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The Myth of the Self-Made Man

USAF Graduates

As this time of year rolls around, we celebrate people graduating and going into another phase of their lives, celebrate our fathers, and we remember the soldiers who have served our country. We remember what we’ve gone through to get where we are now, while looking forward to what’s ahead. We look at how many people have affected our lives and realize that they helped us be who we are today.

However, most of us forget that others have even touched our lives. We sometimes think that we got to where they are now through our own efforts, without the help of others. Sometimes, we think that success was accomplished by ourselves and not because we collaborated with others. A lot of leaders and influential people, such as Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Lauren, and Sean Combs, are seen as people who had rocky starts and became a success on their own. They’re idealized as self-made people and their success are what people wished they had.

Thinking that people are self-made is far from the truth. The self-made man contradicts what we–or, at least some, including me–hear in graduation speeches and see in videos related to Memorial Day, Independence Day, and any other day we have to remember our history, our soldiers, or our fathers. Even our day-t0-day activities show that we are affected by and rely on others for a lot of things. No one in this world at any time can say that they are completely self made because others have helped them.

Frederick Douglass, in a speech titled the “Self-Made Men”, put it this way:

Properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men. That term implies an individual independence of the past and present which can never exist.

Our best and most valued acquisitions have been obtained either from our contemporaries or from those who have preceded us in the field of thought and discovery. We have all either begged, borrowed or stolen. We have reaped where others have sown, and that which others have strown, we have gathered.

We can have some independence from others, but not complete independence. We make choices on our own, do things on our own, and a lot of other things, but we wouldn’t be able to do some of the things if other people hadn’t been involved. Our lives are shaped by the people who come along side and invest in us, by our experiences, and by how we handle our lives.

We aren’t self-made people and we couldn’t be, even if we tried. No major decision for anything–marriage, important business decisions, buying a house, etc–goes without the insight, help, and/or involvement of others. We rely on others to supply the food, clothes, furniture, and a lot more that we buy and use. In order for us to be self-made people, we have to have complete independence, which is impossible. Frederick Douglass put it this way his out in the same speech:

It must in truth be said, though it may not accord well with self-conscious individuality and self-conceit, that no possible native force of character, and no depth of wealth and originality, can lift a man into absolute independence of his fellowmen, and no generation of men can be independent of the preceding generation. The brotherhood and inter-dependence of mankind are guarded and defended at all points.

There is no one who could say that they’re completely independent from everyone else in the world. Family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and people who we don’t even know have affected our lives in numerous, incalculable ways. Generations invented and made things that the next generation can’t live without–including computers, air conditioning, cars, and smart phones. We’ve all have asked for help, ideas, and way more from others. There are no aspect of our lives that hasn’t been touched by others.

But why is the idea of the self-made man around? How can we change our mindset?

Mike Myatt wrote in his article titled “Self-Made Man – No Such Thing” on Forbes put it this way:

Today’s “pop leadership” culture seems to encourage personal glorification above all else. Here’s the thing – real leaders don’t take credit, they give it. While I take complete responsibility for all my failures and shortcomings, I take very little credit for my own success. Virtually all of the good things that have happened to me over the years have been the result of the collaborative efforts of many. I have found most mature people not suffering from delusions of grandeur tend to share this perspective. Leadership isn’t about self-serving behaviors; it’s about service beyond self. It’s not about you, and when it becomes about you, trouble is not too far away.

What Myatt stated is not only true for leaders, but for all of us. The concept of the self-mad man is around because our culture promotes us to focus on ourselves so much that we forget what others do for us. Today’s culture promotes it because our sinful nature makes us want to satisfy ourselves and make us look good. It seems more beneficial and easy to us to blame others or things for failures, while taking all of the credit for ourselves.

However, it’s actually better to give people credit where it’s due. When we give credit to people who had a part in our success, we recognize and show appreciation for what they’ve done. This recognition helps raise the morale of others who get the credit and they’ll be more likely to help you out next time. Also, sharing credit doesn’t mean that your credit diminishes. It just means that you give the credit to the people who deserve it. Giving credit and recognition will show people that they can trust you.

If you take all the credit yourself, it will end up hurting you more than helping you. People will trust you less because, if they find out, will see you as dishonest and giving a false report. Also, they’ll be less likely to work with or for you and their morale will decrease because they didn’t receive proper credit or saw that you didn’t give credit where it’s due.

Giving credit instead of taking credit for our success will help change our mindset of the self-made man because it makes us focus on others instead of ourselves. Shifting our focus from ourselves to others will show us what they did that impacted our lives and that we should give them credit. It will also show that people are interdependent, help each other be successful, and couldn’t happen if God hadn’t placed them in our lives.

Also, we must focus more on our Savior, Jesus Christ. Focusing on him will affect us and others as well as change our mindset. The way that we look at things and treat others will be so different from our current perspective. That’s because when we focus on and believe in him, we can’t contain it. It says in John 7:38 (ESV) that “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'”

The living water mentioned in the verse is the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to speak about Jesus and live our lives differently. When we focus on and believe in Jesus, we not only take that focus off ourselves, but we also put that focus on others because whatever is in our hearts comes out in our actions and words. If we have Jesus in our hearts and do what he says we should do, it’s way more possible to focus on others than it is to focus on ourselves as much.

Even though we remember that we’re interdependent on holidays and during the graduation seasons, we often forget soon afterwards that people affect and help us. Most of the time we think we’re self-made and that we can’t change unless we decide to do it. Changing our mindset by shifting our focus from ourselves to others and onto Jesus will change the way we think about the self-made man and of its existence, while also showing the interdependency of the human race.


About Raise Expectations

R.E. is the founder, admin, and writer on Raise Expectations.

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