This essay is not going to retread the same old analyses of what it means to be self-made, or a man, or indeed a self-made man. There are plenty of online essays affirming the belief that to be a self-made man is to be the “master of your destiny” or, according to the Art of Manliness to have had “[attained] success through education, hard work, and sheer willpower.” However, I believe that the point in history we find ourselves in both deserves and demands more than that. You deserve more than that.
I realize that challenging ideas of success or manhood, and how the two are linked- on the internet, of all places- is playing with fire… but at the same time, playing with fire is stereotypically manly as fuck, right? I hope you can stick with me in the spirit of inquiry. As Alice S Rossi wrote, “To avoid intellectual sterility, it is wise to periodically reexamine our most deeply held presuppositions.”
Pick an object. Any object in the room, coffee house, library or form of public transport you’re currently in. It can be the device you’re reading this from, the table in front of you, the clothes you’re wearing or the food you’re eating. Who made it? How many people were involved in making it? Consider the person that planted the crop, or felled the tree. The people that mined the raw materials or processed the textile.
Then consider the transport system that took those items to their next step. There are people that loaded the boat or train. There were designers and advertisers that branded it and convinced you to buy it.
Consider then the people behind the behind-the-scenes. Those who cleared the land necessary infrastructure was built upon, those who designed the machinery, manufactured the parts, managed/coerced the workers to do their tasks, etc.
Let’s go one layer deeper. Consider the people that fed, cared for and educated the aforementioned thousands.
I promise that if you map out this ecosystem of services, care, and exploitation you will be both surprised and will end up with a messy web of pen strokes that will make you look very sophisticated and creative to anyone that glances over at your notebook.
This is even before we look at your personal life:
- Your guardians- whoever they were- without whom you would have starved.
- Your teachers- terrible or fantastic- that helped you realize what you love and hate.
- The people that gave you the opportunities you worked hard to get.
- The millions of hours of labor that went into the media that has inspired or informed you… Nevermind the millions of labor hours behind the art that inspired the art that has inspired you.
Imagine all those people held within a single image. It’s a group photo of you and your support team. You are at the front, barely a few pixels wide.
An online list of the “Top 25 Self-Made Men” is heavily populated with owners of huge corporations, presidents, and industrialists from the previous two centuries. To find this list I first had to scroll past article after article of lists composed entirely of “self-made billionaires”. The “Self-Made Men” that content creators put on these lists gives us a good idea of what the popular imagination defines as self-made, and by implication not self-made.
Interestingly, the Top 25 Self-Made Men list unironically designates Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and investor, as the “epitome of the self-made man” so, let’s use him as a case study. One of Andrew Carnegie’s early big breaks came from investing in the Pennsylvanian railway, from which he made a handsome profit that he used to pave the way for a coal and steel empire.
What I find interesting and troubling about Andrew Carnegie being considered, at least by one writer, as the “epitome of the self-made man”, is how easily the thousands of often immigrant, ill-treated and poorly paid workers; that actually built those railways, mined the coal and manufactured the steel; are excluded from Andrew’s “success”.
This is a trend across all self-made man lists and tells us two useful pieces of information:
- The Self-making narrative is inherently competitive. You only attain the title if you “win”.
- The suffering, exploitation and support roles played by those that facilitated the wealth and power of the self-made man will be ignored and/or erased from history.
If we define self-makery as “doing everything by one’s own hand” we quickly begin to see that it is impossible. We see that those who are held up as self-made figureheads are, hard workers perhaps, but more importantly people that have used the direct or indirect labor of others to create and then maintain their position of power and wealth.
This element of the self-made man mythos places the man at the center of his story. It is this mechanism of thought that perpetuates some of the worst aspects of toxic masculinity: An unwillingness to empathize, a proclivity to speak over others and to not give credit to- or empower- those who work alongside us.
Perhaps some of you feel this is unfair, too reductive. If this is the case and if we wish to hold onto the term (i.e. if we believe it has function or value), we need to uncover a different way of looking at the phrase that might hope to hold up under scrutiny.
Rags-to-Riches, or, Romanticizing Needless Suffering
The rags-to-riches tale is a necessary part of the self-made hero’s journey. It’s not enough to get rich: to be self-made is to have suffered, to have sacrificed and persevered! It is to have lived in your car and gone for at least a month only eating on days of the week that start with the letter T.
It is a requirement that you entertain us with the drama of your story.
We see the embattled hero, down on their luck but through their inner strength and quick wits, they are able to make the choices that snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and despair! It is a fantastic story. No mistake that we often see it turned into Hollywood movies.
This is the “master of their destiny” component of the self-made narrative. If we ignore the behind-the-scenes, cooperative/altruistic and exploitative elements of self-making that seem to quickly invalidate the term, we can perhaps redeem it by finding value in the narrative’s claim that self-guidance and determination is the key to attaining success.
The rags-to-riches story, when not viewed alongside an inspirational cinematic score, is a brutal affair. It consists of someone putting their physical and mental health on the gambling table. It involves the loss of friends and a lack of connection to loved ones. It is a how-to guide on burning out. Running this gauntlet is often, at least in media, a dire requirement to escaping poverty, and I will fault no one for doing just that. However, there is a deep problem of representation on this topic.
We don’t make films about the vast majority who fail, who fall apart, and this blind spot leads to the entitled and dispassionate phrase, “If I/they did it, anyone can”. To paraphrase the critic from Ratatouille, “a great artist can come from anywhere, but not everyone can become a great artist”.
Additionally, we tend not to critically evaluate the emotional cost borne by those who do “make it”- the warping of a worldview that accompanies a personality forged in precarity, scarcity and cutthroat competition. We might want to ask ourselves, what does feeling forced, or compelled out of desperation, to follow the rags-to-riches template do to a person? What does it do to society?
