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There Is No Such Thing as a “Self-Made” Man

It takes more than hard work to become highly successful. Without adequate support, for many the risks are too great.

If you trace the careers and business ventures of successful men and women, many have one thing in common: they had support.

Very few people become successful entirely on their own. We all need help. Arnold Schwarzenegger emigrated to the US with $20 in his pocket. As a young, broke bodybuilder it was his friends that helped him get on his feet.

Arnold was lucky. Many people in his situation – regardless of talent – would not have experienced his success. He could have easily ended up as a personal trainer or supplements salesperson. He could have had a pretty average job and pretty average life, like most of us.

Perhaps the support from his friends made all the difference in his life. Support can help open doors for people, but the true benefit isn’t the opportunity that is created, it’s the safety net that’s provided.

Imagine for a second that you won the lottery but decided to keep working. Assuming you retained a sense of professionalism, how would your behaviour at work change? You’d probably be a lot more bold and take more calculated risks. Money is a safety-net that enables one to push beyond the safety zone. Of course, this is exactly what’s needed to become highly successful.

Most people I know who have led successful careers or built great businesses were not self-made. In fact, they had a lot more support than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most of them came from middle-class families, at a minimum. Many had their educations fully-funded – thus, didn’t graduate immediately into indentured servitude. Most had early career breaks or internships opened up by family members. Alternatively, if they created a business their first clients were family and family friends.

Starting early in life, their parents taught them how to succeed, gave their first breaks and, most importantly, if all else failed provided a financial back-stop. These people could take calculated career or entrepreneurial risks and know they would always have a bed to sleep in and table to eat at.

Unfortunately, few of these people recognize their privilege. I have friends who think they were self-made, yet lived in apartments paid for by their parents, had access to whatever they needed (e.g. computers, working space, cars) and could ask for money whenever needed. Almost everyone I know who had that level of support is now highly successful, either at a big corporation or as a business owner.

In contrast, I know plenty of people who were literally on their own from high school. They had minimal parental guidance, zero financial support and no fall-back. In other words, past a certain age, if they screwed up they would be homeless.

Everyone I know who had this kind of foundation is middle-class at best. Most lack confidence and have had to struggle to overcome hurdles just to keep their heads above water. Few were brave enough (or stupid enough?) to take career or business risks, instead sticking to a working class lifestyle to quickly become self-sufficient. Some were lucky enough to become middle class professionals by following well-worn paths such as accountancy, law or medicine.

In this sense, I agree with Arnold’s premise that there’s no such thing as a self-made man. So next time you compare yourself with someone more successful, bolder or more confident remember they probably got there because they had a lot of help dating back to a well-supported childhood.

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