The Myth of “a Self-made Man”

Many first-generation successful people across the world are often showered with the typical “Oh, he is a self-made man. We are so proud of him.” This typically happens with people who have not had a family history of ‘success’ in the same field. This showering of praise makes people start getting accustomed to it, and actually believing it.

THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A TRULY SELF-MADE MAN in this world. So, if there is nothing like purely self-made, what’s going on? Who are achievers then? Are their achievements not worth celebrating?

I think we are all mere reflections of sum total of all effort that has gone into our making by tens, or maybe hundreds of other individuals who are part of our lives. Our family, relatives, community and friends. Each one of them shapes a certain part of our personality, and without knowing it, we start owning it as if “we” built it in the first place! These individuals who affect our lives, are in turn, a product of many more such individuals who affected them, and so on. It’s a really long chain!

What kind of efforts go into the shaping of us, as human beings? The four most important factors are:

1. Aggregate Human Evolution Effort – Unknown lacs of humans have lived and died before us, and their entire learnings have gotten codified in some or the other format into us. Yes, “into us”. There are two basic ways this codification happens – genes, and memes. Genes are the biological tools through which eons of cumulative group learning of mankind is passed onto the coming generations .. so like it or not – your parents’ genes that were passed onto you, had eons of wisdom gathered at the cost of millions of human lives. Similarly, cultural learnings that are passed onto us, are memes. They are as profound, if not more, than genes. So we find that right from birth, we are inescapably tied to our past – and our personalities and character have strong links to everything that’s preceded us. Interestingly, this “toll tax” paid by humanity through the deaths of millions of humans by diseases (over millennia) has resulted in the fantastic immune system we carry within our bodies. [ a good reference : the movie “War of the worlds” ]

2. Deep Cultural Impact – We did not invent the alphabet, did we? Someone else did. That “someone” was not “one”, but “a society” or “a series of societies”. All we are doing today is enjoying the rich dividends of not being born at that point in time in history when the alphabet was still evolving. We have inherited the refined and fully evolved alphabet from our forefathers and we start learning it, from KG standards. Imagine your situation if you had no alphabet to learn in your early years, but were told to invent one (gasp!). 99% of us would have died illiterate! So, full credit for this advantage that is conferred upon us goes to our ancestors, and not us. (I use the word Deep to connote the immensity of time that it took to develop). Yes, this logic naturally can be extended further, and we can clearly see that a hundred years from now, our grand-grand-children will be enjoying the fruits of our labour – imagine what Facebook and Google would have evolved into by then, and just visualise what medical science would have become by then! Do you really think you will want our grand-grand-children to take full credit of science and technology’s state of affairs as it will exist then?

3. Deep Scientific Impact – The alphabet and the seemingly basic cultural memes are elementary tools that help us stand up in modern society as “humans”. But there are refined versions of these tools, like scientific theories and facts that help us evolve really fast as “modern complex humans” able to live in a technological society. You may take pride in your scores and marks in the school tests and college exams, but who designed the theories you are using so effortlessly? Did you invent ANY ONE of these? Or even a part of any one of these? NO. It’s a one-in-a-million chance that YOU will invent/discover anything of lasting value to mankind. Yes, your contribution will help things improve incrementally, but chances are rare that you will do something that totally changes things. Our wonder lies in our cumulative wisdom, the sparks amongst us that illuminate everyone around, howsoever mediocre. Albert Einstein famously said – “All I have done is stand on the shoulders of giants who came before me and look farther afield than would have been possible had I done it all by myself.” Could Google have existed without the alphabet, the University system, the decimal system, the microprocessors, the legal system, and the pioneers of the algorithms?

4. Immediate Societal Acceptance – no man (and woman) is anything or anybody unless the existing society accepts his/her creation and applauds it. So the brutal truth is – no matter how good you think you are, if others do not think so, and express so, you are a nobody! So who makes whom here? Are we making “ourselves” or are others making us? Anyone rude enough to feel he has made his own destiny, is missing the whole point. Steve Jobs was the king of the corporate world only because we thought he is uber-cool, not because he thought so.

From the Egyptian pyramids to the massive Harappan civilisation, and Alexander’s conquests to the European Renaissance.. our destiny is tied with this inner urge to strive. And the “achievers” amongst us those who have this sense of striving exhibited publicly the strongest. Yes, if we agree with what’s written here, then we will surely feel a “different sense” of accomplishment every time now. We will not ascribe all our success to ourselves, but to the “collective ourselves”, and that’ll be a good idea, given the modern context of global cynicism and chaos!