The myth of the self-made man (or woman)

In my opinion, it is a myth. It is a myth that has existed for too long, and caused far more harm than good. It is a belief that is not consistent with reality and caused many wonderful individuals to live in frustration and constant disappointment with themselves.

The idea of a self-made man (or woman for that matter) stems from the belief that we are in complete control of our lives. It is a perspective that aims to provide hope and optimism for the future by convincing oneself that life is predictable and rationale. For example:

  • Hard work always equals a promotion.
  • Good people always get credit.
  • Humanity is always moving forward toward a brighter, better future.
  • Poor people always have a way out.
  • Long terms plans always stick, with the right determination.
  • Passion always equals excellence.
  • Exercise always equals a healthy heart and long life.

The reality, as we all know, is not so cut and dry. My fiancé and I learnt this lesson the hard way. Despite being just 2 weeks from our wedding, neither of us had a full-time job and we had yet to choose an apartment to move into after the honeymoon.

Of course, this was not by design. Our perfectly laid plans had fallen through. Our expectations have been reevaluated. Our life blueprint smudged by reality. We have learned the hard way that life doesn’t always follow the rhythms and flows that we might like. But we’re learning that it’s OK.

It’s OK because we still have each other. It’s OK because the unexpected can often be better than the planned. It’s OK because life is too short to stress over every twist and turn – and man, there can be plenty of those.

Now, I won’t go so far to say that life is entirely uncontrollable. That is obviously untrue. You see it all the time – athletes who train their bodies over many grueling months and win gold medals. Teachers who prepare for many years in school and continue growing to become effective teachers. And even students who put in the hard work and reap the benefit of good grades and even greater opportunities.

Life is a mixed bag.

Sometimes you get what you deserve and other times you catch a bad break. The best way to live, in my opinion, is responsibly – but without taking yourself too seriously.

It’s good to study hard and learn a lot in school, but if you are more concerned with grades… you’re just one bad test away from disappointment. On the other hand, if learning is a journey, there are no setbacks – only progress. Learning is something you can do everyday because it doesn’t hinge on externalities beyond your control.


Q: Why is the self-made man/Woman a myth?

A: The idea of a “self-made” man is mythical on two accounts. First, it assumes that the world is entirely malleable to our wills. In reality, there are  many factors beyond our control. A large part of our life is influenced by chance and pre-determined factors (birth place, family, genetics…).

Secondly, none of us live, work or play in a vacuum. Our successes (and failures) are influenced by those around us. Our thoughts and inspirations are built off of those who came before us – we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Q: If we tell our kids that they can’t control everything, isn’t that limiting there ambition? Won’t they start slacking off in school and not caring about hard work and success?

A: No. While it’s true that they can’t control everything, they can influence many things. By studying and paying attention in school, they can learn and increase their knowledge.

They can become more well rounded citizens and active members of their communities. There are no guaranteed outcomes, but there are still paths that must be chosen.

Q: Even if control is an illusion, isn’t it one that best serves society? Hasn’t it spurred ambition and fueled growth as “self-made” people have strived to make the world a better place?

A: Yes and No. The illusion of control has caused many talented people to strive even harder to achieve great things. Most end up (at some point) realizing that life can’t be molded like clay in a potter’s hand – but along the way they do accomplish many great things.

The thing is, they could do these great things even without the image of the “self-made” man driving their ambition. Simply acknowledging that the world is an unpredictable, and often uncontrollable place, does not mean that we flounder helplessly about.

It means we accept these bumps, and twists, and changes in plan as they arrive. It means we learn to be content with the present despite it not being quite as we imagined.

Q: Yes, but aren’t you describing a world where achievement is replaced by contentment?

A: Well there are many things that motivate people to wake up each morning and be there best self. It’s true that destroying this myth might cause some people to lose motivation temporarily. It’s scary to realize that we are small people in a big world – an uncontrollable one at that.

But they will soon learn to enjoy work and personal growth for the joy that it brings in itself. They will enjoy hard work, for hard work’s sake – and not for the sake of personal achievement or what it can bring us.

The benefits of “losing” control

Of course, we have not really lost control – we never had it in the first place. But acknowledging that our plans are written in sand and that we cannot achieve anything without the help of others can bring much freedom and contentment.

Here are just a few of the benefits:

1. Less headaches trying to control the uncontrollable.

2. More freedom to explore life as it comes instead of constantly striving to fight change.

3. Less planning for the future. Instead, be fully present in the moment and guided by your most important values.

4. Less guilt when things don’t turn out as expected.

As I’ve said, “losing” control does not mean abandoning responsibility or even not caring about the outcome of events. Far from it. Rather, it means coming to the realization that we cannot really control anything. We are merely influencers in a big exciting world of possibilities, complications, intricacies, and surprises.

What does that mean for us?

It means doing our best, and taking more time to enjoy the journey, the process, rather than getting too caught up in exactly how things turn out. The destination might be far greater than you ever imagined.