Self-Reliance Essay

by Dorothy Ainsworth

Self-reliance is a mindset. If you have it, you are on your way to independence. If you don't, it would be in your best interest to develop it. It requires a conscious effort of replacing an "I need help" attitude with an "I can do it myself" attitude.

Dorothy at 4

I was lucky; I acquired it at an early age by default. I grew up in a large family with no money for anything but the barest necessities. If we wanted something extra, we had to work at an outside job to get it. We didn't resent that reality; it was a given. There was no sense of entitlement in our family. We were raised with the philosophy that nobody owed us anything.

An example of the self-reliant mindset already in place when I was five is illustrated by my first day of school. I got on the bus with my brothers and sisters and felt happy and proud that I was all grown up and on my way to school...until my older sister left me off at my classroom and disappeared. I loved the learning part that day, but it was overshadowed by being worried sick about how I was going to find my way home (five miles away). It never occurred to me that I could actually ask for help to find the right bus at the end of the day. I truly believed it was solely up to me to figure it out, and if I didn't, I would be spending the night in the dark parking lot.

Gene, Leonard, Irwin, Dorothy, Vivian, Meredith

Don't get me wrong; this isn't a sob story. My mom did an amazing feat just getting all six kids on the bus in the morning! Because I had been so eager to start school, it didn't even occur to her that I would be fearful that day.

Nevertheless, the sense of abandonment I felt is seared into my brain and probably contributed to the lifelong desire for security I still have. Strangely enough, the way I handled my problem that day is the same way I handle problems now...by taking personal responsibility to exhaust all options before crying for help. (I did manage to get on the right bus, and I remembering feeling really good about finding it all by myself!)

Therein lies the silver lining of self-reliance. When you achieve even a modicum of it, you feel really good about yourself. This concept is the basis for the Outward Bound program for wayward teenagers...and it's a great success. When you set realistic goals and actually achieve them, the payoffs are huge! You earn your self-esteem while becoming self-sufficient at the same time. In the process you will be doing something almost every day that you fear or is difficult, that will get you in the habit of overcoming your own self-doubts. You may have to grit your teeth and embrace the challenge, but it's so worth the journey and the result. Even Shakespeare said, "Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt."

My parents did their best, by example, to instill good values in us, including a strong work ethic. Sometimes poverty is a blessing in disguise because it can foster creativity and gumption. Although we were financially poor, we were rich in every other way.

A parent's most important responsibility is to prepare the children to survive independently in the world.

Dorothy at 8

Back in the late 1940's, work experience happened automatically. I had my first real job at age eight (during the summer), babysitting two small children and doing the lady's housework, for 50 cents a day. Because I was good at it, enjoyed it, and I wanted to, my mom let me take over most of our family cooking by age 12. I made all my own clothes...from age 11 on. My first waitress job was at 15. I used my earnings that summer to pay for all my own dental work and I felt good about it.

We all draw conclusions from our own experiences, so naturally this essay is subjective, but I think there are some absolutes about human nature that can be applied universally. I strongly and unwaveringly believe that accomplishments alone build self-esteem, self-respect, and self-reliance.

Unconditional love, parental praise, and the approval of peers doesn't do it. Actual skills learned and deeds accomplished...no matter how small and insignificant to others, but meaningful to you...does do it. The glow of satisfaction that comes from earning your own approval is like magic.

Parents who give, give, give to their kids mean well but are actually robbing their kids of earning their self-esteem.

Dorothy 43
Pre-drilling for spikes
Waddling with log

There are degrees of self-reliance, and even a little bit is better than none, but let's assume your goal is extreme self-reliance...like mine was. You move to a small town, buy 5-10 acres in the country, build a house, develop your own water supply and septic system, and possibly be off the grid for your electricity. Have a few chickens, assorted dogs and cats, and a nice garden. Work at a job you like (ideal) or one you don't like (survival), and simplify your life to the point that you can spend every extra cent for developing your property.

TRUCK Dorothy 48

I still drive an old truck; my arms are my power steering and the windows are my air-conditioning. I buy clothes at Goodwill; my fashion-statements are more functional and comfortable than intentional. I eat plain healthful food (cruel gruel), wash my dishes with the hose when I have to, and I don't give a hoot about what anybody thinks. That's another mindset to achieve (freedom from the shackles of convention), but you can't fake it. It comes with the territory literally. When you become a landowner and start actually achieving your goals in tiny steps, and you can visualize the end result, all of a sudden it really doesn't matter if your hair is messed up and you have dried caulk under your fingernails. You'll be on a roll. You'll have more important things on your mind...like survival.

