Self-reliance is crucial to success in business and life

When we think of self-reliance, we might think first of a child learning to tidy their room or manage their money. But becoming financially independent and able to look after your own basic needs is really just the beginning of developing a self-reliant mindset.

Self-reliance is about living a life in which you make decisions with respect to your own experience of the world. You believe in yourself. You trust yourself. And you’re true to yourself.

I was recently re-reading the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay ‘Self-Reliance’, and it’s remarkable how relevant it is today. Emerson’s idea of self-reliance is independent thinking — having the confidence to follow your own voice, not the voice of society or institutionalized religion.

Emerson was, in fact, very critical of society. He believed it to be something that can only stifle us. “All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves,” he wrote.

And this is what makes self-reliance so important to business success. Ultimately, the most successful business people have had the confidence to live and think differently. They’ve also learned that trusting in their own power and avoiding relying too much on others is critical to their success. As such, they’ve managed to pull themselves free from society’s shackles through their own hard work and focus.

It’s not that self-reliant people look to escape society. They have just come to understand that while society offers to help them, its help won’t make them better. And these are the people that I enjoy working with the most. Because, when given the option to defer responsibility to others, they choose to assume responsibility themselves, knowing that it will bring the most positive outcome for everyone.

What is self-reliance?

Coronet Instructional Video ‘Self-Reliance’ from 1951.

Although it’s somewhat cheesy, this instructional video that was shown in U.S. public schools around 70 years ago actually sums up self-reliance very well.

The video gives the following four examples of how to demonstrate self-reliance:

1. Assume responsibility.

Being self-reliant isn’t just about learning to do things yourself. It’s about being fully accountable for the outcome of the things you do, and the consequences therein.

This isn’t always enjoyable. Sometimes it involves taking care of things that are difficult or frustrating, or accepting consequences that don’t work in your favour. Taking responsibility is often a thankless task too, so you can’t expect a pat on the back for it.

But it’s also incredibly empowering, because it gives you the secure feeling of knowing that you are in control of your own life. And when you start to think in this way, new opportunities open up for you.

People that tend not to assume responsibility are more likely to see life as a series of things that happen to them. This can become a demoralizing attitude that leaves them afraid to make decisions. The truth is that avoiding responsibility can also be comforting. But enjoying this comfort will never get you further than simply getting by.

2. Be informed.

Another key component to becoming self-reliant is acquiring knowledge. Although we can’t be expected to know everything, self-reliant people take it upon themselves to learn how to do things and to develop their own understanding of situations when they arise.

It’s currently easier than ever to access information. As such, there’s no excuse for expecting the same individuals to teach us things or do things for us. By adopting this mindset we fail to become more competent people. We understand only the bare minimum to get by, and we never establish our own position of truth.

Self-reliant people are always looking to improve themselves. They take it upon themselves to learn about and understand things because they want to, not because they feel they have to. This means reading, studying and simply listening to others — because they know it will help them to make better decisions later down the line.

3. Know where you’re going.

If you don’t know where you’re going, how can you know what’s important? Setting goals for yourself is critical to success, because it brings focus.

Self-reliant people plan ahead. They figure out what they need to do to achieve their goals, and then they do it. They don’t wait for other people to plan their future or validate their decisions.

By establishing a clear path forward, self-reliant people are able to quickly get back on the right path if they are knocked off it by others. Knowing where you’re going means having an unwavering commitment to your principles, which will naturally be tested by other people.

4. Make your own decisions.

Although it can be tempting to just sit back and let life happen, most people come to realize pretty quickly that this approach is not sustainable.

Life becomes easier and less stressful when you are proactive in making decisions instead of delaying them or letting other people make them for you.

Self-reliant people are more decisive, because they want to be in control of the outcome. They know that waiting on others or avoiding the decision altogether will only allow a problem to exacerbate.

Why is self-reliance important to businesses?

To achieve anything significant in the business world, you need a team of people moving efficiently in the same direction. And with such a great emphasis placed on teamwork, it might be difficult to understand why self-reliance, an inherently individualistic trait, would be so important.

I think a great example of this can be seen in the way that Great Britain rallied its people during the Second World War. Mock posters bearing the phrase “keep calm and carry on” have come back into fashion in recent years — but this was just one example of the motivational slogans used by the British government to protect national morale in 1939.

Anther slogan was your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory”. This is important because it was an appeal to the attitudes of the public on a very individual basis. It reminded everyone that they have the power within themselves to stay positive, and only by everybody using that power could the British, as a collective unit, do enough to win the war. It’s like saying “we’re a team, but we each need to find our own strength”.

A similar dynamic exists within a business. Yes, of course you need people working together as a team. But you also need every individual within that team to be personally courageous, decisive and optimistic. This gives you a team of highly-empowered individuals who have the will and confidence to step up when they believe they need to.

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” wrote Emerson.

And that’s really why self-reliance is so powerful. When you trust yourself to make important decisions, other people will feel that they can rely on you. It raises your self-confidence and self-esteem, allowing you to demonstrate your potential instead of keeping it locked away.

This is why I believe that it’s certainly possible to give too much support to your employees. Offering an ‘open-door policy’, for example, just allows your team to protect themselves from failure. As a manager, you can do more for your team members by keeping your door closed and letting them make their own decisions. This promotes self-reliance and gives them a better opportunity to improve, whether it be through success or failure.

When people rely too much on others, it can only be bad for a business. Projects slow down because nobody has the confidence to move them forward. Creativity and innovation becomes stifled, because everybody is expecting someone else to do the thinking for them.

Giving self-reliant people a platform to succeed

Because I believe so much in self-reliance, much of my work in business has been to create an environment in which people with this mindset can realize their ambitions.

By developing a self-reliant attitude, aspiring entrepreneurs are already a big step closer to achieving their goals. But, of course, it can be difficult to get started in business without help. Many of those most deserving of success lack the skills, knowledge or capital investment necessary to get going. This just perpetuates income equality throughout the world and leaves millions under society’s shackles, in the way Emerson described in his text.

With the world moving so rapidly in the direction of ecommerce, my goal is to create products that automate as many processes as possible for people. I believe that this will open up the world of business ownership to the millions who have a will but not a way.

I’ll be sharing more mindset tips and updates on my work in the coming months, so please follow me on Medium!

I’m Philip J. Keezer, president and founder of management consulting firm Grindstone Capital. Dedicated to hard work, learning, positivity and accountability.