Rugged individualism. It is one of the least challenged cornerstones of the American story. That a country full of self-reliant, hard working, risk taking people folk built the good old U.S.A. Is there any truth to this hallowed notion? Of course there is–but it simply cannot serve as the singular dominant motif for the building of this great nation. Along the way, a lot of people had to work together to get big things done, with or without the government playing a role in the process. A rugged individualist never raised a barn by himself or harnessed the awesome power of the Colorado River to bring water and power to the desert. Why is it important to put this perennial myth in its proper perspective? Because there are those among us who honestly believe that it should be “every man for himself” at a time when such a notion is completely counterproductive for the challenges that we face.
In case you think I’m about to advocate big government as the cure for all our ills, not so fast. While government certainly has an important role to play, I am advocating a spirit of collaboration that transcends both the public and private sector. It’s a spirit that says “we can do this together.” It’s about not just being your brother’s keeper, but being your brother’s team mate. It’s about that barn raising, that bake sale, all those things we used to do as a matter of course for the common good. I live in a part of the country where volunteer fire departments are still the norm–and the men and women who staff them do so for no compensation, other than the tremendous reward of working together to protect the homes and shops of their neighbors.
If you look carefully at the high tech revolution, you will see numerous companies that were built from the ground up through collaboration. While Steve Jobs certainly led Apple, he openly admitted and proudly so, that he had the best collaborators in the business. People who come together to achieve a common goal, working selflessly and passionately in the process. We know that collaboration works, but how many of our so-called leaders reflect that in their own public behavior? Would anyone be so bold as to say that Washington DC is engaged in collaboration? Everywhere we turn, it looks as if folks are choosing up sides on one issue or another. Didn’t the Civil War teach us anything?
Our problems are too big and too complex now for anyone to think that they can succeed on their own. Everybody needs somebody. We simply must work together, allowing our differences to exist, but not to paralyze us. There’s simply too much at stake, and too many prior generations of collaborators that would be betrayed in the process. Dr. King once said, “we may have come here in different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” And it’s high time that we collaborate to keep this boat afloat and on course to that not so distant shore!