So You Think You Can Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps? (A Physics Problem)

Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps: the much-praised method of advancement through hard work and individual determination alone–no outside help required.

But what does this actually mean physically?

These are bootstraps:


Now what happens if you grab them and pull?

Not much.

(Diagrams brought to you by whatever I remember from high school physics and preschool human figure drawing.)

Forces acting on the person-boot system:


F total = 0

What if you pull even harder?


F total=0

Nope, still not getting off the ground.

My diagrams may be kind of iffy, but I’m still pretty sure that a system at rest needs external force to move its center of mass.

Appropriately, when the “bootstraps” expression  was first used in the 1800s, it meant that a task was impossible and the person attempting it was delusional. It wasn’t until later that this image of unrealistic self-maneuvering came to symbolize a ideal, even an expectation, for escaping poverty or achieving success–as if tugging all by yourself could get you somewhere.

But what if some people seem to successfully pull themselves up by the bootstraps?

Maybe it’s because they rely on some external system that makes it possible to translate their efforts into actual movement.

stick fix

F total > 0

Or maybe they’re relying more on the efforts of others than they admit.


F total > 0


3 thoughts on “So You Think You Can Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps? (A Physics Problem)

  1. Pingback: It’s Okay to Admit that you Try | Nadia In Her Own World

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