Inspirations: The Bootstrap Paradox (Innovation)

As part of an ongoing effort to encourage further exploration of the topics raised in In Layman’s Terms, we will be updating posts with the inspirations for the pieces found within the issues. Check back frequently for more inspirations!

You can read “On the Road” and “Cyclicity” by Emily Fernandez in Volume 2: Innovation.

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is often synonymous with The American Dream: if you try hard enough, and rely on yourself, you can pull yourself out of poverty and struggle. The phrase was first recorded in English in 1834 (Ben Zimmer) to represent an impossible task. Despite the idiom’s shift in meaning to what it is today, the task itself isn’t any more doable.

There are problems with trying to apply an impossible, individualistic strategy to society. Society, as defined by Cambridge Dictionary, includes community and shared goals, which are in direct conflict with the modern-day interpretation of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps—what’s the point of living in society, if everyone should be expected to get everything they need from within themselves?

“It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Radiolab put together a five-part series called “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths” that Brooke Gladstone explains, “examine[s] the prevailing narratives and use[s] those as a way to discuss the reality.” Listen to each episode to learn more about the “upward mobility” myth, among others, and how these myths hinder individuals’ (and society’s) ability to learn and innovate.


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