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The Importance of Community to Personal Success


During his reelection campaign, President Barack Obama told a group of likely voters that a person’s success is largely dependent on the hard work and efforts of everyone in a community. In his now infamous words, he asserted that “you didn’t build that”, referring to the bridges, roads and interconnecting highways that have made us a great, prosperous nation. He explained by saying that “[the] point is … that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”[i]

 

His comment was, of course, taken out of context by Republicans who saw an opportunity to make political hay from it. Nevertheless, the President made a good point, namely, that a community as great and successful as the United States is not the result of one or even a few persons’ successes but many people joining together to make success a possibility for all of us. If we understand the President’s point in this context, there is merit to it.

 

In his book, “The Outliers” (2009)[ii], Malcolm Gladwell examined the lives of famous athletes, rock groups and entrepreneurs. What he discovered is perhaps, hard for some people to hear but nonetheless true, namely, that the great social icons we admire as “self-made” individuals relied, not only on their native ability, talent, and personal drive to dream big and succeed, but also a good deal of support from others who captured their vision and helped make it a reality. In other words, success depends in part on how clever or smart we are, but also in good measure on a community who believe in our ideas and can promote them. The concept that success in any attempt involves both personal initiative and the support of others is hardly new. Indeed, it reaches deep into our history as a nation.

 

For example, it took the entire community of states gathering in 1787 at the State House in Philadelphia to reach an agreement that the community that was to become the United States of America was vastly more important than the interests of a few who opposed or feared the forming of the Constitution. Even though history dubbed George Washington  the “father of our Country” in the American Revolution and later, lauded James Madison as “the father of the Constitution”, neither of these renowned, famous men could have aspired to or achieved greatness without the unity and support of a community who shared their vision and saw the wisdom in supporting their ideas. The United States could not have become a nation without the efforts of the entire community.

 

Although we have people in our society who aspire to greatness because of their talent, natural ability and perseverance to see their ideas come to fruition, we must remind ourselves that we do not live in a vacuum. We cannot succeed apart from a community. No matter how adamantly we insist that we are self-made people, the truth is that we are successful, not only because we are smart or clever, but because there were family, friends and acquaintances who believed in our dreams and supported our efforts.

 

If the recession has taught us anything about our common life as a people, it is that we need each other’s gifts and abilities in order for all of us to succeed. Perhaps it’s time that we revise the idea of “rugged individualism” to include community.

 

(Copyright 2012 by Robert Wawee)

 


[ii] Gladwell, Malcolm.  (2009).  Outliers : the story of success.  Camberwell, Vic. :  Penguin Book

 

 

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