The Myth of the Self-Made Individual

Does this vision benefit our society—or harm it?

Posted Nov 12, 2017

One need not be a Buddhist monk to know that every way of being is equally, inevitably, a way of not being. Or a sociologist to understand that societies encourage their members in certain way—and block others entirely.

             In the United States, most of us are encouraged to think of ourselves as the architects of our own destinies. Self-reliance—the title of an 1841 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson—is extolled. By the terms of that credo, we are to support ourselves by our own efforts, to draw our own conclusions about the meanings of life. Ideally, daily existence means advancing determinedly under one’s own steam. We should find satisfaction in our choice making and accept the consequences of those decisions. Movement is prized; inactivity is traced to illness, confusion, and sloth. When we come to a fork in the road—or so a later philosopher,Yogi Berra, advised—we should take it. 

            Other people, however well-intentioned, must be regarded with suspicion.  This is especially the case when they band together and attempt to impose the conventions of their groups upon us. The chattering gossip of neighbors constitutes a tyranny of its own sort; so does the suffocating morality of the small town or religious congregation. And even greater dangers may be posed by that vast artifice, Society. Its far-flung restrictions, or so we’re told, have little to do with us.  They are the results of distant machinations, Devil’s bargains that express interests foreign to our own. Best to remain clear-eyed and steadfastly resistant. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance—and liberty means freedom from the incursions of others.         

            This self-styled activism flows in many directions. Our development as persons—and at some point, even the judgment that we have become adults—is based on the idea that we have moved away from the sheltering circumstances of our parents. Adults are said to have established their own residences, which they pay for with the proceeds of a job or other legitimate means of income. Adults no longer have to follow the directives of parents—or indeed other sermonizing figures like teachers, religious leaders, and coaches. They are effectively “on their own.”

            This independence-training, as the anthropologists term it, occurs over many years. In schools, we are asked to choose our own courses of study and do our own work. Parents, at least officially, are not to help. As a young professor teaching night school classes in Indianapolis, I remember a father who sat at the back of the classroom and took notes on the evenings his son didn’t want to attend. My students today laugh at that. It simply isn’t done.

            In much the same way, we are expected to manufacture our romantic relationships and, ultimately, make our marriage choices. We are saddened—no, revolted—by the practice of arranged marriages found in distant places. Most of us can remember the halfhearted suggestions of our parents that someone (entirely unappealing) would be a nice boy or girl for us. We will have none of that. Marriage today means making our own acquaintances, falling in love, perhaps living together for a while, and then formalizing the arrangement. Then we divorce and repeat the process. In any case, it is we who fashion the terms of our living—and we who determine to begin again.            

            Careers—the very idea suggests a course of improvement—are established in much the same fashion. We apply to jobs, accept their terms, advance or fall, and quit. Then we try our hand at something else, ideally better. Loyalty, from either employer or employee, is no longer expected. Whatever, it is our own choice-making that is central. Even when we are fired, we take pride in our resilience. The world has treated us badly; now we begin again.     

            In every other way, or so it seems, we admire the enterprising self. Our hobbies—perhaps tennis, hang gliding, shopping, or bridge—are considered forms of self-expression. It is we who decide to become “good” at these or not. Is religious choice dissimilar? We join a church, choose a comfortable level of monetary and social commitment, then move on to something else when this one no longer suits us or when our circumstances change. The same can be said for our relationship to clubs, even friendships. We were “into” some of these for a while; now we’re not. 

            What are called lifestyle choices—tastes in food and beverage, travel, television, movies, interior design, and the like—are also occasions for self-adornment. Include also matters of fashion, grooming, and physique. Some of our friends are getting tattoos; shall we? Looking about, we see that our living room or kitchen—and by extension, ourselves—is trapped desperately in the nineties or worse, the eighties. It is up to us to decide what the new look will be.       

