I can’t remember the first time I heard the phrase “self-made man” – a concept so embedded in our culture and language that I grew up taking it for granted.
Later in life, the assumptions of the myth started to grate – especially because those assumptions don’t work as well for women as the do for men.
Working with leaders in business I’ve come across believers and cynics alike when it comes to this myth but it’s the casualties that worry me most: people (especially women) driven to exhaustion or worse because they believed their future was solely in their own hands.
Take a closer look at the annual Forbes 400 list and you’ll find most of the richest individuals in the world describe themselves as “self-made” despite the fact that almost all of them benefited from inherited wealth.
The myth of the “self-made” millionaire is built on an assumption that we live in a meritocracy. Even the Economist has long since given up on that myth!
This is why I was so surprised to discover that the term was invented by Frederick Douglass, the social reformer, abolitionist and prolific writer who escaped slavery and worked tirelessly for the rights of black people in America.
In his original meaning, the idea applied to those who by hard work and perseverance managed to escape poverty. It was only in the 20th century that the term took on its meaning of success in business.
No person is self-made. We are all dependent on others to become a person.
Growing up in South Africa, I learned this from Bishop Desmond Tutu who regularly drew attention to the African proverb “We are through other people,” as a way to remind people that solidarity and community is fundamental to the making of healthy individuals.