The Self-Made Myth is Harmful to Society
America loves fairy tales.
The American Dream and raging individualism have created the self-made myth, a hero’s journey that rests solely on the self. This false equation posits self-belief, hard work, and big dreams are the key to success; in short, the ego can see us through anything.
In a capitalistic society, there is no greater badge of honor than being self-made, which implies you had no help along the way. You faced adversity alone, you transcended difficulty alone, you succeeded out of sheer will.
Being self-reliant, resourceful, driven, and having the ability to imagine an alternative to what is can and will guide you. And if you are desperate enough, chances are you’ll always find a way to keep going against all odds courtesy of your survival instinct.
While consistency and grit play a defining role in helping us reach goals and succeed in our endeavors, the self-made myth is dishonest to a fault.
By perpetuating the erroneous notion that success is simply a matter of attitude, it erases what two of the components that make it possible.
The first one is luck, which is as random as it comes and seldom gets a mention because it is so intangible it is impossible to hack and thus replicate or scale.
The second one — and main one — is other people.
Whether it takes one other person or many, success is never a solo pursuit.
No matter how innovative and excellent your product maybe, you’ll still need customers to succeed. No matter how brilliant your idea(s) and how capable you might be, you’ll still need other people’s help along the way to succeed.
Even the social mobility game-changer that is education doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it takes a lot more than dedicated studying to affect change. In America, accessing higher education means the willingness to go into debt for a lifetime if you come from a modest background. And completing one or more degrees doesn’t happen alone but with teaching dispensed by people.
Educators change lives.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the incredible dedication of an entire department from a London university who went above and beyond to help me succeed. My time at university was non-standard, spanned several countries, and involved more personal trauma than is usual at that age. I benefited from countless hours of extra tutorship with several professors and a lot of flexibility about what units to study, how, and when.
Without them holding my hand through challenging and painful times, I would never have graduated. I am a graduate thanks to Sue, Stephen, Peter, Iris, and especially Edgar.
Similarly, without insider knowledge, I would never have joined the world’s top public service broadcaster when I wasn’t even out of university yet. My best friend had worked there for years by then and made sure I was well-prepared for my interview by taking me to visit the department I was applying to. I met with staffers who gave me priceless advice and explained exactly what the organization was looking for. Only then was I able to knuckle down and absorb all the info I would need for what was an epic interview that left no room for hesitation or error.
That contract changed my life, or rather, Anthony, Melissa, and Donna did.
Everything I’ve ever done in my professional life has been down to people giving me a chance, hiring me, or trusting me to build something from scratch.
And, often, daring me to stretch myself. “What language do you want this in?” was supposed to be a mischievous question to an editor. When he replied English and Portuguese, my life changed again and eventually led me to fluency. I was only contracted to work in English but I worked bilingually from the beginning, which eventually turned into a newspaper column and even poetry in Pessoa’s tongue.
As someone whose livelihood is words — mine and those of others — my work would be impossible without people. There are no journalists without editors; there are no editors without writers; there are no writers without readers.
And readers are even more important when the bulk of your income is based on the audience engagement model, as is becoming increasingly common when writing online.
This is why the self-made myth is not just misleading but also insulting toward all those who give us a leg up.
We are a social species; when we’re successful, it’s because other people put us there and hosted our dreams.
The same applies to personal matters; whichever way it manifests, happiness is seldom a solo pursuit. My happiness has human and feline names; even though I’m the sunny, joyful type who delights in the minutiae of life, my happiness is rarely self-made. Unless it’s a ray of sunshine, the changing color of leaves on trees, or the smell of the ocean. Hugs, for example, always take more than one person and even a cup of tea means someone had to grow and harvest the leaves, someone else had to package them and ship them here…
Look, even grifters and con artists need marks to pull off their schemes, don’t they?
Here’s the thing: Collaboration reaches far further than the competition and empowers everyone but it doesn’t fit the “cult of me.” It also frequently flies in the face of personal branding, this bizarre trend that has humans turn themselves into products.
How about we retire the mythology and focus on how we can help one another reach our respective goals instead of blindly worshipping materialism and greed?