165 - What's the big deal about being independent?


personal developmentcareer design

Seth Godin says in a recent episode on his podcast Akimbo that every big problem that seems to have been solved solo has actually been solved by a non-coordinated group. Even Einstein, Godin cites as an example, stood on the shoulders of giants before him to come up with a new paradigm for spacetime.

Growing up, I did not particularly like being dependent on others. That group included mostly my mum and immediate family. I didn’t like waiting on anyone to take me to school, didn’t enjoy being chaperoned to the playground, and so on. Thankfully, my folks felt it was safe leaving me to my devices and letting me be out and about for most of my waking hours—such was life in a small town in India in the late 80s and early 90s.

As the years passed, my desire to be self-reliant grew. Many call this teenage. I have to agree. Only for me it lasted well beyond my teens. What’s wrong with that, you may ask? Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

“On the maturity continuum,” writes Stephen R. Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, that grandfather of books in the personal development category, “dependence is the paradigm of you—you take care of me, you come through for me; you didn’t come through; I blame you for the results.”

Sounds very much like a lot of my conversations with my mum, and I suspect the same applies to you.

Coveys adds, “Independence is the paradigm of I—I can do it; I am responsible; I am self-reliant; I can choose.”

If those dependent need others to get what they want, those independent can get what they want through their own effort. This switch is transformational. Ask any teen that has passed their driving test.

I took this urge to make it on my own seriously. It pleased me no end when I could figure out solutions to my problems or when I could make my own decisions without seeking anyone’s counsel.

It’s easy to see that independence is much more mature than dependence. Independence is a major achievement in and of itself. But independence is not supreme.

Why not? Because man’s superpower is in being able to cooperate with one another to solve big problems AND, as Godin says, even our most personal achievements are combinatorial. We are naturally good at using old stuff to make new stuff.

Even solo problems, like winning the ongoing Norway Chess 2024 tournament, are only apparent solo problems. Carlsen, the current leader, is supported by a team, his team. Without them working for and with him, it would be much harder, if not outright impossible for him to pull off what he does on the chess board.

The same goes for Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sam Altman, Christopher Nolan, even James Bond. Each of them is immensely capable but a lot less flattering alone. The missing middle, then, between the suboptimal extremes of dependence and independence is what exactly?

Interdependence. And it is not the middle. It is the end.

The river of personal development flows from dependence through independence to interdependence. Mine got stuck in the middle. For a long time.

“If I am physically interdependent, I am self-reliant and capable, but I also realize that you and I working together can accomplish far more,” writes Covey. And Godin extends that idea of working together to an asynchronous reality where all meaningful problems are group problems, not solo problems.

If one were to be independent by the book, they have to reject everything inherited—all knowledge, all lessons from mistakes, all of human experience other than theirs. That is impossible. Why kid ourselves about our independence? Why not admit that we’re much less, if not nothing, without each other, and embrace interdependence?

As a young adult, independence did not liberate me. When I failed I blamed circumstances, or others. When I won, I misled myself into thinking it was me and me alone. I wrote a full-length novel, my very first, all alone, convinced that no other set of eyes could make it better until it was complete. And then it was too late. Writing a novel, I learned the hard way, is not a solo problem. Almost nothing is.

Interdependence is the paradigm of we—we can do it; we can cooperate; we can combine our talents and abilities and create something greater together.

In my professional and personal decisions about whom to work with today, I make an effort to suss out my collaborator’s interdependence quotient. This appraisal doesn’t bring me any more control or certainty about the outcome of the collaboration. Far from it. It prepares me for what to expect. It offers me an opportunity to give the best of myself to the world outside me.

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