Self-Reliance Versus Interdependence in The Boost Economy

by cv harquail on June 15, 2012

Being independent and “going it alone” can feel very satisfying.

Our culture prizes independent initiative, so much so that we often overlook the importance of working with each other to help each other.

I see this bias towards independence when gurus talk about leaders as though followers don’t exist. And, I see this bias in the mythology surrounding how we should grow our economy.

In the proposed “new economy” there’s a lot of emphasis on the ‘you’ and the ‘me’, and not enough emphasis on the ‘we’.

rene seifert.jpg

Recently I talked with a product designer at a firm involved in the small business / new economy movement. He was explaining to me how his company’s goal was to serve “creative independent businesses”. His company is promoting their new small business tools with arguments for independence and “self-reliance”.

Independence and self-reliance are noble goals. But, given what I know of this designer’s business, those specific words don’t seem to fit what the organization has actually been doing.  This company has (up to this point) focused on building community and creating relationships among businesses. Their goal has been to get people directly and indirectly involved in helping each other succeed.

Now, with words like ‘self-reliant’ and ‘independent businesses’, the organization’s goals and tactics seem confused. 

The Opposite of Powerless is not Self-Reliance

Somehow, in their effort to describe what it takes to create “commerce at a human scale”, this company has gotten confused about what really needs to be different about small businesses if they are to offer an alternative to big business at an inhuman scale.

It’s clear that big business makes all of us dependent on it. Big business dominates the economy and dehumanizes us.

In contrast, small businesses offers us a chance for economic autonomy and self-expression. Small business and “commerce at a human scale” means taking control over what we do for a living, how we do it, and with whom we do it. But taking control of how you earn your living and what business you create doesn’t mean you have to be independent, self-reliant, and on your own.

In their effort to contrast their small business, new economy movement against the dehumanizing dynamics of big business, the designer’s organization is forgetting that no small business and no entrepreneur ever does it alone. In small business, independence is a myth and self-reliance is a bad strategy.

Interindependence is better than self-reliance.

Instead of focusing on independence and self-reliance, the designer’s organization should be focused on helping their clients become interindependent.

Interindependence is the combination of being independent while also being interdependent.

Businesses need BOTH independence —  self-determination, authority, responsibility–  AND interdependence –relationships, commitments, and contributions between their own business and others.

To create interindependence, organizations need to create communities of commerce.

There’s no such thing as an independent mushroom.

My friend Stowe Bowd has a great metaphor for explaining how individuals work together socially — he describes a community as a mushroom field.

owlandmushrooms (1).jpg

From the surface, a mushroom field looks like hundreds of individual mushrooms growing up towards the light. In reality, all of these individual uprights are connected by a root system that we can’t see, because it’s below the surface. The individual upright stem and cap is just a part of the mushroom. It’s the entire network of uprights and connected roots that constitute the whole.

The individual upright draws from the network and gives back to the network what the whole thing needs to thrive. As for the individual mushroom stem  — it can only stand upright and “independently” because it is interdependent on the mushroom community.

There is no self-reliant mushroom, just like there is no independent small business. Our small organizations and start-ups look like they are standing on their own, when actually they are nourished by their connections with a community of other businesses.

A New Economy Requires Interindependence 

If organizations want to business commerce at a human scale, they can’t focus on independence and self-reliance. They also have to promote relationship and community.

Some organizations are already working towards ‘commerce at a human scale‘ by creating communities of organizations and stakeholders that are interindependent (even if they don’t use that term).

For example, the NY startup Smallknot is building interindependence through community crowdsourced investments. Smallknot makes it possible for you or me to invest a small-ish amount of cash, get back discounts, products and “experience”, and also “share the love” by keeping your neighborhood thriving.

With a funding model like this, it’s pretty clear than none of Smallknot’s businesses is “independent” — they all depend on a network of stakeholders (investors, customers, neighbors, folks who are all three). But in this case, their dependence and lack of self-reliance is a good thing.  They are independently, interpdependent, embedded in a community of commerce all working towards a shared purpose.

Boost Economies are Interindependent

At its core, the product designer’s organization probably knows that interindependence is what it really wants to support. I suspect they are just struggling to find the right kind of language to talk about how boost businesses must simultaneously be self-reliant and build community.

While interindependence is a clumsy word that your spellchecker will reject, it’s a word our hearts should embrace. 

Economies at a human scale require us to depend on each other. 

When we think about economies at a human scale – economies with a lower-case e – we can’t think about independent, self-reliant businesses. No matter how many independent businesses we have, they can never just add up to an economy with a different character.  For an economy with a different character, we have to network businesses together, in an interindependent system of relationships.

Owls.jpg We have to connect entrepreneurs and smaller businesses together so that the support one another, so that they can depend on one another, so that they can boost each other.

See also:

Investigating The Boost Economy
Communities of Commerce: Where the Marketplace is also the Meaning Place
A Benevolent Perfect Storm for Progressive Organizational Movements

Owl & Mushroom from
Owls Working Together by Septiembre (this was the best I could find for “owls working together”)
Snowy Owl by Paul Cipywnyk


Rachel Happe July 25, 2012 at 10:42 am

CV – such a great post and something I’ve been thinking a lot about. I personally think that self-reliance is a myth and that myth is destructive because it limits our potential and it can sabotage our self-confidence. Elizabeth Gilbert did a great TED talk on the myth of genius that seems relevant here ( – when something is done really well, the individuals gets disproportionately rewarded and then the expectation is set that they can easily repeat their performance (because the assumption is that they were in control of all the factors in their performance). And, of course, the inevitable fall from grace happens too. Such extreme pressure on individuals when they have so little control. The pressure has been used as the excuse for out-sized CEO wages with absolutely no acknowledgement of the limits to their actual control.

THIS is at the core of why I think we need more women’s leadership. Obviously many men that get this too but I think they are swayed, hormonally speaking, to the quick seemingly independent, wins. I believe women’s default is typically more of a relational, shared-value, approach which I also think is more profitable over time.

cv harquail July 25, 2012 at 10:50 am

Rachel, thanks so much for thinking about this post and coming back to share your insights.
The “myth” of independence is supposed to be inspiring, but instead it tells us to work away at things, alone, and conquer them by ourselves.

I agree with you– it’s a myth and a dysfunctional one at that. Both in terms of ‘genius’ and in terms of each business’s sustainability, interdependence is critical.

And, both women as a cultural group and feminism as a socio-political perspective value interdependence over independence, and emphasize the importance of relationships and community building.

I’ve kept the word ‘independence’ in the concept of interindependence to help keep us conscious of the idea that individual agency and responsibility are important even in/especially in the context of community. cvh

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