Debunking the “Self-Made” Myth | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

What exactly does it mean to be "self-made?" Art by Julia Lim.

Research shows that to achieve any level of success, it’s almost impossible to do it on your own.



During a U.S. Senate hearing in the 1840s, Henry Clay coined the term “self-made” to refer to those who have “found success within themselves.” Since then, the term continues to be tossed around. An Instagram bio states, “I am SELF-MADE” while headlines scream, “This CEO is self-made!” But the more the phrase is examined, the less the concept of a person being “self-made” makes sense.

In the 2012 book “The Self-Made Myth” authors Mike Lapham and Brian Miller define self-made as “the false assertion that individual and business success are entirely the result of the hard work, creativity, and sacrifice of the individual with little outside assistance.” 

How can a person achieve success without any form of collaboration or reliance on another? Spoiler alert: they can’t. No successful person can singlehandedly “make it” without numerous aiding factors involving privilege, community, and collaboration.


The privilege it takes

In 2019, Forbes crowned Kylie Jenner as the youngest self-made billionaire. But right off the bat, anyone who knows the Kardashians understands that Jenner’s success could not have been achieved wholly on her own.

Jenner comes from a family with millions in wealth while also having access to networks and connections the average person her age doesn’t have. To call Jenner a self-made billionaire is the same as calling Tesla CEO Elon Musk self-made, when he himself hails from a family so abundant in wealth, he once told Business Insider they “couldn’t physically close a safe.”

Kylie Jenner Forbes
Image courtesy: Forbes

The more we push the concept of being self-made, the more we push the implication that hard work automatically guarantees success. This begs the question: why are some of the most hardworking people still at the bottom of the food chain? 

We don’t all start out on an equal playing field. In reality, an endless number of factors like time, privilege, opportunity (and even luck) play a big role in why hard work won’t always equate to success. Recognizing these factors as instrumental to how some people seem so easily successful can help in demystifying the false sense of hope the self-made myth instills within us. 

Generational wealth and privilege aside, even our favorite stories on the “self-made” entrepreneur require more context: who helped them along the way, and who continue to do so?

Collaboration and giving credit where credit is due

The myth of the “self-made man” proposes a sense of rugged individualism, while discouraging the necessity for collaboration and cooperation. 

While anecdotes on the success of individual efforts are admirable and inspiring, these stories should be taken with a grain of salt. As straightforward as these stories may seem, they often fail to include the community of allies who made these success stories possible.

If anything, such blatant omission only exudes their overwhelming desire for personal glorification. It only showcases a lack of humility, an inability to acknowledge the contributions of the others that helped them get where they are.


The true reality of the “self-made”

Achieving any level of success will always require some form of reliance on someone that isn’t you. To take all the credit and call yourself “self-made” is to turn your back on the people that helped you get to where you are, no matter how small the contribution. 

The truth is, we’ve always been part of a greater collective and we’ve always been learning from people outside of ourselves. Our parents, our teachers, our friends, our partners, and our mentors; there will always come a time when we require the aid of another. As someone that has worked with small businesses and start-ups, I’ve been a constant witness to the vitality of community and allyship it takes to not only achieve success, but to strive and flourish in more ways than one. 

Success, in the many different forms it appears in, requires a balance of individual grit and a recognition of one’s part in the collective. “Self-made” doesn’t exist. For true success to manifest, it is necessary to recognize the many players in our communities that can help take us to heights we could never have imagined on our own. 

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