Skip to content

The Self-Made Man – An Illusion

April 13, 2014

It is a very common sight to find studies showing strong correlations and causal links between things such as educational attainment and poverty, employment and social disadvantage, geographical location and the chance of landing in jail. The point being that we are influenced by others.

And so it is true – no man or woman is an island unto themselves. No self-made man determines his destiny from birth. At birth he lacks the mental faculties and knowledge to shape his life. And, if he did have the faculties to mould his future at birth, we should certainly say that he has an advantage over his peers and hence was not entirely ‘self-made’ . Babies tend to lack authority in the household too…

Obviously then, we become who we are to a large extent based upon the influences upon us. The ‘great men’ theory of history has rightly faded away, and we explain the past through broader forces economic, social and political. Our self-made German in the Weimar Republic could have been frugal, but it would have counted for nought in the hyperinflation of 1923. Our self made breadwinner – in spite of their hard work and perseverance – would struggle to make ends meet in the Great Depression. Individuals who embodied the virtues of the ‘self-made man’ paled against the external problems they faced.

I suppose we could say that the concept of the self-made man has faded as we have recognised the impact of external forces. And, as the world has become more interconnected economically, to a large extent our fortunes have become more dependent on others. If production expands outwards and raise incomes by utilising economies of scale, then people necessarily become ‘cogs’ in the ‘machine’. And, the individual can be overwhelmed easily by collectives. States arose for a reason. Militaries are regimented collectives because that’s what wins battles. Perhaps modern technology has changed that exact dynamic, but organisation – the keyword of business – is still required to survive. Anthropology shows that the lone wolf is a myth. With few exceptions, societies used to fight and hunt together. Rambo wouldn’t have stood a chance. Now, today, the traditional social ties of honour groups have disintegrated, but the individual still prospers from the assistance of others. Thus, the maximum prosperity and wellbeing of the individual is, arguably, tied up with external events.

So we take the above to be true. Time to throw this ridiculous myth into the past where it belongs?

No. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Just because the individual is dependent upon external factors does not mean internal factors do not matter. They matter. And even if it is all a facade, is it not a welcome facade? To promote the concept that you shape who you become is to promote personal responsibility and diligence. Shall we throw those ideas out too?

I expect you would answer with a resounding ‘NO!’ Personal responsibility and self-reliance is at the heart of what we value as a society. To be incapable of managing one’s own affairs is to stay in a continued childish state, and one that is not cute to boot. As the years move on children garner more responsibility for a reason. And, as they do so, they get accorded greater respect, and contribute more to their family.

To be incapable of managing one’s own affairs, however, is to demand with ingratitude that others burden themselves to alleviate one’s own shortcomings. And I do not believe that we should be burdening others. Our goal is not to take, but to give, to be altruistic. To create, not consume.

The only way we can possibly give more than we take is if we are self-reliant.

But, let us take a step back for a moment. If we are supposing that being reliant is a goal – whatever that ‘objective’ standard is meant to be – then aren’t we demanding that everybody reach some set-goal? Aren’t we ignoring the conditions we are born into. You know, the external influences…

No. We aim to measure a person not by the heights they attain, but the depths from whence they come.

And we can climb from those depths. For opportunity is important, but exertion indispensable. The tide may be strong, but if the ship stays anchored in port it shall stay still. If the crop is sensational yet the farmer does not reap, then we may as well have had a drought… Perhaps fortune will shower us with gifts, but we must utilise them.

Furthermore, exertion breeds ‘luck’. The person who tries to get up will be helped up. The person who does not try is likely to be allowed to stay down. It is like when 2 students confront a teacher. One merely asks the teacher to explain ‘everything’ . The other, having put thought into what has been said prior, and respecting the teacher’s time, has a few questions about particular points. The first student has lain down on the ground and is trying to grasp a distant hand in the air. The second, having raised him/herself higher, is now within reach of the teacher, who was loathe to kneel down to reach the first student’s hand. In this manner persistence and hard, efficient work shall breed the ‘luck’ commonly ascribed to ‘brilliance’.

Now, let us be clear – in awarding praise to industry, I recognise that there are other factors to the creation of ‘self-made’ people. I acknowledge them well and truly. Indeed, they may be becoming more relevant. But to dispel the illusion of the self-made man is to lose the clarion cry for personal responsibility and for self-reliance. It is to forget that though opportunity is important, exertion is indispensable.

And now that you are reminded of this, go and act. Go and be a better person. Go and forge the person you want to be.


From → Foundations

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: