Breaking The Myth Of Being Self-Made

Are people capable of actually understanding what led to their success?

Breaking The Myth Of Being Self-Made
Photos: Jag_cz via Shutterstock

So why are we so myopic when thinking about our own success and why do we project this point of view on others? How has the idea of hard work become so prevalent that we have developed blinders to so many other factors?


Some could suggest it’s a cultural thing. After all it is relatively unique to Americans. We are the land of pioneers and go-getters, so we frame our story in this context. Others would say it goes even further back to the ideals of Puritanism and Calvinism where hard work is chief among virtues. And yet others would suggest a more selfish and modern interpretation. Americans are more self-centered, so naturally they would see success through a frame that centered around self-determination.

Rooted in each of these is the distinction between what we actually experience and what we ultimately remember. Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Daniel Kahneman, articulated these two selves in his research summarized in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. If we reflect back on our own lives, there may be times when we “experienced” excruciating pain but our remembering self may instead recall the humorous circumstances surrounding them and therefore recall the pain as less than it really was. So as we go about our lives, our actual experiences will matter less to “who we are” than to how we internalize these experiences as part of our “remembering self.” The “remembering self” dominates how we see ourselves and our lives–including stories about how we achieved success.

As Kahneman writes, “Odd as it may seem. I am my remembering self, and my experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”


This serves as a revelatory explanation for why two people who share similar life experiences that lead them to similar levels of success can see their paths so differently. It isn’t the path that matters. It’s how they remember that path.


In his blog, best-selling author, entrepreneur and my neighbor Seth Godin had this to write about myths:

“In fact, The War of the Worlds did not cause mass hysteria when it first aired. It was a story fanned by radio-fearing tabloid newspapers.

In fact, Pam (eBay founder Pierre’s wife) did not need a place to buy and sell Pez dispensers. This is a tale invented by a PR person and repeated by tech-phobic journalists eager for a simple story.

In fact, Columbus wasn’t surrounded by flat-earth believing denialists before he ‘discovered’ America. This was amplified by Washington Irving (!) in a book that was largely invented without much research.

And George Washington didn’t cut down the cherry tree and Robin Hood didn’t do all those cool tricks in green tights.

The media isn’t the one that needs a narrative… we do. We need to make sense of what’s around us, not just the true things that really happened, but the fictional ones that we know didn’t.

All this myth making reminds us just how strongly wired we are to believe in things that both make sense and feel right. They feel right because of who told us, and when. Culture creates reality.”

At an event my organization hosted on the topic of the American Dream, Isabel Sawhill, a nationally known budget expert and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, echoed this sentiment when talking about why people don’t buy that social mobility is more limited in America than the American Dream story suggests. “People need to believe this is true. They need to believe that if they work hard, they can make it. And it’s healthy and positive that they have that belief, even if reality suggests otherwise. After all, what’s the alternative?”



Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horatio Alger were born nearly 30 years apart in towns separated by only 20 miles in Concord and Chelsea, Massachusetts, respectively. And both are probably rolling in their graves over how their legacies have been so badly misappropriated. Emerson and “American Self-Reliance” have become synonymous terms.

His words and quotes have often been used to reinforce the pioneering, go-it-alone, rugged heroism associated with early America. And by extension, his words have been co-opted to reinforce the idea that all Americans have a personal responsibility to themselves, for themselves. But the same sage who once said, “Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you,” also said, “Make yourself necessary to somebody.” Similarly in Ragged Dick (1868), and many of the other stories penned by Horatio Alger, a young boy (Dick) was able to “pull himself up by his bootstraps” to achieve the American Dream despite a dire situation facing him. The “Horatio Alger Story” is one of the predominant and lasting American narratives.

The only problem is that many have reinterpreted this, and other stories like it, in such a way as to lose much of the original meaning. They are now used to suggest a literal “rags to riches” story where, through sheer hard work and determination, one can amass great wealth and success. What is lost is a concern for others that was always a central theme in his stories. The net definition of success wasn’t extreme wealth, but a middle-class place in society and a good reputation. Additionally, in almost all Horatio Alger stories, the protagonist is aided by a small coterie of friends and strangers who help make his success possible. The themes of self-reliance and personal responsibility as a means to amassing unlimited success is no doubt an appealing story. But it is a simplified narrative that has created an indelible impression among many Americans that there is neither responsibility nor the need to take care of one another, including those most vulnerable among us.



