The Self-Made Man. He never asked for anything, and nothing was given to him. Nor did he inherit anything from anyone. No, that would have been too easy. He made it here all by himself. Through hard work and determination, never looking for a handout or sympathy, he made it. He is the ideal archetype for men, especially in our western culture. He is who we are told to look up to. He is what we all want to be. He represents the best of us. He is a Self-Made Man.
He is also a completely made up figment of someone’s imagination! He doesn’t really exist. There is no such thing as a Self-Made Man. He is no different than a comic book hero, with magical powers that no real human being could ever really possess. He is a fantasy creature, dreamt up by someone long ago who was somehow convinced that it was possible for a man to make it all by himself. Convinced that somehow a man who made it on his own was more manly and represented the ideal attributes that every man should possess.
And somehow, we bought into it. We have been convinced that this made up, mythical creature actually existed. We even hold up successful men in our culture, like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos, as examples of what being self-made is all about. We completely ignore the fact that such men never achieve success completely on their own. There were other factors outside of their control that were at play. Gates, for example, was given access to a computer at an early age, where he was able to spend a considerable amount of time learning how it worked. This gave him an incredible advantage that others his age simply didn’t have. Sure, he still worked hard. However, had he not been given greater access to a computer than his peers, he may not have been as successful, regardless of how hard he worked. This advantage made all the difference.
Still, we believe that we too can become this mythical Self Made Man. When we achieve success, we convince ourselves that we got all of it through our hard work alone, even though we know that is not exactly the whole story. Not really. But, because we have convinced ourselves of this myth that we are self-made, our egos get a little bigger when we succeed. We feel a strong sense of pride when we “win.” We can even feel justified feeling a little better than another man who needs help.
The idea of the Self-Made Man has its roots in the fundamental belief in our culture that all success in life is based primarily on hard work and determination. If a man is not successful, then we believe that it must be because he just is not working hard enough. This belief certainly appears to have some validity. Indeed, hard work is an important element in someone’s success. I would even go further to say your personal work ethic is the foundation for all achievement. A good work ethic includes traits like personal discipline, showing up when and where you are supposed to, fulfilling your obligations and commitments, being a man of your word, and always working in a spirit of excellence. It is true that without such traits, you probably will never be successful.
No one else can determine your work ethic for you; it’s completely up to you. And if your success was solely connected to how hard you work then, we all would be Self-Made Men. But you and I both know, if we are really honest with ourselves, hard work alone, no matter how foundational it is, is not the sole ingredient for success in a man’s life. There are at least two other ingredients.
First, what a man is exposed to or has access to, particularly when he is young, is also an important factor in his success. It doesn’t matter how hard he works, if the options a man is aware of are limited, or if he has limited access to resources and opportunities, he can only go but so far. The more a man is exposed to different options and opportunities for what he can achieve and aspire to, the greater his ability will be to make productive and wise decisions with his life. If, however, his exposure is limited, then his worldview will be limited and the level of success he can achieve will be hindered. Even work ethic is shaped by exposure. If you are surrounded by people who practice good work ethics, you have a higher probability to pick up on successful working habits than someone who is not. On the contrary, if you never see good work ethics modeled around you, it is difficult to produce it yourself.
In addition to hard work and exposure, the other component of success is the support system that is surrounding a man. Success often requires nurturing, especially when you are first starting out. It is during this time when you lack the most knowledge and wisdom about what you should do and are prone to make the most mistakes. Men who have a strong support system surrounding them, with mentors and advisors to help along the way, are better set up for success. When they need advice, they have someone to go to. When they make mistakes, they have someone to protect them. When they need opportunities and access, they have someone to give it. This advantage cannot be overstated. Men who are on their own, with a limited or no support system, will have a harder time achieving the success they desire. Their mistakes will have a more detrimental effect because they have no one to support them when they suffer setbacks. This does not mean they can’t be successful. It simply means that they are always at a disadvantage.
If I am being honest, I know I could have worked a lot harder. Yet, if it weren’t for the benefits of exposure and support, I would not be the man I am today. I recognize that I was exposed to things that others hadn’t. I had several men and women who supported me along the way and I owe a great deal of any success I have achieved to them. I had mentors and teachers who believed in me and challenged me, who supported me when I was at my lowest, and kept me humble when I was at my highest.
The thing is, what you are exposed to and your level of support when you are young has nothing to do with your effort. They are a byproduct of circumstances that are beyond your control. However, part of becoming a man is understanding where you are deficient and finding ways to make up for it. This means that if there is anything you lack, it is up to you to make sure you get it. If you were not privileged to grow up being exposed to or having access to opportunities and resources, then it is up to you to use all of your abilities to seek it out. Reading books, getting an education, seeking out successful people to learn from, all are ways that you can expand your exposure. Additionally, if you are not blessed with a support system, then it is up to you to develop one. Don’t wait around for someone to support you. It is your responsibility as a man to seek out the support you need. Seek out people to develop relationships with as mentors and advisors, be willing to listen to their advice, and accept their correction. Do so knowing that their help will be crucial to your success.
Believing that you have to live up to the ideal of the Self-Made Man usually leads to a life of frustration and emptiness. However, if you add greater exposure and a strong support system to your hard work and determination, then you can enhance your probability of living a truly successful life.
Well said. Demolishing that myth sure helps shine a bright light on the power of friendship and the strength found in genuine counsel. How many times has my best work been the result of others challenging and encouraging. Thank you for these great reminders.
Thanks Allen! Its important for us to be reminded that none of us can become the kind of men we desire to be without the help and support of others!
This was a very relevant topic and was spot on! Great job!
Thank you Kevin. I think this is something we all need to remember!
On point! It seems like the self-made myth is more prevalent today than in the past, with the rise of social media and its inherent focus on promoting the individual. Recognizing the exposure and support systems that contribute to an individual’s success shatters the self-made myth. Great post!
Exactly! It helps to realize that no one gets anywhere on their own. Keeps you humble and gives you grace for those who may not have the exposure and support you’ve been given.