Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

Summer is the time for TV reruns. The time for sitting through stuff you would never otherwise watch. One Friday night about a month ago, that is what happened to me. My wife was at a conference, nothing on Netflix or Hulu looked appealing, so I ended up watching "Shark Tank" on ABC. What actually drew me in was the announcer's introduction describing the "Sharks" as "self-made filthy-rich investors."

For the 4th of July, I wrote about the American Dream, and a recent Time magazine cover story on the subject. One of the great themes of this dream was highlighted by a quote in that article: "We are a nation of self-made men." America is the land where desire and work ethic alone can create success, where I am truly the master of my destiny. It is a powerful myth. It is also a complete and utter fantasy.

None of us are self-made. It is a ludicrous idea. We all have parents, relatives, friends, teachers, mentors, and even rivals who shape us while we are young. Our desire and work ethic do not just spontaneously spring up out of thin air, they are molded by our experiences. We receive help from others at every stage of our life's journey. These "Sharks" all had employees, suppliers, and especially customers who were integral to their business success. None of them did it entirely on their own.

Perhaps the "filthy-rich" part of the "Shark Tank" intro is unwittingly insightful. There is, after all, something quite "filthy" about the self-made myth. It lets us turn a blind eye to our dependency on others, and our corresponding obligation towards them. It allows us to pretend that life is not a cosmic lottery, and that we are in control of the results. Most importantly, we get to ignore the fact that we are creations of someone greater, and that all we have is a gift to be shared, not property to be owned.