The self-made man myth

I’ve no doubt that hard work, wits, etc., help one be successful in life.  I equally have no doubt that luck, timing, and help from others are very important as well.  I would argue that one key difference between liberals and conservatives is that while liberals do not deny the former assertion conservatives all to often deny the latter assertion.  Apparently, there’s a new book that comprehensively takes on the self-made man myth (though, I think Gladwell’s Outliers– which this story implicitly references– already made that case quite well).    The whole thing is a succinct summary and well-worth reading it its entirety.  That said, a few key points.  First, the more self-reflective successful individuals they interviewed consistently tied their success to government investment in public education, support for small business, a regulatory environment that allows entrepreneurship to thrive, and others.  And there’s the luck:

We all know wealth isn’t just a matter of hard work, brains or talent. Most of us probably know hard-working, brilliant, or extraordinarily talented people who aren’t being rewarded at anything close to their true value. So perhaps the most intriguing and useful part of the book is a long discussion of the many other essential factors that go into making someone wealthy — factors that are blithely brushed off the table whenever the self-made myth is invoked.

Rich conservatives have to downplay the role of luck. After all, if we think they’re just lucky, rather than exceptionally deserving of exceptional wealth, we’ll be a lot more justified in taxing their fortunes. But luck — the fortunate choice of parents, for example, or landing in the right job or industry at the right time — plays a huge role in any individual’s success. Timing also matters: most of the great fortunes of the 19th century were accumulated by men born during the 1830s, who were of an age to capitalize on the huge economic boom created by the expansion of the railroads after the Civil War. Likewise, the great tech fortunes almost all belong to people born between 1950 and 1955, who were well-positioned to create pioneering companies in the tech boom of the late 1970s and 1980s. Such innovative times don’t come along very often; and being born when the stars lined up just so doesn’t make you more entitled. It just makes you luckier.

Because Americans in general like to think we’re an equal society, we’re also quick to discount the importance of race, gender, appearance, class, upbringing, and other essential forms of social capital that can open doors for people who have it — and close them on those who don’t. The self-made myth allows us to deflect our attention from these critical factors, undermining our determination to level the playing field for those who don’t start life with a pocket fat with advantages.

Anyway, read the whole thing.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

4 Responses to The self-made man myth

  1. itchy says:

    Unless I’m missing it, it looks like you didn’t link to anything.

    The larger point the excerpt overlooks is that all the examples are American. Being born in the wealthiest nation in the world is a stroke of luck that provides advantages that billions of people throughout the world don’t have.

    Maybe the writer is only comparing Americans to other Americans, but it’s worth remembering that we all could have been born in Myanmar or Sudan and almost certainly not lead our lives of luxury, despite our obvious intelligence, determination and attractiveness.

  2. We are a nation of eqaul OPPORTUNITY which does not equate with equality of outcome.
    Col Sanders was flat broke and bankrupt at age 65 and went on with sheer hard work and salesmanship to go on to become a multi millionaire.

    • David says:

      I’ll believe we’re a nation of equal opportunity when low-income high testing students have the same college graduation rates as high testing high income students.

      Truly creating an equal opportunity society would take a fairly large amount of wealth redistribution. Saying you are for equal opportunity but not equal outcomes is a cop-out to avoid feeling responsible for the way the system is currently set up.

  3. Mike says:

    Some might say that the self made man myth could also be applicable to nations.

    Right time, right place, right people and a bit of luck.

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