Self-reliance versus reliance on others

A group of friends once debated whether we should rely on ourselves or on others. One of them said, “If I don’t look out for myself, no one will. And I want to progress to the point where I am independent.” Then came the rebuttal. “No one on the planet has all the skills required to make a pencil from scratch.1 We need help. Self-reliance is the pathway to poverty – financial, emotional, spiritual, and every other kind of poverty.”

As an American man, I naturally lean in favor of self-reliance, but the argument for depending on others seems compelling too. Perhaps we should consider a middle ground where we are partially reliant on others and partially on our own strength.

Here is a visual representation of self-reliance as a continuum:

This model implies that as reliance on others increases reliance on our own abilities decreases. The opposite case would also be true. As we learn and grow, we become less dependent on others for help. Picture someone with an unexpected health condition who cuts back on individual commitments while reaching out for help.

I now believe that this way of thinking is incomplete and even damaging. If becoming more self-reliant requires less dependence on others, then personal progress demands increasing isolation. Each step toward competence would require a step back from openness and vulnerability.

The modern world seems to label self-reliance as good and reliance on others as bad. “Learn to carry yourself on your own back,” they say. “People will drop you.” For those who believe in the virtue of independence, reaching out for help is perceived as weakness. The only reason to ask for it is when you hit rock bottom and must admit your incompetence. Because you – and everyone else on Earth – are deeply flawed, you hide your imperfections behind fake smiles and manicured lawns.

What if self-reliance is not a continuum though? What if it is possible to grow more self-reliant while becoming more dependent on others? Here is visual of a proposed alternative model:

This model suggest that people can be simultaneously reliant on themselves and others. They can also be low in both types of reliance or high in one kind and low in the other. This two-by-two matrix proposes four categories of people. They are:

  • The Hopeless – These do not believe that they can rise out of their problems. No one can help them, and they cannot help themselves. They are victims.
  • The Independents – These are the isolated strivers who do not need anyone or anything to accomplish their goals. They may be willing to give but not to receive.
  • The Dependents – These people expect others to rescue them. They say things like “Everything works out in the end.” They are unwilling to give but happy to receive.
  • The Multipliers – These work tirelessly to get things done and are constantly bringing others in for counsel and help. The combination of their work and the help of others multiplies their effectiveness.

The more you want to overcome and achieve the more you should rely on yourself and others. Business tycoons like Elon Musk work hard and are confident in their own abilities. They are also keenly aware that people only build electric cars and settlements on distant planets through high-functioning interdependent teams.

Successful individuals are no different. They invite friends to help them prepare a meal even if they could handle it themselves. Their cooking skills and friendships are better for it. They ask others for advice on how to resolve their most vexing problems. They reach out in moments of pain for comfort and support. And they fight through obstacles alone when needed.   

Those who feel a strong connection with God can be highly competent while still deeply relying on him. In moments when they cannot feel the God’s guiding light, they move forward doing good works anyway. Those aligned with God do not wait around to be rescued but check in with him constantly to see if he has any guidance or relief to offer.

A final warning – if you are not open to asking people for help when things are going well, the time will come when you beg for assistance. Everyone has weaknesses, endures suffering, and receives strength from the company of others. Without them to inspire you and compensate for your shortcomings, your failings will compound until they are too daunting to deal with alone. Better to reach out now.

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