Much has been made by President Obama's critics of the phrase he spoke in a campaign speech given in Virginia in July of this year. The phrase, of course, is "You didn't build that." Critics contend that President Obama was denigrating small business owners and entrepreneurs or marginalizing them by insinuating that without the help of governmental programs, those business owners wouldn't have been able to create their businesses.
Defendants of President Obama insist the quote was taken out of context and that what he's been accused of is not what he meant.
This is what he said:
"If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t
get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it
must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out
there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me
tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out
there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some
help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped
to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed
you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a
business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The
Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the
Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."
My personal opinion was that he was essentially saying that you don't get anywhere in life or in business completely on your own, which is an idea with which I very much agree. I do agree that the one phrase for which he is most criticized, "If you’ve got a
business — you didn’t build that" would anger me if I was a small business owner if I felt that President Obama was basically saying that I didn't build my business myself. Small business owners and entrepreneurs are very hard working and probably take great pride in the businesses they have created and worked hard to make successful, and were someone to negate or minimize their contributions to their own businesses, I can see why that would cause them to be upset or angry.
However, I don't believe that was the point of what President Obama was saying. I agree he may have used perhaps a poor choice of words. Maybe he could have said it better, but based on the surrounding context, my personal feelings was that it was not his intention to negate or diminish the hard work business owners and entrepreneurs have put into their own businesses. That being said, I can also understand why people feel that is exactly what he was doing.
Why do I even bring this up nearly three months later?
As I've thought a lot about the principle that no one gets where they get entirely on their own merits (even if it feels that way), I've considered my own life and the influence other people have had on my career and on my personal life.
For example, although I've never owned to created a business other than representing myself as an actor, I have had a very successful career as an actor thus far, and while I have worked very hard to get where I am, I certainly did not where I am by myself.
So without further ado, I have some people to thank for helping shape who I am as a performer and want to give them the credit they are due.
My high school choir teacher taught me valuable skills such as blending, listening, sight reading, confidence while singing, and how to stay in tune and on pitch no matter what others are singing around you. My mission president also reinforced my sight reading skills when he suggested I sing all four parts (one for each verse) when I'd sing hymns. These skills have proved invaluable to my musical theatre career, which is often my bread and butter. Because of much of what my choir teacher taught and instilled in me, I am able to learn music easily and sing challenging harmonies. I'm not sure I would have been cast in such shows as Forever Plaid (my first professional job) or Sweeney Todd (a show I had always wanted to do and my second gig as a union actor) or been able to hold my own in a show like Sunset Boulevard.
A director at a small theatre wanted to hire me to be in one of his shows, and I got him to convince the theatre company to give me my Equity card which allowed me to become a member of the actors' union, which has enabled me to earn more money, get better health benefits, save money towards retirement, and work at more prestigious and professional companies.
I owe a lot to a cadre of teachers who have instructed me over the years. My high school drama teacher and a community theatre teacher helped me develop the confidence and basic acting skills needed to get where I am. The latter teacher also gave me my first experiences acting in full-scale productions. My college professor was very instrumental in teaching me the skills and experience necessary to actually seriously make a living in this profession. Another college professor gave me confidence with Shakespeare and taught me some basic tools for doing Shakespeare. Still another gave me my first professional acting gig. Another took a chance on me after college and hired me to play two very dramatic roles in two different plays after a long string of comic roles. I always appreciated that he could see I was capable of playing more complex roles than I had previously been cast in and also helped me to know that I really could play dramatic roles. Several professors helped me become a better dancer and singer and helped me learn more complex tools which have allowed me to land auditions (leading, of course, to jobs).
I owe much to a friend who helped me with the connections that got me into a terrific graduate school that helped me hone my acting, singing, and dancing skills, and I think that training has helped me become a better actor and obtain more work.
I am thankful to a theatre company I worked for that taught me better improvisational skills. I know that the experience I gained there helped me get at least two other gigs that have led to continuous employment.
I am thankful for a guest director who took a chance on me and cast me in a show at a theater I had auditioned for numerous time with no success. Because of this man, I was able to break into that theater, and I have worked there off and on for several years now, and it has provided me with some of my most lucrative and steady work in several genres of theatre, and I have been able to grow as an artist there and achieve pay raises and better roles. As of today, I have done 12 shows there and am about to do my 13th. I have also been directed by that same man in 6 shows now (and one with his partner).
I am thankful for the my friend who hooked me up with the photographer who took my last headshot. I have received many compliments on that headshot, and I think it has helped me get a lot of work as well. I noticed after I had it taken, my job opportunities increased. Coincidence? Perhaps, but I am grateful for it nonetheless.
I am grateful to the two choreographers that worked one-on-one with me on some of the most challenging dancing I ever did in a show. Learning those dances helped increase my confidence in my dancing abilities.
I am thankful for my agent who has helped me get film and TV work. I am thankful for the referrals other have given on my behalf that have convinced people to hire me
I am thankful for the support my parents gave me regarding my career aspirations when other parents might have tried to steer their child away from a potentially unstable career. My mom, in particular, did all she could to help me learn about the ins and outs of an acting career and has remained one of my most ardent fans. I'm thankful for the financial support my parents gave me while I was in my first years of college. I am grateful for the money management skills they taught me that have allowed me to handle my earnings wisely.
And especially in the theatre world, I am thankful for all the people I've worked with who have helped me network into further career opportunities.
I am thankful for the scholarships, assistantships, and loans I received throughout my college career that allowed me to study what I needed to study to get where I am. Without that financial aid I wouldn't have been able to afford to pay for school and wouldn't have been able to make a living at what I'm doing now.
And that's just my career. In my personal life, I am thankful for my parents and teachers who helped teach me discipline and integrity. Again, I am thankful to my friend who helped connect me with grad school, for without it, I likely never would have met Jonah, without whom my life would be very empty.
I am thankful for two friends in particular who inadvertently helped me to come out of the closet and pursue my relationship with Jonah. Those choices have brought me so much happiness.
My point is this: I think anybody who thinks they got where they are in life entirely on their own is deluded. No man is an island. I've said that many times. We are all connected. We are all dependent on each other one way or another. We don't get where we are, either for good or bad, entirely on our own. Certainly we must work hard and pay our dues, but whether it is a teacher, a mentor, a parent, financial assistance, an opportunity, whatever - I don't believe we can be successful without some help or guidance or knowledge or advice or assistance or education or values from someone else. To believe otherwise seems arrogant to me. Even in a business, you need clients to succeed. Without customers, to whom would you sell your wares or services? You need others to succeed in life. You can't do it alone.
And that, I believe, is the essence of what Barack Obama was saying that day in July.