Monday, April 15, 2019

The Self-Made Myth

“I’ve been on food stamps and welfare. Did anybody help me out? No, No.” Craig T. Nelson, actor

Americans love their Horatio Alger stories. Written in the late 19th century, these are the stories of the singular individual overcoming obstacles, surmounting disadvantages, often from lowly beginnings, toiling out of view, yet rising to personal accomplishments and success. These multiple stories came to serve as inspirational motivators and icons embedded in our shared cultural framework. The lonely western cowboy standing watch over his herd; the Mercury astronaut circling the globe; the tinkerer crafting revolutionary inventions in his/her garage; the unseen student studying in the library to earn that elusive scholarship. “Pulling one up by their bootstraps” is the opportunity that still lives proudly in America.

Persons who succeed beyond their starting point, who contribute significantly to the betterment of their community, that advance through hard work performed within an ethical focus, are certainly worthy of admiration. But to say that that person is “self-made,” that s/he did it “all on my own,” is not only false in every case, but is also dangerous. Dangerous to the individual; dangerous to the community in which s/he lives.

It may sometimes seem that some of our good fortune is simply an “accident” of time, place and circumstances (although spiritually we might question how much the Universe may have had a hand in our outcomes). In these instances, the accomplishment appears to be an in-the-moment event to which it was necessary for one to be responsive.

Yet in most circumstances, our seemingly singular accomplishments are the direct outcome of the relationships and interactions that others have had with us over the course of our lifetime. When we stop and examine the people and events of our life that brought us to this place we now occupy (mentally and physically), we no longer see it as a series of isolated events. Events that are unconnected to each other, distracting us into unexpected and/or undesirable side ventures. Rather, these events and people – of a forgettable instant or a lifetime memory – all served to put us on that path, to open the doors that showed the way. Charles Lindberg flying solo across the Atlantic in his small, single-prop plane “The Spirit Of St. Louis”; John Glen circling the globe alone in his space capsule; Thomas Edison toiling solitarily in his lab trying over and over again to find just the right element to realize his idea of an “electric light” – each had legions of people that brought them to that moment or stood in support of their unique endeavor.

One of the early lessons in our career life is the discovery that almost no one “gets ahead” on his/her own. Simply being “head down” in the workplace, producing good quality work, rarely by itself moves one to that next step of opportunity. It is from being noticed for that work that doors begin to open, opened by someone who decided to take interest in our skills, our situation, our as-yet unfilled promise. Someone who possibly saw more in us than we saw in ourselves.

Perhaps that someone gave us part of our education. Or financing to start our new venture. Or promoted us into a position of greater responsibility and visibility. We may aspire to be a CEO of a major business. Yet in truth that CEO sitting in a corner office on the top floor is charged only with a) making certain strategic decisions, and b) hiring the “right people” to carry out those decisions. It is the person at the cash register in the local store, the receptionist answering the phone, the salesperson who knocks on a buyer’s door, the shop floor worker who assembles the product, the truck driver who delivers the product, and the construction worker who built the roads those trucks drive over – these are the people who determine whether the CEO’s decisions are successful or not.

We are certainly entitled to pat ourselves on the back for any hard work, dedication, and creativity we have contributed to “our” accomplishment. To have been one of those who sought to lead our life rather than react passively to it. But our contribution is given alongside all the other contributors that ultimately dictate our life’s outcome. In humility, we remember that our self-made life is, in fact, created through the supportive efforts of many sharing, collective selves. Including those people unseen and unknown to us that were willing to provide us with food stamps and welfare checks when we may have needed them.

“When you drink the water, remember who dug the well.”  Zen saying

©  2019   Randy Bell