The Myth of the Self-Made Man

Growing up, I was told inspiring stories of self-made billionaires—people who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, who had absolutely nobody and nothing to rely on but themselves, and were eventually able to overcome a vicious cycle of poverty.

I find that an absolute lie.

It is a harmful lie, and not just because it paints this false narrative that everybody has equal opportunity in the world, but because it disregards and willfully ignores all of the help we all give and receive from each other.

After returning to Portland, I visited some old friends at College Possible, the organization that helped me apply to college and helped me get to where I am today. This chance encounter led me to the state capitol, where I helped them request more funding from the state to expand the program and coach an even broader range of students.

During these past few weeks, I’ve also been looking at my resume, reviewing my list of accomplishments and past work. In looking at this sheet, which distills my life’s work into one 8.5 by 11 inch page, I realized that none of these accomplishments are mine—

That is to say, none of these accomplishments are mine alone.

I graduated high school, not solely by my own virtue, but by the virtue of my teachers and my family. I did not get into college merely because of my own accomplishments, but because I had mentors who helped me prepare my application. Even now, as I write this blog, I would not have been able to share these thoughts if it were not for the library’s public internet access, funded by taxes, and for the web server, which is graciously donated by a friend. Going back even further, this set of opportunities would not be within my reach if I had been born in another country, if I had a different family, or if I had never been born at all.

Perhaps that is too far, too abstract, too difficult to conceive of. Bringing things back to the present, there is no task that I have completed which I can credit myself for. There is no skill I can do, nothing that I own, that was not taught or passed onto me from somebody else. This body of mine is a gift from my parents, this laptop I am typing on is the creation of some factory (probably in China), and the air I breathe a precious gift from the lush greenery that surrounds me.

When we lead ourselves to believe that those who are successful reached that success due to their own individual capabilities, it ignores the complex, interwoven network which ties us together in this vast universe.

For the past few years, my approach to life has been to simply walk the next step in front of me, to merely do the next right thing. One thing will lead to the next, and without calculating too much, it has led me to limitless, unimaginable opportunities and experiences. In turn, these experiences shape who I am, who I become, and my next step leads from the previous.

As I think of my next step, I believe I will spend the next chapter of my life in Portland to repay the kindnesses my mentors and teachers have bestowed upon me. I do not believe that spending a few months, or even a few years here will fully repay the kindness I have received, but after that, perhaps I will move to some other place and inspire others, just as my teachers have inspired me. In the mean time, I will continue to learn and improve, with the hopes that a wider range of capabilities will provide me more skills to use when others are in distress.

To say that one is a self-made man is to say that one owes nothing to the community from which one is created. No matter how resourceful, how brilliant, how skilled one may be, the resources and brilliance one draws from is not innate—it comes from the kindness of others.