Obviously there are some personal requirements for becoming self-sufficient: You have to want it badly, and you have to be in pretty good shape. You'll end up in excellent shape, but you should be fairly healthy to begin with. It helps to dream big and visualize what you want. That's what keeps you going.... but focusing your energy on the task at hand is what makes it happen. Have a plan and a list of goals, and start transforming wishful thinking into labor.

You are smarter and more capable than you think. You can't learn if you don't try. If a task looks daunting, get started anyway. Take it one step at a time. Dream big but take baby steps. Write down a plan. List your priorities. Number them. Start in with whatever it takes to get started. You want to design your own house? Go downtown and buy graph paper and a ruler. Go to the library or magazine rack and look at house plans. Ideas will snowball. The mind does funny things when you give it a problem. It keeps on working overtime. In fact, you can't shut it off. It's important to begin with something tangible. Make a model. You'll see there's no big mystery to putting a house together. A 3-dimentional structure always looks bigger than the parts, but a house is just one board put up at a time. I built my house one log at a time. Then it burned down and I rebuilt it one more log at a time.

To achieve self-sufficiency, you have to delay gratification. You can taste a pinch of cookie dough, but you'll have to wait for the cookies. The only instant satisfaction you're likely to get for a while will come in tiny increments like hammering a nail in straight without bending the head over with the last whack. Your pleasures will come in small dosages like when you smash your finger with said hammer, and your boyfriend kisses it to make it better and playfully musses up your hair.

HS Grad Ron at 18
Ron Former husband Ron at 30

Each little job is an end in itself but also a stepping stone to the next level. You'll be living in the moment, but working like hell for the future. Some of those moments won't be happy, but they'll always be meaningful. Real happiness is found in the everyday struggles and the little peak experiences you can glean from them. Hsun-Tzu said, "If there is no dull and determined effort, there will be no brilliant achievement." I don't know who in the heck Hsun-Tzu was or even how to pronounce his name, but he was a wise man. Progress happens in tiny increments. And when you are the one doing the work, each little accomplishment is a big deal.

In spite of the struggle and occasional pain, you can learn optimism. Whistle while you work. If you are lucky enough to have a partner, joke around. Try to see the funny side of everything. Laugh it up. You have the power to shift your moods and attitude. It's all about taking charge of your life. When you know you are it, and there won't be any so-called help, something will spark in you. Only ask for help as a last resort. "You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have." (Anonymous)

The worst thing that can happen to a person is to be paralyzed by indecision, inertia, and fear of making a mistake. Time lost by procrastination and excusitis can take years out of your life.

Dorothy 28

Sometimes you have to do what doesn't come naturally, and that tain't easy.

People who read my articles and see the house I built call me a ballsy chick and a gutsy lady. That couldn't be further from the truth. I'm actually quite wimpy and hesitant to try new things, but if I want something badly enough, my drive over-rides my fear. Years ago I raced motorcycles (flat track and motocross) because we had a motorcycle shop, and my husband wanted me and the kids involved (good advertising). I am not by nature an aggressive competitive female. I was terrified at first, but so motivated to please my husband that I donned my leathers and skid-shoe every weekend and actually got good enough to win some flat-track races, even against men! I'm telling you this story just in case you are a woman who can't even imagine doing something like that. I couldn't either... until I tried.

Dorothy 26Y
Dorothy racing indoor short-track in Reno
Dorothy 26Y at the starting line
Dorothy ready to pop the clutch
Eric & Cynthia, 7 & 6, come in 1st & 2nd in flat-track race in Reno
Ron beats California Speedway Champion in Sacramento race
Ron racing
Ron wins trophy
Ron at our shop "Checkpoint Cycles"
Dorothy 22 in waitress uniform

I had been raised with traditional 1950's values: The woman is the caregiver; she makes dinner, bears and rears the kids, and makes her husband happy. That's all fine if you aren't sacrificing your very soul to do it. My marriage turned out to be so one-sided that I eventually had to get out, but if I could break free to develop my potential and become self-reliant, anybody could. At 30 I was a divorced woman with two kids to support on waitress earnings and no child support. And, as aforementioned, I was a girlie-girl and a fraidy cat. But there was one thing I was never afraid of: work...hard, tortuous work. I believed fervently that I could create what I wanted (within realistic financial and physical capabilities), and I didn't care how long it took. I didn't get started until I was 38, and now, 30 years later, I'm still working at it.

No one is confident about everything...certainly not me. I learned by mistakes and failures (Damn! I cut that board 1/2" too short!). I had years of oops and darns. I learned that if you can accept your mistakes, it will free you to take more risks. Trying until you get it right is how most people learn things. Perfectionism leads to procrastination and paralysis. You have to cut yourself some slack...just don't cut yourself! A job done reasonably well is good enough.

