“There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.” – Denis Waitley, Being the Best
“Who is John Galt?” – Atlas Shrugged
I first read Atlas Shrugged when I was twenty-five years old. I had moved to Los Angeles a couple of years before and I was at the beginning of figuring out what my career would become. I felt that I had moved on from the relationship and financial struggles of my earlier life. I was two years into what would become a nineteen-year relationship and for the first time ever in my life I made enough money to not sweat about paying the rent.
In reading this final novel by Ayn Rand, I found a clarity to thoughts that had been developing within me in regards to work values and personal responsibility. I have never struggled with true poverty, but I spent my college years and early career working two or three jobs to cover my education. I was constantly moving when I ran out of money and I found ways to eat on $30 a week. It never occurred to me to expect anything from anyone. Everyone in my family worked ridiculously hard and never complained. It was difficult at times to have peers that didn’t have to work and were given opportunities that simply weren’t possible for me. Yet, not a day has passed since that I am not thankful that I had to earn everything. I got an education in college, but I got character in getting myself through college.
I noticed early in my professional career that there were two types of employees. The first group sails through doing the minimum. They come to the meetings with problems, but not solutions. The second group are those who roll up their sleeves and who volunteer to step into the muck and solve issues. These people have their job, but are also doing second and third jobs or heading committees. They are the Atlas’s that hold up the world.
I’m the second group. I come from people who are all from the second group. I have often tried to figure out how to belong to the first group, but I simply could not stop myself from speaking if I knew how to jump in and solve a crisis. The problem with belonging to the second group is your shoulders get tired as time passes. The “unfairness” of the takers fuels a slow burning resentment. No one can hold up the world forever.
When I read this book for the first time, the concept of being able to shrug was revolutionary to me. It would be almost two decades before I could move from intellectually understanding the theory to emotionally understanding it. I strongly identified with Dagny Taggart, the heroine of Atlas Shrugged. She holds out longer than anyone else before finally leaving her railroad behind to start over in a world where everyone is an Atlas and no one needs to be held up. By clinging to the belief that she alone can stand against mediocrity and fix the system, she endures years of pointless toil and callous attacks from the non-doers. In the end, she still had to give up control. In her case, it’s quite literally as her plane plunges into an unknown cloud cover and crashes into Galt’s Gulch. Only then does she meet John Galt and only then does she begin to understand.
I identified so greatly with pre-crash Dagny that she had become an archetype personality within me. Eight months ago, I went to the Movara fitness resort in Utah, desperately in need of a life change. I attended an extended life coaching session with Jennifer Morton in which I used a timeline tool she had created to map out and name some of the behaviors that were controlling my life. I knew I had to finally start doing the difficult work of rethinking some of the beliefs about myself that were crushing my self-esteem. I didn’t want to do it and it took me a couple of months to complete. When I had filled up a notebook with events, thoughts and connections, I was left with four core negative behaviors/beliefs that were holding me back. My therapist suggested I give each belief a name, to which I strongly resisted because it sounded so lame. Then I had a moment of clarity. Each one of these beliefs correlated to a character from one of my favorite stories in literature. It’s probably the reason I identified so strongly with them in the first place. If I could use the names of characters that I knew so well, then I would have a shortcut to understanding why I clung to such limiting behaviors within myself.
Dagny is one of my four characters. It’s a wonderful thing to have the self-strength and resilience to fix things and take responsibility. It becomes a liability when you forget that the world is not for you and you alone to support. We all need help. I cannot fix every situation and every person. I cannot by sheer force of will bring back to me something that I have lost. There are some problems for which the only answer is to surrender. I’m far from the point where fixing something is not my first, second and third impulse. Dagny lives strong within me. Leaning in and realizing that control is an illusion is one of the most uncomfortable things I try to do. I was just reminded of how strong my need to control still is when I was struggling to descend the scree on Mt. Toubkal. I picked Atlas Shrugged because of the name connection to the Atlas Mountains. As it turns out, the actual connection between the mountains and the book was to further confront this Dagny facet of myself.
No book is perfect. Atlas Shrugged is simplistic in the idea that everyone is capable of taking personal responsibility for their own life. In the book Rand debunks the story of Robin Hood and the damaging mythology such a story perpetuates. There is a strong fault in the concept of continuously taking from those who have to give to those who need. It’s a slippery slope that does not end. If you give a man a fish he eats for a day. If you teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime. But we don’t live in quite that simplistic of a world and what Rand doesn’t resolve is how you eliminate the problem of those who take when they could do themselves, but still have a system in place to support those levels of humanity that truly aren’t capable.
It’s only in this past year that I have been coming to a new understanding of this novel for myself so that I can better help my inner Dagny. I don’t think there will be a time where I don’t take responsibility for myself and my decisions. This core belief will not change for me. What I’m still learning is that personal responsibility needs to stop with me. Situations and people besides myself are beyond my control and to think otherwise for even a minute is only an exercise in futility.
Next time I think about being an Atlas for longer than I should be, I’m going to think about this book, and do something really difficult: shrug. I want to be in the moment and know that any notion of control I have beyond myself is a very expensive and exhausting illusion. I want to be a post-crash Dagny.