In the spirit of Labor Day, I want to take on one of those subjects that our society glorifies and idealizes every day. It’s this idea of a so-called self-made man. We idolize everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Sam Walton (founder of WalMart) for being penultimate success stories who started from humble beginnings. Our media’s most savvy commentators trip all over each other when they find the time to discuss America’s favorite stories of success. Rarely do they forget to remind us of the importance of hard work, that without it we are all to blame for our individual failures and our lots in life.
Except that the idea of the self-made man isn’t true at all. Everyone who “makes it” has had some help along the way. Benjamin Franklin’s family might not have owned slaves or a plantation. But between his colonial family members in Philly and Boston (not to mention hard work), Franklin became a colonial American success. Sam Walton, like so many of today’s self-made men, did have some help from the Federal government, otherwise known as America’s corporate welfare system.
I don’t discount the reality that people like Franklin and Walton worked hard, and in Walton’s case, literally to death to get where they ended up. Their hard work, though, was smart work, strategic work, calculated work meant to involve others as role players in their larger vision. It wasn’t sheer hard work. If that was the case, millions more of us could say that we’ve “made it” based on working two or more jobs or working in mines or factories or working for evil bosses.
Plus, the self-made man myth is sexist and devalues the work of so-called ordinary Americans. Plenty of women have achieved greatness without even half the help that men like Franklin and Walton ended up getting in their march to success. For most of us male and female whose backgrounds are considerably more humble than those that our society typically puts on a pedestal, even we recognize that without someone in our corner at one time or another, we wouldn’t be who were are today. My life is as close to “doing it on my own” as anyone’s. Yet to say that I’m a self-made man would be a boldfaced lie. The dozen or so teachers, friends, mentors and the occasional kind stranger are the difference between me working on publishing Boy At The Window and being an embittered thirty-seven-year-old or not being here at all.
Success isn’t as easy to define as our press and media make it. It’s about much more than making enough money to buy an island or charming the pants off of heads of state or the press. It’s about achieving dreams, having friends, family, and lovers worth loving and living life with. It’s about knowing when and where hard work is required and when to just chill and relax. It’s about living the life that’s meant for you. While many may be beloved and remembered by media types because they’ve dedicated their lives to building an empire of success, laboring to emulate that kind of success can make our lives so much poorer than they otherwise should be.