Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Myth Of Independence Obstacle To Progress

November 19, 2001

Frontier myths. It is high noon. A lone man with unyielding courage faces deadly danger from the outlaws seeking to overrun the community he is entrusted to protect. Though many believe in his cause, no one is willing to step forward to help.

Defying all odds, the solitary and taciturn man prevails against his foes, leaving the townspeople awestruck with admiration and respect for the feat they had witnessed. The man moves on.

A man uproots his family and travels away to a primitive and distant frontier in search of freedom. Through sheer force of will and determination, braving unknown and devastating hardships, he prevails to leave a lasting legacy for his children and his children's children.

A man buries his wife, a victim of the harsh reality of an unforgiving and fearsome blizzard. He also buries his feelings deep inside of him and endures his pain without a tear. He feels showing emotion is not manly and a sign of weakness. He chooses not to seek or welcome emotional support of those who want to comfort him. He is forlorn but resolute in his struggle to be self-sufficient in the face of any and all adversity, including death.

These are the sustaining and nourishing frontier myths and values we cherish as a part of our individualistic and enterprising heritage. The myth is that one person acting alone can overcome a myriad of obstacles and pernicious forces to attain his or her highest dreams in this land of opportunity.

The reality. However inspiring and useful these myths may been for our national psyche, unfortunately they are not descriptive of the reality by which our progenitors surmounted their daunting challenges.

It was through neighbor helping neighbor, barn-raisings, mutual aid in time of need, sharing of limited resources, family togetherness and tight knit communities that survival was insured. The settler never stood alone. Interdependence in the spirit of cooperation and learning from others is just as much, if not more, a part of our heritage as the integrity and strength of the individual.

Prosperity covers a multitude of sins. During good times we can afford the luxury of independence. We mistakenly entertain the false notion that progress results from individual initiative and effort while we fail to acknowledge others who played a role in our success.

Perhaps, no one subscribes to the "cowboy myth" with more tenacity than livestock producers themselves. The myth of independence is a barrier to change and innovation. Rugged individualism and independence are incompatible with producing for the market in quantity, quality or service. Few producers initiate production with any idea whatsoever of who will buy their product - where, when or how.

Ego gets in the way. The fatal flaw for some is their internal need never to be wrong. It is too threatening to their self-esteem to accept criticism or new ideas from others. By George, they know the "right" way and they are headstrong and stubborn enough to prove themselves right. Pride masks itself as self-sufficiency, rigidity as righteousness and resistance as tradition.

Some have a preoccupation with order and precision, not permitting deviations that could lead to creative improvements in the way things are done. For others, a reluctance to "play" keeps everyone so task-oriented that new ideas aren’t expressed and, consequently, not entertained for some practical application. For some, not even a jarring encounter with pain and failure is enough to spur reappraisal of the problem or their response,

Learning from others. Not all livestock producers are so hidebound that they cannot grow. The movers and shakers have such a natural curiosity about how things happen that they are drawn to consider related fields and how they interact with livestock production. Often it is in the interface of different areas of knowledge that new and innovative ideas develop. They look over the fence line and are not afraid to borrow an idea that works.

Innovative people put themselves in the company of bright people, ask questions and listen well. They actively seek information and willingly share what they know. In helping others succeed with their problems, they learn and grow themselves.

In these stimulating interactions, creative people get new perspectives and define old problems in new ways. They recognize opportunities to improve and to skillfully exploit them. New technologies are incorporated; work is reorganized; new activities are initiated and inefficiencies are eliminated.

Linking together. People who see the interdependence of things also can focus their energies on the external forces that operate their industry. They can link arms with others to shape their business environment. It is through organizational involvement that perceptions are altered, critics co-opted, resources garnered and political forces are lobbied and harnessed. Producers need each other and make themselves useful to their industry.

If the "cowboy myth" stops a person from listening and learning from those around him, from knowing his customers and markets, from relying on others for practical and emotional support and from building up the success of others around him, then the myth has outlived its usefulness.

The reality of the frontier was one of people working together. In our times, our country has been forced to abandon its "go it alone" superpower status to enlist the aid of other countries to fight and eliminate global terrorism. The odds are much better when the marshal does not stand alone.