            No one should pretend that this choice-making—or the elevation of status that is its end-point—is easy. For that reason, moral encouragements, sometimes slogans, may be needed. If we occupy the lower rungs of the social ladder (perhaps only “down on our luck”), we are expected to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” We understand that our current predicament (however dispiriting) should be recognized also as an opportunity and, more precisely, as a challenge to character. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” or so we’ve heard. It would nice to receive help in difficult times, but handouts are frowned upon. Anyway, “there’s no free lunch.” Other people, presumably much like ourselves, will have to pay for our living if we don’t. Profoundly, charity is thought of as something reserved for the desolate and piteous. We prefer to escape those labels if we can.

            As the reader may have noted, these platitudes are mostly goads to people positioned at the lower ranks of the social class system. Wealthier citizens, or so the logic of self-improvement has it, must be doing something right. They have realized the dreams of their society. It follows, then, that they must possess the qualities of hard work, ability, persistence, and character that make them the rightful recipients of all they hold. We imagine that we could learn a thing or two from them. So we pick up a copy of their self-proclaiming autobiography at the local bookstore or peruse briefer accounts of their triumphs in glossy magazines

            However heartening the above comments may be, there are two issues that should be confronted. The first concerns the degree to which the myth of self-reliance is true. That is, is it an apt descriptor of how success—and with it, self-esteem—is manufactured in this country? The second issue is whether a society based on such principles would be a good thing if realized fully.  Again, to repeat this as a question: Does an ethic of personal self-advancement cause as many problems as it solves?

            Sociologists commonly describe two different ways in which societies fill their needed roles. Some rely on what is termed “ascription.” This is a process of assignment, usually at birth. The Indian caste system is a famous example. People take on the occupations of their parents, marry within that subgroup, live amidst such persons, and maintain other restrictive practices related to socializing and eating. Every person is asked to perform well the duties associated with his or her particular rank. Rebirth at a higher rank is the reward for a life so committed.

            Alternately, societies may shift the burden of placement-seeking to the individual. In “achievement” societies, people compete for jobs—and the other life-stations that are extensions of these. Upward mobility is encouraged; downward mobility accepted. Ideally, the more talented, hard-working, and persistent people make their way into the top ranks. They seek credentials that let others know that they, as individuals, are entitled to the positions they seek. Choices related to education, marriage, friendship, housing, and religion are managed in a similar way. The United States is commonly offered as an example of this achievement system.

            But most of us know that the above description—essentially meritocracy—doesn’t quite hold for this country. To be sure, there is some upward (and downward) mobility; few people do the same jobs as their parents. But typically they don’t stray far from their class of origin. Inheritance continues to be very important element of social placement. And even while one’s parents are alive, there are vigorous support-systems that encourage some children to “do better” than others.

            That filtering system certainly applies to education. Those in the middle-classes and above are able to pay for the hidden costs of education—clothing, technology, travel opportunities, band instruments, sports equipment, and the like.  Wealthier parents may move their home to a place with a better school district.  They may pay for a special, even private school. Their Janie or Johnny will be advanced in this system, whether the child wants this or not. 

            College (or other professional education) is simply an extension of this.  Any financial, social and emotional costs—posed by prep courses, college visits, written applications, tuition payments, and even “advice” about proper majors and social involvements—must be faced. Successful children should not be debt-burdened. They should not be employed so much that it hampers their studies.  They should finish this stage of life in a timely fashion—and ready themselves for the next.

            There are many other supports. Physical health is fundamental to personal functioning. It is made problematic by a society that shifts responsibility for this commitment to individual families. In such a scheme, some will eat well and some will not. Only some will have family doctors. Complicated medical procedures—at expense levels that amaze—are covered by some families’ insurance plans. The less fortunate are devastated. And of course, there is the great range of subtler, but still important procedures—dental work, dermatology, hair-care, fitness activity, and the like—that make possible the appropriate presentation of self.

            What should be plain is that all of us grow up in certain circumstances for which we can take neither credit not blame. Some children endure dangerous neighborhoods; others inhabit safer zones. Much as we are the captives of our families, so we make friends with the people who are available to us. We tend to behave like them, talk like them, even look like them. We play their sports, go to their dances, eat and drink as they do.

