Is There Anything Like a Self-Made Person?

Sometimes we see people at the summit of their careers talk about their growth and ascribe all the success to their hardworking and resilience. Are these people just grandstanding, or are there really self-made people in the world?

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Growing up, I was a huge rap fan. I still am, but not like I used to. I got to a point where personal glorification and self-aggrandisement of rappers put me off. As American rapper Jadakiss rhetorically asked in his 2004 hit-track Why: “Why do rappers lie in 85% of their rhymes?”

To be fair to these artistes, their sounds and images are often pressed on them by their record labels, creating a certain persona—an individual who grew up in the ghetto and had to delve into or overcome a life of crime, women and drugs to get away from poverty—a sensational story that gets the attention of the public. The music industry is all about business. After all, money has to be made.

As a result, rap artistes end up projecting an image of a self-made individual who started from the bottom. The self-made man is the ideal of the American success story; the core of American ethos.

This explains why Jeb Bush, a former two-term Governor of Florida State, son and brother to former Presidents of the United States and grandson of a (long-term) United States senator, played the self-made card when he unsuccessfully campaigned for the Republic Party Presidential candidate nomination last year. I found it ridiculous and funny—a classic case of delusions of grandeur.

This is someone whose first job after University graduation was with Texas Commerce Bank, partly owned by his father’s friend, James Baker. He may fail to acknowledge it but his background played a huge part in his success.

Last year, Alex Leary, the Washington bureau chief for the Tampa Bay Times, wrote in his column, “…but family pedigree played a clear role, allowing Bush to immediately land a lucrative job with an ambitious real-estate developer. It also gave Bush an advantage in local politics, irritating more established figures.”

It got me thinking about the world’s fixation on producing self-made men and women. The world is awash with stories of self-made millionaires. But is it really possible for one to get ahead in life without external help from others? I sincerely don’t think so because we live in a world that is inter-connected and inter-dependent. Rather, I think the theory of self-made man is an ego-fuelled illusion coated with falsehood.

Certain factors, outlined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success play both positive and negative roles in one’s success journey. These factors include environment (when and where you were born and raised), parental upbringing (what your parents did for a living and circumstances surrounding your upbringing) as well as culture (inherited traditions and attitudes).

Warren Buffet, one of the world’s richest men and the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, echoes this view: “I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned. If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil. I will be struggling 30 years later.”

I am not trying to downplay the essence of hardwork, effort, talent, determination, or mental strength in our success pursuit. These are all core ingredients of success but the aforementioned factors afford us an opportunity which only the prepared ones like Buffet (who possess the core success ingredients) take.

For example, parents, family members, communities, guardians, Government, Scholarship boards and philanthropists pay the school fees but the onus still lies on the students to put in the hardwork and effort to graduate. Those who pay the school fees create the opportunity for good education whilst the prepared student takes it with both hands, studies and graduates.

Another classic example (for football lovers) is the story of Marcus Rashford. The then 18-year-old was given an opportunity by erstwhile Manchester United manager, Louis van Gaal, to make a name for himself in a crucial Europa League encounter. The prepared youngster took the opportunity with both hands, scoring a brace in the match as his team ran out 5-1 winners against Midtjylland on the night.

It is evident that we all need someone to give us that big break we yearn for. This may come from friends, family, teachers, mentors, coaches, antagonists, well-wishers, acquaintances, students… the list goes on. It is only pride, arrogance, ignorance, delusion or insecurity that can impede one from recognising the invaluable contributions and investments of others. As Fredrick Douglas aptly said, “opportunity is important but exertion is indispensable.”

What are your thoughts about the idea of being self-made?

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