The Self-Made Man (and Woman)

It’s often deemed a myth but...

Posted Jan 28, 2018

Quinn Dombrowski, CC 2.0
Source: Quinn Dombrowski, CC 2.0

Academia and the media have generally tried to prove that the self-made man is a myth:

Biographers have scoured the life of that poster boy for the self-made man, Benjamin Franklin, to find instances in which he received assistance. For example, a would-be employer paid teenager Ben's travel expenses to Philadelphia.

Academics have generally dubbed the Horatio Alger books as myth, in which teenagers from humble beginnings rise to success. A Google search on the term ["Horatio Alger" myth] yielded 60,000 links, the first few of which, after the Wikipedia entry are: Horatio Alger: The Myth of the American Dream, Five Things to Know About the Horatio Alger Myth, and Eleven Myths about Horatio Alger."

Yet conversely, Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village” assertion has largely gone unchallenged by the media or academia.

But don't most of us know people who succeeded pretty much on their own, maybe even who believe that not relying on outside assistance encouraged the self-reliance that was core to their success?

Indeed, whole groups of people have been admired for their self-reliance-driven success despite not only humble beginnings but horrendous life experience, for example, some ex-slaves, Irish immigrants after the potato famine, Japanese internment camp detainees, and Vietnamese immigrants who had been caught in war's hell.

Alas, self-reliance is an attribute that today’s academics and media have rendered almost atavistic. Certainly, the term is underdiscussed in today’s debates about how to ameliorate low school and life achievement.

Here is the true story of one such self-reliant person, a child of Holocaust survivors. He stresses that he is not unusual, that many of the Holocaust survivors and their children whom he knew and read about, for example, in Children of the Holocaust, were largely self-reliant yet quite successful and resilient despite their troubled family of origin, the Holocaust tortures, lack of English, education, and money, and the New York City tenements most of them lived in.

Irrelevant details about this person's story have been changed to protect the anonymity he desires.

He grew up in a Chicago tenement. His parents had been wrested from their homes in Germany as teenagers, not having even completed high school. They spent years in work camps and in his mother’s case, Bergen-Belsen, where she was one of the small percentage to have survived, perhaps because she was unusually attractive to the Nazi guards.

His parents spoke German to each other and the most broken and basic English to him. His mother reports that he learned to speak mainly by watching TV and inferring word meanings from what was appearing on the screen. He attended urban schools and paid for his college education by waking at 5 AM to drive a bread delivery truck. Throughout college and for a year after, to save money, he lived in his parents’ apartment.

He since has become quite successful running a one-person business and enjoys a pleasant lifestyle and has saved amply for retirement. Compared with the vast majority of people, he received far less help from individuals, government, or non-profits and is proud that without needing to take money from others, his efforts have enabled him to be self-sufficient by providing valuable products to his customers.

Again, he insists that he is not unusual. He asserts that nearly all of the Holocaust survivors and children he knows are pretty much self-made successes.

The takeaway

Academia and the media deride the self-made man as largely a myth. And certainly, not all strivers succeed, but enough do to provide legitimate hope to people with reasonable intelligence and drive. And even for those who don’t fully succeed on their own, is not there not value in the hope that their efforts might pay off? It can motivate them to strive and, if despite reasonable effort, they can’t do it alone, they still can ask for help: The government, non-profits, and individuals stand ready to help. Indeed, according to the Charities Aid Foundation, the U.S. is the world’s most generous nation.

Of course, even self-made men and women got some help along the way, but they mainly relied on themselves. Many of these people believe their self-reliance was crucial to their success and feel good about not having asked for free money from others. They believe their children were better off seeing such a role model, and that society as a whole lives better when the default is self-reliance.

Alas, today, the “It Takes a Village” meme is widely accepted as the fully acceptable, normative way to live. This article attempts to provide a bit of balance, in hopes that self-reliance doesn’t become an oxymoron.