A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 4, 2014

The Undying Myth of the Self-Made Man

It may or may not take a village, but the notion that anyone is a 'self-made man' in this economy strains credulity, if not the facts themselves.

The data on economic attainment belie the claim that success is the sole result of one's own determination, effort and genius.

In the United States and in Europe, in China and Russia, and, truthfully, in much of the world, it is increasingly the case that the attainments of one's parents are, statistically, the primary source of later success or the lack thereof. Education, too, is a significant determinant of later development. While merit plays a role, so do family contacts, socio-economic rank and even, in the US, athletic achievements often wholly unrelated to academic prowess.

Initial professional success is often the result of personal relationships; from family friendships to mentoring. And let us not forget luck, though ever more frequently, one's luck is greatly enhanced by the accretion of earlier advantages.

On top of all this, to be born into a relatively affluent society where the rule of law prevails, where electricity is widely and regularly available, where cleanliness of food and water is presumed rather than hoped for, and where personal safety is a given rather than a gift all contribute to the likelihood of future survival, let alone success.

It is becoming apparent, as well, in the battles over intellectual capital, that having access to the work of predecessors may be crucial to individuals and the enterprises they create or for which they labor. This despite the fervent claims of patent counsel. In short, most people are the beneficiaries of a remarkably complex set of interactions and relationships that nurture and sustain them. One can only imagine what life might be like if half of those claiming to be 'self-made' were really and truly alone. JL

Cullen Roche comments in Pragmatic Capitalism:

There’s a certain level of egotism in this idea that anyone is a “self made man”.
Tom Perkins was on Bloomberg TV discussing  the comments he made in a letter to the editors of the Wall Street Journal. I was intrigued by some comments Perkins made in the interview.  At one point, he discussed how he came from the 99% and declared:
“i am your classical self-made man, if you will.”
I always find comments like this to be a little bizarre.  There’s a certain level of egotism in this idea that anyone is a “self made man”.  As if they’re Robinson Crusoe alone on an island building everything from nothing only to find themselves later surrounded by swarms of people dying to do business with them and praising their past efforts.  Of course, that’s not at all how life works.  We are inherently social creatures residing and evolving within an incredibly interconnected world where our future success relies on the past, present and future successes of many.
This is not to say that independent thinking or personal skills do not matter.  Far from it!  But I would echo the thoughts from the latest letter by Howard Marks on luck and skill:
“a great many things contribute to success.  Some are our own doing, while many others are beyond our control.  There’s no doubt that hard work, planning and persistence are essential for repeated success…But even the hardest workers and best decision makers among us will fail to succeed consistently without luck.”
Marks goes on to explain the role of chance in our lives.  How being born in the USA sets us on a dramatically different path than being born in a third world country.  Or how being born at a particular time can bring a person incredible fortune.   But this only scratches the surface of this myth of the “self made man”.
You see, in a monetary world, your success relies on millions of other people believing that you have something useful to offer the world.  In the aggregate, producers need consumers.  And consumers need producers.  There are two sides to every economic transaction and no one gets rich on their own.  And more importantly, in a highly socialized network like the modern monetary system, the structures that make up for success are ultimately built on the backs of millions of people who contribute to the past, present and future foundations of that system.  No one built all of this by themselves.
Tom Perkins is not unique here.  He did not build his firm on his own.  He was mentored by geniuses, utilized technologies that were developed by both the private sector and public sector and was fortunate enough to have access to the absolute best education in the world.  And only THEN was he able to leverage all of this into something great.  And don’t get me wrong – I am by no means saying that the success of someone like Tom Perkins is not due to hard work, personal skill and perhaps genius.  It’s just that there’s ALWAYS so much more to the macro story than one person’s micro achievements.
The bottom line is  - no one is “self made”.   And people who use this term are almost certainly trying to perpetuate some sort of self aggrandizing myth that makes them feel more comfortable with what is likely fragile ego masquerading as a heroic white knight.


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