Bootstraps are not important. We should be talking about Mattresses.
In 2009, a young black man, in the heat of an American economic decline, decides to quit a “good” job, without another job lined up with the hopes of working independently and building a business from the ground up. That was me. That was a moment of significant risk and I took it with very little hesitation.
The next part of the story isn’t glamorous. There was no rise to success. I spent the next 5 years in a professional roundabout and eventually (after periods of depression, unemployment, and losing a house, a wife, and a dog) landing back where I started.
A few years later, I feel like I am the most successful I have ever been. Now, at 31, with clear paths to greater success in various directions, I ask myself how I was able to do everything I’ve done. One thing is astoundingly clear — I did not work hard. I’ve had my fair share of long hours and late nights but I’ve mostly been pursuing the things that I’m interested in, often changing pursuits as frequently as the sun rises and sets. I’ve absorbed as much information as I could from every job, project, and relationship while I was doing it and enjoying it. When I no longer felt like it was for me, I moved on to something else, with almost every one of those transitions being a decent risk. I understand that this is the life of someone with privilege. At the worst moments of my life, I didn’t really have much fear that I couldn’t recover. You could call this confidence or arrogance or faith or hope or whatever word makes you feel good, but I can tell you it was a product of The Mattress — the underlying support structure and system of opportunity available at the point of failure.
The Mattress at Work
Every single time I put in a letter of resignation or invested way too much money on another tool for my craft, I did so with some (maybe even subconscious) awareness that even if I failed miserably, I could bounce back. Not once did I think to myself that I could just work really hard and make everything better. Instead, I knew that I had a supportive family that had the resources to support me temporarily if the worst happened. Because I had parents were able to provide for me through college, I knew that I had earned proof of being educated in a field that is marketable. Because I always attempt to treat people with respect and love, I also knew that I had met many people along my journey who I could reach out to when seeking new paths and opportunities. There are no bootstraps in this story. I never looked down at my feet to see what I was capable of. I always looked behind me to see if there was something to land on if I fell.
So many people in this country don’t have what I have. Most of them are probably working much harder than I am for much less. Many of them will not see much progress. They don’t have anything to fall back on. There is no family that they can turn to. There is no back up plan if their business venture fails. There is no relief if they go back to school for something that is in low demand when they finish their degree. There is no well connected friend of a friend that is going to offer a job when nobody else will hire them. When you barely make enough money to have a place to sleep and food to eat (not to mention any form of health care), the energy to pursue anything else is so faint and faded. We can’t expect everyone to simply ignore their lack and somehow manage to break free. They need help from the privileged. They need programs that provide the support they need to be willing to take some risks, give them tools to break the patterns, and to catch them if they fail. Every single successful person that I know has failed on many occasions, but it feels like we want those who have nothing to somehow know how to get it right on their first try. America has an unhealthy fetish for individual accomplishment. It’s shameful. The truth is, we all need one another. The moment where we realize that as a country, we will be much better off.
And I’m sure some true bootstraps stories do exist, but they are probably one in a million. I just wish we stopped talking about it like it’s the primary method of improvement and empowerment, especially in a country where the growing income gap trends in the opposite direction and the current administration seems perfectly content with that never changing.