My quest for self-reliance, which included having my own home, was my passion (along with photography). Because I was inspired with possibility thinking, the self-discipline aspect took care of itself.

Eric & Cynthia
Eric, Cynthia, Dorothy 1964
Eric & Cynthia 2 & 1
Cynthia & Eric 4 & 5
Cynthia 3 Eric 4 Dorothy 24

I strongly believe in never taking the easy way out if it means selling even the tiniest piece of your soul. Nature is a great equalizer. You reap exactly what you sow. There's no way out of the formula. It's written in stone. It's human nature to take the easy way if there is an easier way, but if you give up your decision-making power and your acquiring-skills power, you pay a dear price. You have to live by someone else's rules, someone else's taste, someone else's choices. Now that I have been able to uncompromisingly be true to myself, I would hate to go back to being the obedient one, with someone else being in charge.

Every time you are confronted with a new task that requires learning a new skill...hit the books! That's how I learned everything I know. I read, and I practiced. If I can do it, you can do it.. whatever it is. Even if you have money, do it yourself. Harrison Ford repairs his own fences and makes furniture in his shop. There's a reason for this—It's profoundly satisfying. There is no shortcut to get that feeling, and no substitute for it.

Eric on Honda Minibike
Eric 7 1970
Eric motocrossing
Eric 9
Eric 8 loved practicing
Eric 9 plays one more tune before off to the races
Eric 27
Eric 28
Eric 43

I wish I could tell you it's easy, but it's not. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. I'll cite my son as an example: Envision a giant pyramid underground filled with a billion musical notes, and only the top is sticking out of the sand where Eric sits at a grand piano. He's playing a Beethoven sonata...beautifully, powerfully, with great manual dexterity, speed, and passion. That's just the tip of the musical pyramid...it took 30 years of practicing to get to that level! How did he achieve it? One note at a time, fueled by his passion for classical music and his desire to do the composers justice. The moral to this story is to find what you are passionate about, and the self-discipline will follow. Because the payoffs increase steadily and proportionally to the effort, discipline is habit-forming. You just can't put a price on the payback you get from being true to yourself and working your buns off, or on the enjoyment it ultimately brings. There is no other way to happiness.


Happiness is having your own approval...by never selling out and never giving up, and getting good at what you do (judging yourself by your own standards). The word success usually means somebody's else's evaluation; measure success by your own measuring stick. There are doers and there are braggarts. Confidence should never be confused with arrogance. They aren't even related.

Cynthia as one of Cosmo's "Fun & Fearless Females" 1998
Cynthia 33

I must give my lovely daughter equal time by using her as another example of being true to one's self: Cynthia wanted to become a photographer, so she bought a camera, read a manual or two, and started right in. First she practiced on friends. Then she had a few successful shoots to prove to herself what she already intuitively knew: that she had a natural eye for beauty, light, and composition. She advertised her services, began to attract clients, built a great reputation, and the rest is history. It took a lot of courage and a belief in herself to get started. She was a model and an actress, but she knew in her heart of hearts that her true desire was to be on the other side of a camera. Now she does what she loves and is using her earnings to buy a little ranch and become self-sufficient, and have all the horses she wants (her other passion). In 1998 she was chosen by Cosmopolitan magazine as one of the year's top 16 "Fun and Fearless Females." She is totally self-taught. If you'd like to see some of her work, go to www.smalleyphoto.com and www.wildhorsesandwesternart.com This is another example that if you pursue what you really like to do, everything else falls into place.

Cynthia 5
Cynthia 5
Cynthia & "Romeo"
Cynthia 6 (braids)
Cynthia racing at 6
Cynthia 6
"Faster, Hoofie, Faster!"
Cynthia 7
Cynthia 40
Cynthia, competitive springboard diver in high school
Cynthia, gymnast
Cynthia, model
Eric 22
Cynthia 21
Cynthia, Miss Rodeo Nevada contestant
Cynthia in her modeling days
Cynthia at 50 in Master's Class,
figure category, Nevada State
Bodybuilding Championship
Cynthia mustang photographer 2008
Cynthia in Jamaica
Jumping off 100 ft lighthouse tower
Cynthia, 52, & her Harley
Cynthia 23
Cynthia 2008: photo by Ken Pagliaro

It's not a luxury to be self-reliant anymore; it's becoming a necessity. Your very survival could depend on how well prepared you are to live without any outside help for weeks at a time. Sadly, but predictably (a result of our give-away programs), we have become a nation of needy dependent people or just lazy dependent people who are willing to give up our personal power to let the government take care of us. It's human nature to take the easy way out if it's offered.

