“Self-Made” is Bulls#!t

The widely-held belief that success is available to everyone, simply with focus and hard work, is one among many positive messages regularly reinforced in our Western culture.

But in my view, our “cowboy culture” also over-celebrates individual accomplishment, particularly in business. Too many romanticize the importance of a single individual’s ability to enable a big impact. This idea that denies the reality that teams of people, along with some good luck, always play big roles in enabling any company, or an individual for that matter, to register true success.

But we love heroic stories.

And the media is well-served to regularly feed us the stories that we all enjoy reading and watching. Business icons are created in part to sell products. And while many of us can learn from and be inspired by stories about Steve Jobs, Meg Whitman, Larry Ellison, Mary Barra, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Cuban, at times the media goes too far. They sometimes build up super-human personas that more resemble Marvel Comic book characters than real Chiefs.

For me, one particular exaggeration goes too far. The hair on the back of my neck stands up whenever I read the characterization of a business leader as “self-made,” because that’s simply bulls#!t.

The good news is that few, if any, of these successful individuals would ever describe themselves as self-made. They know the truth. Anyone who actually refer to themselves as a self-made success might as well be waving a red flag. Proceed with caution.

The bad news is that people looking for role models might actually believe it. They want to believe that they, too, can create success from nothing—all by themselves. But that’s not how it works in real life when you pull back the curtains. No one works truly alone.

While we all love rags-to-riches stories, let’s be honest about a more realistic recipe for success.

Here is mine:

  1. Be focused and hard-working, and
  2. Be thankful for circumstances you did not create
  3. Be grateful for the (many) people who have supported you and those who continue to
  4. Be generous in supporting others
  5. Be understanding of those who may not have had the support they needed
  6. Be empathetic for those in circumstances they did not choose
  7. Be humble

We can still enjoy fantasy, but it’s important to stay grounded in certain truths. This reminder can be particularly helpful as many of us set new goals this time of year. Remember to identify who can help you with whatever goals you set!

We ALL need help.