[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
At the job I had before the job I had before the job I have now, I worked with a colleague who was always asking me to help him. Could I review his report? Could I help him find an EIN number? Could I provide the address of the place we all planned to meet (which happened to be in the calendar invitation)? Could I send him a document that lived on the shared drive? Could I review an email to his client?
I did help him, at first, because new employees often aim to please. Women especially want to be known for our helpfulness, our willingness to go “above and beyond.” In my annual review, my boss wrote, “good team player,” and I was happy. He also wrote, “needs to speak up more in meetings,” but I digress. The way I saw it, if I had nothing to say, I should say nothing. If everyone talks, who’s listening?
I helped my colleague, until another colleague pointed out that I might be helping him too much. I started letting his emails sit in my inbox for a few days. Once, I sent him a direct link to Google. Another time, I sent him a link to the company intranet.
Some people take it upon themselves to figure out the answer to a problem. Other people, like my previous colleague, want someone else to do the work for them. I’m here to tell you that the more you rely on others for direction, the more disempowered and incompetent you will become.
There is an important difference between being self-reliant, and self-sufficient. Self-reliance makes room for independence and for the help of others. Self-sufficiency is hyper-independence, and while they may not sound all that different, they are worlds apart.
Highly self-sufficient people don’t need (or want) anybody’s help for anything. They want to do everything for themselves, and pride themselves on doing so. Psychologists refer to this kind of behavior as counter-dependent, meaning that someone might be trying too hard to prove their independence. The very fact that someone is out to prove their independence can signify that they fear the reactions/rejections of others, and are thereby isolating themselves. Sometimes, those who are highly self-sufficient have a hard time forming close emotional bonds, but hyper-independence is just as harmful as hyper-dependence. People need people, and learning to connect with others in a healthy way is essential for survival.
Self-reliant people do not ask others to help them with mundane daily tasks, but they also aren’t afraid of personal connection. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his 1841 essay title, “Self-Reliance” emphasized that people need to avoid conformity and follow their own instincts and ideas. Alone time, writes Emerson, is necessary to discover the truth within self, which also builds self confidence. Too much time spent with any given group can lead to excessive influence from that group. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
To quickly recap:
- Self-sufficiency denies help, even when it’s needed.
- Self-reliance welcomes needed help but also pursues independence.
My former colleague’s dependence on me was lazy, but it did tell me a lot about him. I strongly believe that how you do one thing is how you do everything. If you keep your home neat and tidy, it’s easier to keep your work tidy, to take the shopping cart back, to follow up on the things you said you were going to do. His lack of self-reliance probably did not start and end at work, either.
Becoming self-reliant teaches you to figure things out, to not take “no” for an answer, to be creative and confident, and more importantly, to help and lead others. As Walt Disney said, “Whether you say you can or you can’t, you’re right.”
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