Dependence is a baaaad idea. It could prove to be fatal. It's the wrong mindset to expect help with everything and fail to take personal responsibility for anything. They say a kept woman earns every penny and marrying for money is a hard way to make a living. Well, I feel the same way about the government providing hand-outs to keep us under their control. I don't want the government to be my master.

I cringe at the thought of socialism taking over this country. I want to be responsible for my own life, and be free to make my own choices. I want to learn my own lessons and suffer the consequences of my own bad actions or choices. I also want to be able to reap and keep the rewards of my own labor. If I want to share my fruits with others, it should be my choice. I don't want to contribute my hard-earned money to undeserving people on the dole. Reckless generosity is found only in people who are giving away someone else's money!

Change is growth. If you are widowed or divorced, it's a perfect opportunity to become self-reliant. Even if your new circumstance was forced upon you, use it to come into your own as an autonomous individual...a party of one. Once you achieve self-reliance and the self-confidence that goes along with it, you'll be more apt to pick your equal in the next relationship, instead of falling prey to the wrong guy just because he helps you in a weak moment. Working on your self-reliance is a lot better position to come from than being helpless. You might say, "I don't have time. I have kids. I have to work for a living." That's excusitis. I know you can do it, because I was in that exact situation, and I was able to do it. It all hinges on establishing priorities and sticking to the plan.

Don't wait to find the right person...work on becoming the right person. Push the play button. Quit rewinding. When you break out of the gravitational field of collective mediocrity, you may risk being alone for a while. Embrace it. Goethe said, "Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." You can remain a flower in a vase, with unopened petals, or you can be a free-spirited wildflower in the wind, holding onto dear life by your roots, but also feeling the sun in your face when the storm passes.

I had a great partnership with a prince of a man for several years. We were equals: I was twice his age, and he was twice my size! We were a perfect match for 10 glorious years. There's nothing more wonderful than being in a relationship with the right person, but nothing more terrible than the wrong one!

Kirt 30 Dorothy 56

If you are lucky enough to have a wonderful mate, you can still become incredibly self-reliant if you make a conscious effort to do so. To this day, I tend to let a man take over if there's one around. It's biology and conditioning. It's also nice to have man-power around. Men are a lot stronger. But if you find yourself single and alone you can manage anyway.

A friend who is a single mom sent me an email recently telling how she moved a washer and dryer up steps and into her house all by herself. She said, "When you don't have might, you tend to use your wits." She continued: "I just walked them step by step, pushing one corner, then the next, until they were in the spot they needed to be. It's all about balance. If you find the balance point, you can almost spin and pivot things around without feeling the weight of the object!" I received her email when I was in the middle of writing this essay, and it illustrated my point precisely. I am so proud of her; she's learning how to be self-reliant.

If you have a mate, and he's working in the shop or on the house that he's building for the family, don't stay in the kitchen and bake cookies. They're delicious, but you already know how to bake cookies. It's time to learn some self-reliance skills...just in case he has a heart attack possibly from too many goodies you've already baked for him over the years.

The division of labor between husband and wife in a family is great, but this article is about self-reliance and survival skills. There's only one way to learn them, and it's by doing.

Dorothy & her motorcycle, 42

Surprise him! Not with a new Victoria's Secret negligee, but with the carpenter's belt you secretly bought. Put it on with all the trimmings (tape measure, pencil, small square), and go out and say: "Where do you want me to start? I'm ready, willing, and almost able. "Teach me, baby!"

He'll be shocked. It'll be fun, and a great beginning to developing an equal partnership. (Your husband should also learn to cook.)

It has been customary for the man to build the house, and for the woman to pick the drapes. The heck with that; I want to design and decorate the house! I once went out to dinner with an adorable pauper. He said, "Order anything you want, Honey. You're buying!" I always remembered that humorous line. But it's true: "Design anything you want, Honey. You're building!" So I did.

If you do have plenty of money, and can hire everything done, and can buy all the goods and supplies needed to survive in your home and custom-made bomb shelter, remember this old saying that has a provocative twist to it: "The real measure of a person's character isn't how well he or she does in bad times, but how well he or she keeps striving in good times!"

Grandson Zane 4
Dorothy 2007

In this new age of terrorism, we can't afford to sit on our laurels anymore. If you have the option of taking the easy way out, say: "No, thank you. I want to do it myself." Like a good girl scout: "Be prepared."

Because of my upbringing, I can't not do what needs to be done. I'll never feel comfortable with feeling too comfortable. I'm glad I got started thirty years ago on my plan for "future" self-sufficiency and security. It's now here.

I urge you to get started on the road to self-reliance. Time is not a renewable resource.