            Poorer families confront the difficulties associated with settings designated as their own. Neighbors there may be engaged in illegal doings. That path—with both its prospects and perils—is clearly modeled. When poor people do wrong and are caught—or perhaps arrested just for “looking suspicious” at a certain place and time—they commonly lack the financial backing or the network of social approvals to keep them out of jail. A prison record collapses further the range of possibilities.          

          Can we even claim that our vaunted marriage system—prizing personal aspiration, wooing, and mutual agreement—escapes these processes? Despite the expanded social pools of our Internet Age, we can fall in love only with the people we meet. And few of us love blindly. We filter people by what we assess to be their past, present, and future qualities. Extreme social differences are thought to blunt easeful relations. If we pursue a choice that friends and family consider unsuitable, they will try to discourage us. In extreme cases, they will shun us. Yes, we despise arranged marriage systems. But be clear that we move along socially marked corridors where we encounter only certain kinds of persons, and only some of those are deemed appropriate.

            I do not deny that most of us feel ourselves the masters of our own fates (if not the “captains of our souls”). We live ardently, choose determinedly, do the best we can with what follows. We take pride—rightly—in what we’re able to accomplish.  Nevertheless, few—perhaps none—of us are entirely self-reliant. We operate from the platforms of possibility that other people have established for us.  We rely on social networks. We depend on the kindness, or at least the trusting support, of others. And some of us have resource systems that are much more expansive than those possessed by others.

            Would a society based entirely on self-reliance be a good thing? Certainly, the “achievement” society has its virtues. It honors hard work and persistence—in school, work, and other fields of accomplishment. It bestows esteem—and not infrequently, money—on those who realize their ambitions. The achievement ethic motivates people to have more than they have now, be more than they are currently. Arguably, there is an excitement that comes from the prospect of social mobility. Many of us have big dreams that are modeled for us by the quasi-real people celebrated in the media. A society of this sort lives for the future. Few of us look back. Each day is expected to be different from another.

            People in traditional or “ascribed” societies, or so we believe, do not have such exalted ambitions. They try to get through their days in an orderly way, take what satisfactions they can. They find pleasure in the small moments of life. For weightier meanings, they look to the great traditions connecting them to a sacred past. Sometimes their religions encourage them to ponder the prospects of eternity, made pleasing by their absence of striving.   

            Pointedly such peoples tend to possess certain qualities—call them virtues—that we lack. They acknowledge the importance of the people around them. They accept responsibility to such groups as part of life’s bargain. They have a clear sense of who they are. They know whom they can count on and whom they cannot. Rituals of companionship and worship, sometimes in openly public settings, are profound elements of life.

            Our “achievement” ethic, if realized fully, would accelerate the mad scrambling of contemporary existence. Dreams of success would remain in place, but fears of falling/failing would increase. In a world so conceived, other people (perhaps even our own extended families) are not to be trusted. After all, such people want the same positions we want. If we already possess those valued positions, they want to take them from us. Everyone does what it takes to get ahead. In its wilder versions, individualism destabilizes groups.

            There are other problems of the privately manufactured self. When people depend on themselves alone, there are no solid, broadly accepted standards for personal realization. What people make, they can just as easily take down.  Life goals, and the social relationships that accompany these, are assembled and disassembled. After all, it is the act of invention and not the invention itself that matters. Ultimately, what a society of this sort worships is personal capability; even the sacred surrenders to the scheming impulse. 

            Standing apart—whether at the top or bottom—is a kind of loneliness. Existence has no resting point, only the ceaseless plotting of advantage. One is never good enough, never has enough. And everything can be lost, in an instant, to covetous others.  

            I’ve portrayed such issues in the extreme here. Real people live in the middle ground between self-promotion and social support. And because we do so, we should be wary of those who claim to be self-made, who tout themselves as the emblems of accomplishment. Those prominent others simply disregard the support they’ve had. And the vision they hold out to the rest of us is as dangerous as it is fanciful.