How Self-Made are you, Really?
On the growing tendency to erase those who make our success possible
Do you describe yourself as self-made? How true is this statement, though?
In America, not only do we glorify individualism but we capture it with personal taglines; we’ve also elevated it to the highest office in the land. Although Trump was born a wealthy heir, many among his supporters still believe he is a self-made man and he’s never attempted to put them straight.
Why let facts get in the way of a strong personal brand?
Many perceive Trump’s confidence and wealth as aspirational; his name is on buildings around the world and he’s so famous he became a catchphrase even before he ran for president because he was on TV. He’s incontrovertible proof that fame — no matter what for — and fortune will get you anywhere in America, including to the White House if there are enough people behind you.
Because nothing commands respect and admiration quicker than money, there’s never any shortage of people hoping for a seat at this banquet of illusions.
But being self-made is nothing more than a self-perpetuating fallacy, a lie we tell ourselves and others to feed our desperate need for validation and admiration, which we demand from our peers.
No matter how much self-gratitude we practice.
Individualism is rampant but it makes little sense; the human animal is a social creature and we cannot survive without our peers, can we?
We all learned to speak and communicate by imitation, listening to and observing our primary caregivers. We all learned to read either on their lap, or at school, or both but not by ourselves. We all learned to write the same way, because someone showed us how to shape letters and we practiced until we got them right. Storytelling taught us to construct a narrative and disseminate our ideas using various media.
We may no longer live in caves and express ourselves through pictograms but how we relate to one another hasn’t changed all that much. Only today we have a tendency to erase those who make our daily life the extraordinary experience it is. It took people to create the internet, it takes people to make those platforms we love and use without second thoughts.
For example, music has become a key component of how I manage my mental health and the seismic impact it has had on living with chronic depression is the result of an epic collaboration. On the one hand, there are the artists who create the work that keeps me afloat. On the other, there are the engineers who create and maintain the algorithms that bring me so much joy when they present me with new music to discover.
And it’s not just the internet we take for granted but almost everything else that makes up our quality of life. It takes people to grow our food, transport it to the store, and put it on display; it takes people to make gas available so we can fill up our cars; it takes people to develop vaccines and administer so we don’t die of common diseases.
And yet, we like to pretend we’re so self-reliant we can engineer success alone.
Society isn’t an abstract, we are it, together. Each of us is part of a greater organism, one with which we interact constantly and on which our every action has an impact. Anything we achieve, we never achieve alone; even inventors connect dots either borrowed from or handed to them by other people.
If there is no success without willpower, perseverance, and hard work, those are only some of the ingredients, never the whole recipe. Success is always the result of interconnection. When we create something from scratch, the skills that power our creativity come from somewhere, even when we are self-taught.
Even though I often say I taught myself yoga to explain why I yet have to attend an in-person class, I certainly didn’t manage it on my own. I started by reading a book by a science journalist that mixed research, personal experience, and no-nonsense advice. Afterward, I signed up for an app that made yoga accessible to me despite my reduced financial means; people made that app. If anything, it’d be more accurate to say that journalism, the Seattle public library system, and the internet taught me yoga; all I did was add sweat.
In the same vein, I’ve been rebuilding a life word by word since July 2018 but I was only able to do so thanks to the internet. All I provide is the bricks but those who do me the courtesy of reading and supporting my work are the ones who provide the mortar. Having a journalism background and being stubborn are only two of the many elements that make the formula work. It is people who inspire me to keep going with feedback, suggestions, and encouragement so the least I can do is give credit where credit is due.
Whether you’re a reader, an editor, an engineer, or a creative partner, you are the reason my writing takes on a life of its own the moment I publish it.
So why would I ever thank myself for any of this? Why would I ever be grateful for me without acknowledging my being able to do what I do is dependent on the help innumerable people give me? Why would I ever describe myself as self-made when I owe fellow humans absolutely everything? Lest we forget, there are no writers without readers; while anyone can write, it takes an audience to make us into writers.
What if instead of preaching the “cult of self” we put our heads and hearts together to eradicate individualism and replace it with solidarity so no one gets left behind? And perhaps even use the internet to incubate a new model of togetherness?
Until then, self-congratulation will remain the preserve of enormous egos whose greed continues to blind us to the truth: No one ever succeeds alone.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.