In a July campaign stop in Roanoke, Va., President Obama laid out the basis for his platform. He claimed that Americans need the government to create jobs, and, more generally, that success isn’t possible without assistance. He challenged wealthy Americans, like Mitt Romney, who, he said, give themselves too much credit. “I’m always struck by people who think, ‘Well, it must be because I was just so smart,’” he stated frankly. “There are a lot of smart people out there.” Obama questioned the Republican Party’s rhetoric of individualism and argued that if you are successful, “somebody along the line gave you some help.” He concluded his remarks with the now infamous suggestion that “if you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Surely, he didn’t mean to say that government alone was responsible for personal success. The Romney campaign seized on his comment, claiming that it was evidence of Obama’s long-drawn attack on American capitalism. They printed “Government Didn’t Build My Business, I Did” on 30-dollar T-shirts, and wrote “We Built America” into stump speeches. Critics on the left claimed that Obama had misspoken, and that it was unfair to broil him on this comment. Nonetheless, Romney used this opportunity to define a philosophical difference between himself and his opponent.
Throughout the campaign, it has been clear that Romney believes that individual effort is the principal ingredient of success, as he has advocated for a limited federal government, while Obama defines success as the product of equal parts sweat and assistance.
As Yale students, we have all experienced some form of success in our lives. Across the country, there are many equally intelligent students who have not shared the same level of success that we have. In your experience getting to and attending Yale, where do you locate the cause for your success? Has it been mostly due to individual initiative? Or have teachers, parents, and circumstances played a more important role in helping you along the way?
—Micah Rodman YH Staff
It’s impossible to separate who I am from the opportunities I’ve been given. I can’t think of a single aspect of me, even an example of something that might seem to stand alone as evidence of my “initiative,” that is independent of my circumstances. Let’s leave aside the obvious examples of the help I received—the financial assistance from my family, and the individual attention from teachers, while I’m also indebted to the aspects of my upbringing that defy easy, quantifiable explanation. For example, every night at dinner my dad would say, “Tell me about what you learned at school.” That simple sentence contributed to my ability and, more importantly, my desire to think about and value my education, to take the things I learned in class home with me, where they informed who I am as a thinker. I wouldn’t have done that without the family environment I was given. I’m not alone—everyone is formed by the people and environment around them, and to say otherwise is to deny the circumstances that form of who we are as people.
—Victoria Hall-Palerm, BK ’15
I attribute approximately 70 percent of my success thus far to a woman named Maggie who lives down the street from me in lil’ ol’ Warren, New Jersey. Here’s why:
All Asian Americans living in and around Warren get their hair cut by Maggie. Thus, she is not only our source of beauty and hygiene, but also of community and opportunity. Through my bimonthly visits to “Auntie Maggie,” I’ve met powerful leaders in our community and “successful” Ivy League students, who’ve advised me on summer programs, college applications and essays. Without their guidance, I would truthfully be nowhere (or at least not at Yale); to them, I am forever grateful.
The other 30 percent I’d like to attribute to myself for developing a “work hard, play very little and work more” mindset, but—let’s be honest—that probably resulted from my childhood of “tiger parenting.” That’s a story for another day.
—Wesley Yiin, PC ’16
When I was little, my parents instilled the value of self-reliance in me. My parents would frequently cite examples from their own lives when of personal initiative drove them to succeed: each had come from families on food stamps and supported themselves through college. As I matured, I came to realize the value of this teaching. In Northern California, I attended an underperforming public high school, where few graduated and failure was the norm. In order to succeed and become the first student in my school’s history to be accepted to Yale, I had to seek out opportunities on my own. My experiences have showed me that personal initiative is the paramount force in society. My parents’ initiative to make more of themselves provided me with an opportunity to succeed, but it was my choice alone to take advantage of this opportunity. —Alexander Crutchfield, BR ’15
There is a reason the Declaration of Independence was signed by a community of 56. We are a society that values individualism, but more importantly, doesn’t let its most vulnerable members fail without a support network. It takes individual initiative to succeed, but it is how well one utilizes the support systems already in place that determines achievement. My family is my foundation; without the support of my parents, I would never have been able to accomplish any of my goals. Furthermore, it was the government that provided an opportunity for my ancestors to flourish in a new country, with little money or connections. Within a few decades of my ancestors stepping off a boat at Ellis Island, my great-grandfather started a supermarket company that still thrives today. Because of the support systems in place, risks were taken, and individualism still reigned supreme. Individual success is exactly that—individual—but happens as a result of foundations previously in place.
–Rafi Bildner, DC ’16