Why Pulling Yourself Up by Your Own Bootstraps is Hard

I used to suffer from a particularly bad version of one part of the human condition—a tendency to see things as all about me. I tried like crazy, in many ways, to pull myself up by my own bootstraps. I’ve gotten, well, better; but it wasn’t because of my bootstrap pulling.

I also reached a difficult point once years ago in studying the pedal steel guitar. I was taking private lessons from a real master, and trying very hard on technique. He gave me tons of advice (including most particularly to lighten up), and I tried my darnedest hard to take it all—pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. I never did get better, and finally sold my guitar a year ago.

Pulling On Our Own Bootstraps Just Burns Leather and Calories

Think about the physics of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It’s an impossibility–which of course is why we like it as a metaphor. But life is not a metaphor, while it is constrained by physics.

So—why doesn’t bootstrap-yanking work? And why do we keep trying it?

The Pedal Steel Story

In my guitar case, the immediate cause was clear. I was trying too hard. I’d try to play free and easy—I’d try so, so hard. Which of course was the problem. 

My hands would cramp up, I was trying to so hard.  And I knew trying so hard was the problem. That made it worse, because I knew it was ‘just’ a mental issue. Which made me worry more, which made me try harder. (Substitute golf if you prefer a more conventional metaphor).

It was a vicious circle; a negative feedback loop as bad as any that Jimi Hendrix generated. And knowing the problem didn’t help solve it. It was not one of those unconscious incompetence things. My knowledge got in the way. It was one of those “you can’t solve a problem at the same level the problem was created” problems.

I still love pedal steel music. (Everyone knows Jerry Garcia’s lick on Teach Your Children, but Garcia knew he was a rank hack by Nashville standards: go listen to every note played by Tom Brumley on Buck Owens‘ original version of Together Again.) I just don’t try to play anymore.

The Life Story

In mid-life, I became aware that a lot of my problems were caused by my tendency to overly see things around me as being about me. In the terms I later developed in the Trust Equation we use at Trusted Advisor Associates, I suffered from high self-orientation.

A few years ago I suddenly remembered something I used to say back when I was “in it.” When someone close to me would say something critical about me, and I took it way too personally—even though I knew I was taking it too personally–I would describe the condition as “like having someone point a gun at my head and telling me to calm down.”

At the time, I was just trying to explain to people why I felt paralyzed to think my way out of my self-obsession. Now, in the rear-view mirror, I see it differently.

I see now it was the perfect metaphor, because the metaphor, and my own use of it, were both stuck squarely in my old paradigm. Because everything was about me, I just didn’t have the tools to imagine something that wasn’t about me. My prison was self-limiting because it was self-defining. 

The Bootstrap Story

You can’t talk about this sort of issue in a linear kind of way; you have to deal with metaphors and paradoxes. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems probably apply here, though frankly the math is beyond me.

I’m reduced to platitudes, which I find reassuring in their simple memorability. In addition to “you can’t solve the problem at the level it was created,” I like:

·    When you dig yourself into a hole, first, stop digging;

·    A lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client;

·    Try not thinking about pink elephants, and

·    You empower what you fear.

My only solutions boil down to three:

1.    Give up. Really. Just stop. If it’s not meant to be, stop fighting. Universe 1, you 0. You’re really not at the center, after all; act like it. Just go be you.

2.    Laugh.  Make sarcastic jokes about it. Get a kick out of your insanity. Find the sick humor in it all, and focus on the humor, not the sick.

3.    Ask for help. Not with the problem, but with the meta-problem. Then accept it. See step 1.

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