Friday, March 07, 2008

Self-Made Men and Other Myths

(News-Herald, March 6) I am tired of self-made men. I am tired of people grunting, “Well, nobody gave me anything. I’m a completely self-made man.”Well, no, no, you’re not.

I don’t for a moment discount the value and importance of hard work and good decisions. Life provides an endless supply of opportunities to choose wisely, or not. Everybody who ever lived has gone through a phase in which they refuse to make those choices, or make the choices and insist that they get the results they want no matter what choice they make. Everybody goes through that phase, but then they have their sixth birthday and, in the vast majority of cases, start to grow out of it.

Those people who still want to make bad choices without consequences, who want to take eat the meal but not pay the bill—those people desperately need to grow up.

People who have succeeded in life usually do so because they make smart choices, accept sacrifice when needed, see available options that other miss, and leverage their talents and passions into meaningful achievements. They work hard, make wise decisions, and put energy into their lives.

They deserve a great deal of credit and recognition. The accolades that they receive, the success and recognition they collect is well-earned and much to their credit.

But they are not self-made.

I don’t care who you are, what you’ve achieved, how much you’ve clawed your way up from the bottom, there is still a long list of factors outside your control that share the credit for your success.

Let’s start with the presence of a stable government in a peaceful society. A John D. Rockefeller who lives in a country where either rapacious government officials or angry poor folks with pointy sticks can take away everything-- that is a John D. Rockefeller whose great success will simply never occur.

You live in a country where you never have to worry about how you’ll get where you want to go or how you’ll talk to whoever needs talking to. Having food to eat and water to drink and power to run a houseful of gadgets are concerns that barely register on the consciousness and take little time or effort. I doubt that you have a hand in providing anything close to all of that yourself. At best, you pay other people to take care of that, and you can only do THAT because you live in a country where a stable economic system makes such transactions totally routine.

And we haven’t even scratched the surface.

Your health is somewhat under your control, but if you draw the short straw in cancer roulette, that’s out of your hands. If you’ve never had your life derailed by catastrophic illness or disease, that has nothing to do with how virtuous or hard-working or deserving you are. You can call it the grace of God or you can call it sheer dumb luck, but don’t pretend you somehow earned it. Plenty of folks have been hit by the hard health hammer through no fault of their own.

You don’t get to take any of the credit for whatever end of the gene pool produced you. A quick twist of a dna molecule here and there and you would have been born half as strong or twice as dumb.

And while we’re talking about grace and luck, let’s talk about all the stupid things you’ve done in your life that, fortunately or gracefully, did not result in a life-changing consequence. That’s not because you’ve worked so hard, either.

I won’t minimize for a second the lifetime of hard work, sacrifice, and good decisions that have brought you to where you are. People who don’t make the most of what they have, who don’t make the effort, who don’t keep plugging away at turning their lives into something—many of those people end up with problems that they have foisted on themselves.

But if you want to tell me you’re a self-made success story, I disagree. And if you want to tell me that you don’t owe anybody anything, I say that you are full of malarkey.

Given a whole day, you could never list all the people whose lives and works have made your success possible. Nor could you list every turn at which misfortune could have derailed your life, no matter how great your efforts and determination.

The very least we owe our country and community and universe and Creator is gratitude for the chance to become who we have become. The very least that such gratitude should awaken is a sense of responsibility to use our gifts wisely, and a sense of respect and responsibility for our fellow travelers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As usual, I find myself in general agreement with your POV, but I wonder - who are the "self-made" folks whose hubris pushed your buttons?

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