In Western culture, burnout is encouraged. It is seen as a symbol of commitment, rather than a symptom of artificial scarcity, worker abuse, and injustice. The self-help market often turns a blind eye to this issue. It seeks to place the responsibility of massive societal failure on your broad, manly shoulders because of course, it is assumed that you can take it. If you can’t continuously push yourself to the limit and succeed then what sort of man are you? And— you know, I think I actually resonate with this one.
I would consider myself gender non-conforming, but whatever connotations that statement carries one thing is certain: I definitely grew up a boy. I was brought up- thankfully due to my Dad- with a lot of positive male traits (it’s okay to be caring. It’s okay to have emotions. It’s acceptable to clean and cook.) but I was also influenced by my masculine peers and the culture of post-industrial England to “be a man”. Certain traits were ingrained in my upbringing and I can identify with those of you that might see this ever-pushing-forwards as a virtue. It can be a challenge, it can be a rush. It can bring value to your life.
At the same time, in the process of getting ahead, we can easily find ourselves exhausted and isolated from the social networks and communities of care that allow us to be thinking, feeling human beings. If we consider the repression of male emotion as a part of toxic masculinity, we should consider the repression of our ability to play a supportive role, and reap the benefits of social/emotional support in our communities, in much the same way.
The power of the rags-to-riches tale relies on us not questioning the social cost of the widespread failure of our economic and political systems. The often inhuman pressure it puts on our psyche. The toxic ideologies we have to adopt to convince ourselves that it’s worth it. It comes prepackaged with the notion that poverty and injustice are exclusively a personal problem to be solved, not a state of living we should act collectively and decisively to dismantle.
At this point, I would like to make it the utmost clear that I do not believe life can or should be frictionless. I do not believe it should be without aspiration or struggle! These things do bring meaning to our lives. The important distinguishing questions here are what do we really aspire to? What do we struggle for that decisively benefits wider society? What victories do we celebrate, and what does that represent?
In what context do we place our notions of personal success?
I would be interested to know if you have ever heard someone in a caring profession be referred to, or refer to themselves, as self-made. I personally haven’t.
I have never heard a nurse, or A&E doctor, care home worker or teacher proudly tell others about how years of “education, hard work, and sheer willpower” have made them a self-made success; whether or not they came from destitute poverty, had abusive parents, or claim any other essential ingredient of the rags-to-riches narrative.
Why is this?
As the aneurysm inducing lists of “self-made billionaires” attests: You’re not self-made unless you are a success, and by success, of course, we mean: exorbitantly wealthy. It is that, on top of your biographical struggle that makes you a figurehead worthy of worship and aspiration. If I was the sort of person who felt able to cry about things that make them feel sad, I would weep for what this says about our culture, and what implications it has for our society.
Economic and social anthropologist David Graeber- who I will reference until someone else does work as reference-able as his- wrote an essay, and then a book about “Bullshit Jobs”. It’s primarily about the epidemic of jobs that people do whilst feeling their role contributes nothing of value to society. He offhandedly writes about how a world in which corporate lawyers disappeared would do just fine.
In fact, something similar to that happened once upon a time. In the 1970s, the banks in Ireland went on strike for six months… and… not much changed. The Historian Rutger Bergman has written about this and has compared it to the garbage men strikes in New York that brought the city to a standstill within a few days. This concept has also been explored theatrically by black playwright Douglas Ward in “Day of Absence”, where the black community refuses to show up to work one day and very quickly, all the essential work in society remains undone, and things start to fall apart.
Think of any purportedly self-made figurehead- pick a handful, maybe as many as you can list- and ask yourself, “what would really, radically change if they disappeared?”
Now ask yourself what would happen if all the nurses disappeared. Or all the garbage men/women. Or the sewer workers, plumbers, care home assistants, cleaners-- When we lose the people in positions of care or maintenance- often the dirtiest or historically feminine jobs, certainly the least paid, we see a society in chaos, weeks away from collapse.
I’m not trying to guilt-trip or be a bleeding heart by sharing this thought experiment and this information. What I hope to do is give those of you that buy into the “self-made man” as a figure of societal value an opportunity to take a step back, see the plot holes in the grand narrative, and ask yourself,
“Do I really want to participate in that?”
To be a Self-Made Being
What has it meant to be a self-made man?
It has meant the exploitation and then erasure of the people whose actions either directly or indirectly allowed the “self-made man” to enjoy their position of luxury and power.
It has meant accruing and wielding that power, often (though not always) using it as a tool of dominance.
It has meant endorsing the slot machine capitalist pyramid scheme as a meritocracy where those who fail, didn’t try hard enough. Didn’t play the game right.
It has meant the marginalization of historically feminine work and has led to the displacement and misunderstanding of social value.
What does it mean to be a self-made man today?
It means the acknowledgment of self-making men as a myth that hurts more than it helps.
It means widening one’s perspective and filling it with compassion. You're not a rugged alpha male individualist. Next to no one ever has been.
You’re a member of a fundamentally cooperative, emotionally gooey, often illogical, and sometimes infuriating species. A species that doesn’t need another self-proclaimed-self-made man, trying to get ahead, using real human beings as stepping stones to wealth and control; even if it’s in the hope of palming off some cash down the line once you’ve “made it”.
Our species, and perhaps many others, needs people that will stand shoulder to shoulder with its most vulnerable as an ally and an equal. Someone that will listen, learn, share the best of themselves, and create space for others to flourish and do the same.
It means leaving behind penthouse dreams, planting your boots firmly on the ground and getting involved.
You are needed.