I Didn't Do It Alone

by John Holiday

Many years ago I participated in a weeklong Naikan retreat in Japan. There, I had a unique opportunity to review my entire life with a new perspective. "What have others given me? What have I given others? What troubles have I caused others?" With these three simple questions, for about 15 hours a day, I examined in painful detail the immeasurable support that surrounded me from the day I entered the world screaming to that week of sitting quietly behind a shoji screen.

It did not take very long for me to realize that virtually all of my accomplishments – from learning to ride a bike to attending college – were possible only with the invaluable and often overlooked support from others. Entitlements became gifts and rights became privileges. It was very humbling. I emerged with a compelling desire to give something back and to express my overwhelming sense of gratitude to my family and close friends.

It’s not uncommon for Naikan to have a profound impact on interpersonal relationships, particularly with family and friends. But what effect can Naikan have when it is directed beyond that immediate circle? What happens when a personally advantageous but unfair imbalance is discovered in something like socioeconomics? Can gratitude and the impulse to reciprocate be extended into other realms like the workplace? The community? Society as a whole?

Years ago, Responsible Wealth and United for a Fair Economy published I Didn’t Do It Alone: Society’s Contribution to Individual Wealth and Success, an eye-opening report that may answer some of the above questions. The report captures the stories of a dozen or so financially successful business people. Interestingly enough, they all arrive at similar conclusions. They each reflect on the contributing factors enabling their success and they each react to these epiphanies with a consequential drive to somehow give something back.

Similarly, in Japanese Psychology, there seems to be a cyclical connection between the self-reflection of Naikan and the “just do it” purposeful action of Morita Therapy. Reflect on actions, reach conclusions, and act accordingly. Of course, the business leaders in I Didn't Do It Alone do not use the terminology of Morita and Naikan; however, they do operate in a process that is nearly identical. Each acknowledges support and responds with purposeful actions.

* Warren Buffet, the second wealthiest person in the world and founder of Berkshire Hathaway, attributes the American economic system, society, and his geographic location as supporting factors in his success. He explains, “I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned.” As a result, he is a strong supporter of progressive taxation. For example, Berkshire Hathaway paid $390 million in taxes in 1993. To this, Buffet responds, “…I have absolutely no complaints about these taxes. We work in a market-based economy that rewards our efforts far more bountifully than it does the efforts of other whose output is of equal or greater benefit to society. Taxation should, and does, partially redress this inequality.”

* Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream reflects, “What created the wealth? It was really created by our customers and employees.” As a result, he explains, “I always worked on the idea that 50% of the money that I get goes back to the community in the form of advocating for progressive social change.”

* Amy Domini, founder of Domini Social Equity Fund, thanks the Boston subway system, working streetlights, public airwaves, the postal service, the publicly funded Internet, safe air flights, and other day-to-day support – true to Naikan form.

* Jim Sherblom, president of Seaflower Ventures, also cites similar public investments: “The opportunities to create wealth are all taking advantage of public goods – like roads, transportation, markets – and public investments. None of us can claim it was all personal initiative.” He later calls on the need to reciprocate: “We’re all in the community together, so we have a moral obligation to look out for those who are least able to look out for themselves.”

I Didn't Do It Alone reveals several other contributing factors to wealth including gender, height, color, privilege, timing, GI bill, public schools and institutions, families, co-workers, mentors, teachers, coaches, and, invariably, just-plain “luck.” In any case, all of these business people agree: they couldn’t have done it on their own.

These anecdotes challenge the popular American myths of meritocracy, the “great man,” and the “self-made millionaire” and offer a more realistic picture of fortunate people who have benefited from the support of others. Granted, those who are successful are likely to be some of the hardest workers; they are strong-willed, persistent, dedicated, and willing to take risks. But these are qualities that can be attributed to countless people that surround us everyday at our workplaces, at our community meetings, in our own homes. This illustrates the point that, hard work – though essential to success – is by no means a guarantee to success without a confluence of contributing factors within an interdependent, supportive environment. We’re all in this together.

Since my retreat, I have personally seen Naikan shape my worldview and influence my actions. I’m not a millionaire; but I am still very lucky. I don’t take for granted that I was able to go to college, that I have medical insurance, and that I can pay my rent and buy groceries. This is not the case for many people. I want to act purposefully to contribute to a reality that will allow everyone to enjoy these and other privileges.

This is precisely why I Didn’t Do It Alone is comforting and, to me, validating. It tells the stories of financially successful people that not only acknowledge their support networks but also actively take steps to serve a higher purpose based on gratitude, justice, and reciprocity. They set a wonderful example: acknowledge support and respond with purposeful, compassionate action.

John Holiday has been a Registered Nurse since 2008 and has served in hospice, primary care, and mental health and substance abuse. He also worked part-time at the ToDo Institute (2002-2007) and has been a member since 2002.


A good article drawing parrallels to the principles of Morita and in some ways Naikan. I may be a little biased toward the writter but am nonetheless impressed with his writing style, research and concise method of presenting his observations.

Posted by: Doug H.
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