Thursday, October 29, 2015

No Such Thing As A "Self-Made" Man?

I went and wrote another wordy thinkpiece on Facebook in response to a comic that someone was sharing. I figured I might as well repost it here for the sake of giving it a bit more permanence:

This comic lays it on too thick for my taste, but I get the point and appreciate what they're going for. I especially enjoyed this quote tacked onto the end:

There is no such thing as a ‘self-made’ man. We are made up of thousands of others. Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us, or spoken one word of encouragement to us, has entered into the make-up of our character and of our thoughts, as well as our success.
– George Matthew Adams

The only problem with that is that if you think of yourself as a self-made person, you're bound to get defensive at the suggestion that you didn't do it all yourself. It's as if accepting help from someone else or acknowledging you received it is somehow a thing to be ashamed of, or that it diminishes your own accomplishments if you acknowledge it.

It doesn't, by the way. You may well be an amazing person who works hard and can do awesome things, but you can't do those things all by yourself any more than a Ferrari can run on tap water and a positive attitude. You can't climb the ladder to success and then get defensive when other people point out there was a ladder there before you arrived.

There's this paradigm that's become really prominent, in Western culture in particular, where we celebrate the accomplishments of the individual and encourage pride in oneself, maybe even to the detriment of pride in the group. We have pride in country, sure, but the story of the American dream is always that you're free to be yourself and do what you want to do. I've never really understood why hardcore flag-waving patriots talk so much about freedom of speech and gun rights, and so little about how freeing it is to have decent working and living conditions, ready access to utilities like heat and electricity and Internet access, abundant clean water (less so in California lately, but still), and so much food we can afford to throw a ton of it into landfills every day. Even those who are struggling here typically enjoy a better quality of life than the poorest of the poor in parts of the world with less developed economic and social structures.

Among those who do achieve great things despite early challenges growing up, the advice they typically receive from their elders who grew up in the same area and socioeconomic strata tends to go like this: "Don't forget where you come from." This is a wonderfully vague piece of advice ripe for misinterpretation. Some will take that as reason to glorify themselves, that because they ascended where others did not it means they're special, that they're better than those around them. Instead of being a sobering reminder of how much was working against them and their peers, they take it as reason to let their ego swell and indulge in all manner of ridiculous behavior. Outlandish spending habits, reckless impulsiveness, and a general lack of respect for anyone who doesn't kiss the ground they walk on. It's uncomfortable to watch, especially for everyone who has seen similar stories end in tragedy.

Think how many former professional athletes could have made much better lives for themselves in the end if they'd bothered to read a couple of biographies of other former professional athletes before their time. Imagine the same for musicians. Or entrepreneurs. Or politicians.

My point is, despite what this comic suggests, there's more to privilege and opportunity than money. There's wisdom.

I'm not saying money doesn't matter, nor that hard work doesn't matter. My general feeling is this: all other things being equal (wisdom, hard work, desire to succeed), money just makes everything easier. Hard work aids you in taking advantage of opportunities, but not everyone gets the same number of opportunities from the outset. Wisdom helps you avoid mistakes along the way, but money makes it easier to bounce back from mistakes.

Regardless, whether you have money or you have wisdom, you didn't get those things all by yourself. Both wisdom and money, by their very nature, are things you exchange, not generate out of thin air.

Alright, this got entirely too long. Last thought I'll leave you with: let's not resent each other because someone has more opportunities than we do, or because someone accused us of not earning everything we have on our own. If you are reading this on an Internet-enabled device right now, you and I both know you have had it better than somebody out there.

So just take a second and be thankful for those who helped pave the way for you to be the awesome person you are. Go out and achieve great things, and don't be ashamed to admit that you didn't do them alone.

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