselves. It forms the bedrock of the American Dream: the conviction that no societal stratification can hinder an individual’s ascent on the socioeconomic ladder.

“Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” is a phrase from the 18th century and was initially used mockingly to describe something that is technically impossible. Can you pull your bootstraps hard enough to pull yourself off the ground? No.

Over time, its meaning has changed, signaling the achievement of formidable tasks still within the realm of possibility.

The term “bootstrapping” is also commonly used in the entrepreneurial arena to refer to starting a business with little or no outside cash or other support. It’s about doing more with less, relying on personal savings and revenue from the business to sustain the company’s growth.

Many have questioned whether bootstrapping is possible in today’s America and wonder if it was ever possible. There is an attack on the idea that somebody can “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.”

Can somebody pull themselves up by the bootstraps? It depends on what the phrase means to you.

To me, the idea of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps must first happen in your mind; you must believe it’s possible. Also, it doesn’t necessarily mean raising the socioeconomic ladder; it relates to accomplishing your dreams, which only sometimes equates to a big bank account and high-status friends.

There is no doubt that, especially in the early days of America, it was next to impossible for a person of color to rise the socioeconomic ladder and become wealthy and successful, but did that mean they couldn’t achieve feats of near impossibility?

What about historical figures like Harriet Tubman or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who achieved the impossible and fulfilled their dreams? They genuinely exemplify “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.”

There are those whose idea of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” is so different than mine that it’s like a clashing of worldviews.

Skeptics like Sam Harris argue that being self-made is merely a game of chance. He asserts that the “self-made” concept is “total fiction” and “uncompassionate,” as no one controls their genetic makeup, the family they are born into, or their inherent intelligence.

I agree that every person on this planet is indeed born with a unique set of genes, placed in a particular family, and raised in a specific environment. All these factors play a crucial role in shaping us. They provide the foundation for our beliefs, character and decision-making.

There is no denying that we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and bootstrapping requires the help of many.

Yet, I’m not convinced that the answer is as black and white as he postulates; furthermore, it’s an uncompassionate message to those struggling with whether they can accomplish their goals.

For ages, the intellectual giants in science and philosophy have been locked in a debate, grappling with the questions surrounding nature versus nurture. Has this age-old debate reached a definitive conclusion?

The American Dream doesn’t promise that everyone will reach the top. It promises the opportunity to climb and create meaningful change in society. It takes effort, perseverance and tenacity.

People like Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who we celebrate for their remarkable achievements, were not just products of luck or chance. They made choices and took actions that led them to accomplish their dreams and change America for the better.

It’s different for everyone. Some will have to fight harder and face more challenges than others.

And yet, acknowledging the role of luck, the circumstances of our birth, and the advantages we have, does not devalue our efforts or accomplishments. It adds to our awareness and appreciation of the journey we’ve taken and the struggles we’ve overcome.

Pull yourself up by the bootstraps in your mind. Recognize your unique situation and the choices available, and find the courage to seize those opportunities regardless of the odds.

So, is bootstrapping real?

Bootstrapping is about the triumph of the human spirit, which is as real as it gets.

Toby Moore is a columnist, the star of Emmy-nominated “A Separate Peace,” and the CEO of Cubestream Inc.

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