If anyone has ever felt like there is more to life than what the self-made mindset provides, keep reading. In the following post, I’ve included a section from chapter four of Authentic Christianity: Why it matters for followers of Jesus. Feel free to leave comments or questions below.
The Self-Made Project
“I grew up in the United States.
One of the most iconic ideals that citizens of my country hold dear is that of the self-made man1 and the self-made woman. This image has been reinforced by the Western idiom of someone “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps”—which meant (in the United States at least) that people can overcome any difficulty and obstacle in life in order to make any dream happen, become anything they want to become, and do anything they want to do—and here’s the kicker—all by their own abilities without the help of others.2
One of the leading incentives and motivators that people have for moving from other countries to the United States (and this is likely true for other Western democracies too) is that they have bought into the idea of the self-made person and pulling oneself up by his or her own bootstraps. They want to dream, become, do, and overcome anything. While this is undoubtedly an “American ideal,” it is also something people from all around the world identify with.
We can all identify.
But consider the last part of the idiom again with me—the part that claims we can accomplish anything “all by our own abilities without the help of others.”
Is this a good or healthy aspiration for anyone?
How about for followers of Jesus?
People who don’t need the help of others…who don’t seek out the help of others…who think their greatest dreams and achievements can and should be done all by their own effort, their own willpower, ingenuity, and creativity, without other people at all helping, inspiring, supporting, or contributing to their success as a human being in any sense?
It’s all you, buddy.
It’s all me.
All by “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.”
Behold the self-made project.
Here lies one of our greatest obstacles to authenticity and to why so many people are deeply wrapped up in various habits of pretending and performance.
This is why there is such a lack of authenticity in our Christianity (in terms of how we go about following Jesus in this world).
This is why people lack true and meaningful connection in friendship with others.
This one mind-set is the cause of more relational and identity dysfunction than most people realize. This is all too often why people have a tendency to be disingenuous, dishonest, disconnected, and emotionally isolated.
The self-made project…when life is mostly about you.
Consider with me for a moment what it takes to maintain this overarching approach to life.
To use a metaphor, if you are the ultimate hero in the movie of your life without having need of any supporting actors and actresses—if you have achieved all your successes, won all your battles, overcome all your challenges and enemies, all on your own, without the help of others, this means you have also done so at the expense of anything and everything that others could have, would have, or should have contributed to your heroic life accomplishments and deeds. You have become something without anyone else.
Again, it’s all you.
So tell me this—if life is all about you, where is there room for others?
If life really is all about you without the need, help, or contribution of others, then you simply won’t have time, mental space, feeling, and energy for true friendship with others.
The reality is that true friendships actually take time and energy. They involve inviting people into your world and into your space, and they involve accepting their invitation to enter into theirs—where thoughts and intentions, frustrations, and aspirations reside.
True friendships involve sharing and mutual collaboration. They involve letting others contribute in even the smallest ways in your life so that when all is said and done you can honestly acknowledge and say that what makes you, you and what makes your accomplishments, your accomplishments are (at least in part—usually a large part) the result and contribution of others.
When you acknowledge this (enough to say it aloud), only then will you begin to see that the Western ideal of the self-made project and its Western idiom sidekick (yes, the one about the bootstraps) will be seen for what they are—a degradation of our humanity.
True friendships require giving yourself for the benefit of someone else; they are not simply for your sake and benefit alone. The self-made project won’t have any of this talk.
It’s impossible to approach life as a self-made person and at the same time have authentic relationships with others. It just won’t work because it can’t work.
In order to give the illusion that they are in control and don’t need others, self-made people close themselves off emotionally from others. They may have relationships, but they keep them at a “safe” distance (i.e., at surface level). They habitually manipulate people in order to maintain control and so that they are still the one holding all the cards (in friendship, in romance, at work, at church, and so on). They are unwilling to be truly vulnerable because to show vulnerability requires revealing weakness and limitation, so they eliminate the possibility for people to think they have any (or at least, they try).
In order to pretend that all is well, they have only one option, to be generally disingenuous in their response with others. When asked “How are you are doing?” from friends, family, coworkers, and others, the question is met with a surface-level response that leaves much to the imagination.
In the final analysis, the self-made project leaves people living emotionally disconnected.
How do I know this?
I have lived under the slavery of the self-made project at various times in the past, and I know firsthand the illusions and pitfalls. By the grace of God and by being around emotionally healthy people, I’ve learned that this is no way to live.
The simple reality is that no one’s life is “good” all the time.
While some people are more deeply engulfed and defined by the powerful persuasion of the self-made project than others, there are perhaps traces of the self-made mind-set expressed in the habits and lifestyles of all of us, Christian or not.
How do we move beyond the self-made project in order to have and maintain true and meaningful relationships with others that reflect authenticity rather than phoniness?
The short answer: we need a new approach to life.
We need a whole new approach to being human in this precious world.
Jesus and a New Way to Be Human
Contrary to what many people (even Christian people) assert about him, Jesus did not enter human history merely to ensure people have a great afterlife only to neglect much of life on earth here and now. This must be said because a very large number of professing Christians (in North America in particular) believe as much.
The opposite is actually true…”
You can read the rest of “Jesus and a new way to be human” in my upcoming blog post. “The Self-Made Project” (above) is a section in chapter four titled “Beyond the self-made project” in my book Authentic Christianity: Why it matters for followers of Jesus (2018).