The idea of a “self-made” man or woman cuts to the core of this American ethos. Many suggest that this term goes back to someone who has become the embodiment of the self-made man: Benjamin Franklin. In many respects, Franklin established the enduring recipe of success–hard work, strong values and education. These three elements still top the list of what Americans believe contribute to success, some 250 years later.

Interestingly, Franklin dismissed things such as luck or relationships as critical to ones rise. Yet both played significant roles in his own.

Years later, Frederick Douglass echoed Franklin’s formula. One he too embodied. In 1895, he delivered a powerful lecture called “Self-Made Men.” In it, he offered up a definition predicated on work.


“My theory of self-made men is, then, simply this; that they are men of work. Whether or not such men have acquired material, moral or intellectual excellence, honest labor faithfully, steadily and persistently pursued, is the best, if not the only, explanation of their success.”

Later he dismissed luck and material assistance as inconsequential. What’s most fascinating though is that in the very beginning of his speech, he seemingly contradicted himself.

“Properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men.”


Going on to add later:

“It must in truth be said though it may not accord well with self-conscious individuality and self-conceit, that no possible native force of character, and no depth or wealth of originality, can lift a man into absolute independence of his fellow-men, and no generation of men can be independent of the preceding generation.”

So it begs this question of why men like Franklin and Douglass, whose lives and words demonstrated a more nuanced formula of “making it,” so passionately promoted the essential quality of hard work almost to the detriment of everything else.


Consider Douglass’ own words as it relates to the situation of African Americans:

“Give the Negro fair play and let him alone. If he lives, well. If he dies, equally well. If he cannot stand up, let him fall down.”

Sounds a little harsh, right? I guess that depends on how he and we define “fair play.”



I believe in God. It is a personal belief, not explicitly tied to a specific religion although, spiritually, I would consider myself a Christian. I am humble enough to know that there is something much, much larger than myself at play in this world and that I am too small a piece in it to think I know all the answers.

I once heard a novelist say that there are two stories about the world. In one, there is a god who is the protagonist that gets the action rolling. In the other, the action just starts. She prefers the story with the god. As do I.

When it comes to our own personal success, I can’t profess to even have a theory on God’s role. Does He have a preset plan for all of us with each promotion and path set out? Does He have a vested interest in who scores a touchdown, wins an Oscar or gets elected? Seems unlikely to me but if it works for you, then go for it.


What I do know is that the power of belief is strong and vital, perhaps even critical to our own success. Recently, an article written by Eduardo Porter in The New York Times examined the question of mobility through the lens of belief and expectations. In it he discusses the importance of believing that opportunity exists and that the difference in success may come down to whether someone sees a future of economic despair devoid of hope, or one based on a visionary goal – something worth saving themselves.

Our belief systems impact our actions, whether that is belief in a higher power or in ourselves.

So what do you believe about your own potential and from where your success comes?



Placebos are often thought of strictly as a fake medicine, a sugar pill or saline injection. But according to Harvard Medical School’s Ted Kaptchuk, this is all wrong. Instead “the placebo effect is people getting better without active ingredients.” In his work, people see the placebo effect as the result not of any “fake medication” but instead of everything that surrounds the fake treatment. The doctor-patient engagement, the hope and support they receive and feel. All of these “surrounding elements” actually produce a physiological effect where neurotransmitters are released that can in fact change outcomes.

What does this have to do with the American Dream? Maybe everything. Why do some people succeed “without active ingredients?” How do some overcome all odds? This is the beauty of dreams. We live in a culture that supports and pushes forward the American Dream. The steady drumbeat of “you can do it” narratives surrounds the fake treatment of failed support systems and limited opportunities. Is it possible that the idea of the American Dream isn’t a sugar pill that cynics say distorts us from wider systemic change, but instead is a mystifying placebo effect that changes outcomes for some which would otherwise defy logic?