was laid off from my job a few weeks ago and found myself curiously calm about the whole thing. I thanked my supervisor, put up a placeholder Out of Office, and headed downstairs to the coffee co-op for a cold brew. As I sipped, I opened up a note on my phone and started making a list of people who should know I was looking for a new job. Not my nearest and dearest — they could wait a few hours — but people I’d worked with before, who could keep me in mind if they heard of something good opening up. The list was not small, and as the caffeine began its blessed journey through the cogs in my brain, I realized that this list was the greatest accomplishment of the last decade of my professional life. There wasn’t a single thing on my resume that made me quite as proud as these relationships.
I’m not some kind of positivity savant; it’s just that this was my second layoff in three years, and this time I moved fairly quickly through the necessary phases of fear and frustration to get onto the much more satisfying part of designing a new survival strategy. I’d picked up new skills and knew how to pitch them. I had a savings account and knew how to rearrange my budget to buy myself more time. I knew of some gigs I could pick up. It may seem strange to say it, but less than a week after the layoff, I felt more confident in my own capabilities than I think I ever have — all because I knew I could ask for help.
The idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is one that gets bandied around a lot in American politics. Though this country was founded on many competing ideologies, one of the major building blocks is the idea that economic and social advancement should be merit-based. In direct contrast to European class structure, the idea of the American dream was that no citizen of this country would be bound for life to the station of their birth; instead, they would be bound only by the extent of their personal genius, and labor done to develop it. Of course, even a cursory glance into history (or the present) will reveal the hypocrisy of a country that espouses such values, yet is so deeply invested in slavery, genocide and systemic oppression, but mythology has always been more potent than actuality, so here we are.
Here’s the thing about bootstrapping: It’s impossible. Think about it for a minute. No matter how hard you pull on your shoes, there’s no way to lift yourself up. A phrase that should be as illustratively fanciful as flying pigs and a tree full of money has somehow been taken in earnest as not only an achievable action, but an obligatory one as well. If we don’t rise above our station, we haven’t succeeded. If we aren’t better off than our parents, we’re failures. It’s not enough to maintain the quality of our lives (even if we’re perfectly happy); we have to be on a consistently upward trajectory. And just to get the coals under us a little hotter: We have to do it on our own. Asking for help is cheating.
My first layoff was a blur of anxiety. It caught me completely off-guard and I had no idea what to do next. Though I’d been in the workforce since high school, this was my first full time job with benefits, and with the loss of it came the loss of my identity, and a loss of the ability to take care of myself — or so I thought. But four months later, I had another full-time job, one with higher pay and a more impressive title. I know that some of that was luck. Some of it was circumstance. But I also know that a lot of it was skill, I just didn’t realize at the time that reaching out was a skill, and that all the soul-searching and re-evaluation,and community care I did during that time was me taking care of myself. I wasted so much time on panic and shame. What really helped me get back on my feet was reaching out, and I wish I’d done it sooner. So why didn’t I?
In The Art of Asking: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, Amanda Palmer writes, “From what I’ve seen, it isn’t so much the act of asking that paralyzes us–it’s what lies beneath: the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of rejection, the fear of looking needy or weak. The fear of being seen as a burdensome member of the community instead of a productive one.” Productivity is among the highest of American values, stemming all the way back to the puritan ideals that equate goodness with hard work. If asking for help means admitting we aren’t being productive, it can feel like admitting that we aren’t good enough, that we weren’t prepared enough for what life threw at us, or simply that we just aren’t enough.
But I don’t think it’s even possible to be truly self-sufficient, and even if it were, I don’t think it would be healthy. So rather than subscribe to the cult of self-sufficiency, this time around, I’m working on cultivating self-reliance instead. Though the terms are often used interchangeably, the distinction is crucial. Where self-sufficiency is isolationist and insular, self-reliance allows you to be expansive and inclusive. It’s about knowing that even if you don’t have everything you need to weather a storm, you know how to get it because you know that you can learn new skills and build new relationships. Self-sufficiency teaches you to fear change, but self-reliance invites you to greet it as an opportunity. We can never be prepared for every possible future, but we can work towards meeting whatever is next with resilience and grace. And we don’t have to do it alone.
Graphics by Madeline Montoya.