The Illusion of Rugged Individualism

December 26, 2018


We like to believe that we don’t need anyone else to be successful. “He is a self-made man.” Stories about about rugged individualism. Our society tends to downplay the role of community and the good of the whole and celebrates the success of what is perceived to be a lone actor. Maybe this story was created during the history of western expansion. The idea of the lone explorer, going off and being completely self-sufficient. My grandfather used to say, “God helps those how help themselves.” (He always added, “and God help those who get caught helping themselves!”).

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.
– John Donne

Who is in Your Tribe?

There was a time that an individual could craft their own tools for survival; a simple shelter, a spear, a rock for grounding cornmeal, foraging for one’s food. Even during these times, our species realized that their was safety in groups. These groups are now know as tribes. We are hardwired to live in groups. We are social animals. Our ancestors realized that one’s chance of surviving was greatly enhanced by sharing resources and protecting one another. It was also obvious that one needed others to pass on one’s genes and create future generations. In today’s complex world, our most common tool is a mouse and a computer – devices that not one single person in the world can create or build on their own. Our world has continued to evolve into one that requires greater and greater cooperation and interdependence.

I believe that the idea of “rugged individualism” is an illusion. It makes for inspiring stories to fantasize about individual’s going off and gaining wealth and fame without any help from anyone else. I am reminded of the scene in the movie, The Jerk, with Steve Martin. Martin’s character announces to his partner, “Well I’m gonna to go then. And I don’t need any of this. I don’t need this stuff, and I don’t need you. I don’t need anything except this. And that’s it and that’s the only thing I need, is this. I don’t need this or this. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that’s all I need. And this remote control…..”

A Shared Destiny

We find ourselves in this same situation, we feel we don’t need anyone or anything and then begin to realize just how interdependent we really are. Our roads, our hospitals, our food, the building materials that construct our homes and our transportation – are all only possible by the collective power of groups. Image being dropped in the center of a strange country, without any family or friends and no resources except the clothes on your back. How long do you think you would survive without the help of others? I believe that it is time to put to bed this illusion of rugged individualism. It is much easier to believe that individuals are completely in control of their own successes and to downplay the role of external factors such as access to clean water, to education, to adequate healthcare, to basic needs for survival.

Co-Creating Our Shared Future

Our organizations and our world depends upon us as a species coming together and working collectively to address the challenges we face around our globe. There are great opportunities that are out if we can figure out how to put our differences aside and recognize our shared humanity and work together to achieve our dreams and create a better future for our children.

What future is your organization creating? What are your dreams? If you find yourself pondering similar questions around your own unique adaptive challenges, connect with me here or find me on LinkedIn. Let’s explore how you and/or your organization can experience life to the fullest and engage in positive, transformative change.





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