The Myth of the Self-Made Man/Woman

I am reading Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson (Full review coming soon.)

This post is about one very specific chapter within Improv Wisdom, and one very specific idea that has great relevance not only because I have declared this month “Say something nice month”, but also because of the national mood and the Wall Street sit-ins happening now.

Chapter 9 – “Wake up to the Gifts” has a sub-section, “Investigate your debt to the world”.

I find this idea to be entirely relevant to our current times. There are a great many people suffering from a sense of overblown entitlement and self-worth.

“I should not have to pay my taxes. I have earned this money. It is mine. I am a self-made millionaire, I do not owe anyone anything. If you are poor it is your own fault and I am not responsible for that, or for you.”

To which, I and everyone occupying Wall Street, rightly says, “BULLSHIT.”

You did not get here on your own. None of us did.

You were taught, helped, cared for, encouraged. You did not build the house you live in, nor the furniture and technology that fills it. You did not produce all of the food that fills your fridge and pantry. You did not earn your money alone. There was a company, clients, consumers, employees, employers, managers, temps, contractors who helped you get to where you are. Wherever that is.

There is no such thing as a self-made millionaire. Or a self-made person period. We do not exist in isolation.

Would Steve Jobs have been Steve jobs without the support of everyone at Apple? Will Apple continue to be Apple without Steve Jobs? We don’t know. But history has shown us that up to now the two have been highly interdependent.

Yes, Steve had vision, and drive, and intelligence, and intuition, and discernment. But he did not create or even conceive of the iPhone, or the iPod, or the Macbook in a vacuum. He had help. He had the help of his competitors who showed him what he DIDN’T want to do. He had the support of his staff who lived up to his exacting standards. He had the creative genius of a carefully crafted collective consciousness operating in residence at 1 Infinite Loop. He had the feedback and support of millions of customers. He had the skills and devotion of thousands of workers, engineers, crafters who physically put the vision of Apple together into tangible devices to be used by people.

Steve Jobs is a legend built on the backs, the sweat, the blood, the minds and souls of thousands, millions, of people each contributing one small piece, often silently – unacknowledged by Steve, or his rabid fans.

In this section on investigating your debt to the world, Patricia recounts her own experience with this practice in Japan. She spent two weeks meditating on it and was asked to start at the beginning, at birth, and then move forward, chronologically and methodically from her earliest memories to the present answering the following questions:

What have you received from others during your life?
What have you given back to them?
What trouble or bother have you given them?

Now you may not have two weeks set aside to mediate just at the moment, so let’s simplify this. Focus on the moment. Focus on today. Answer those questions and examine your own debt to the world.

Start with something simple. How did the computer (or other device) that you are reading this on come to you? Who built it? Who paid for it? Who sold it? Did someone recommend it to you? What about the programs on it? Who designed and programmed them? How did they get on your computer?

Who else contributed to your day? What have you given back? What demands have you made? What burden have you caused?

If you examine this honestly, most people will see that they are operating under a debt. We live in a world where we receive much more than we give. We live in a world filled with support, encouragement, help.

Look around you and acknowledge all the gifts surrounding you, from the chair you are sitting on to the screen you are reading this on to the beverage at your hand.

Notice the many people who support you each day. The many people “just doing their job” who make your day easier. The retail clerk, the road crew fighting your road rage to give you a smoother drive next time you come this way, the bank teller, the restaurant server, the janitor. Notice all of these silent benefactors in your life from the lowliest employee to the manager who helps orchestrate it all.Value them.

Understand your debt and use it as the impetus to become a participant in the culture of the gift. Begin to pay your debt forward.

Make a point of thanking people for thankless jobs.

Replace the myth of the self-made person with the reality of our interdependence.

As Patricia reminded me, “Everything we do (or refrain from doing) matters.” Your effort, or neglect, has consequences.

Name your blessings and share them. Thank the people who help you. Don’t be afraid to give them credit. People won’t think less of you for receiving help, they’ll think more of you for acknowledging it.

And, if you have EVER driven on a public road, walked on a public sidewalk, gone to a public school (or hired an employee who went to a public school), received care in a public hospital, enjoyed a public park, borrowed a book from a public library, used the services of the police, firemen or EMTs, please pay your taxes.

Thank you, Patrica, for this wonderful and enlightening book. I cannot wait to share it with others. There is so much in here that will resonate with other writers struggling to get their words onto the page. I really value your insight, your clear language and personal examples. I cannot wait to try out your many exercises. Thank you for sharing your hard-won wisdom with others. You are undoubtably a significant part of many people’s success story. Thank you.



Filed under Books, Of Course I'm a Feminist, Rant

9 responses to “The Myth of the Self-Made Man/Woman

  1. Indeed, I agree. There’s also a healthy helping of luck behind every “self-made” person, as demonstrated by Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers.”

    • thinkbannedthoughts

      So very true, from the very accident of birth, we are all blessed, or cursed, by our luck. There is no denying the role that the fickle hand of ‘Lady Luck’ plays in our lives!

  2. Strawman argument. Nobody is saying they shouldn’t have to pay taxes. They’re just saying that they should have to pay their fair share of taxes, and that everyone should pay their fair share of taxes. The question is, what makes a fair share? If one group of people earns 19% of the total income earned in the country, and pays 43% of the income taxes in the country, is that their fair share? What would you consider to be their fair share of taxes?

    I’ll leave aside the arguments as to if the taxes are being used effectively for the moment, and if some entity other than government could produce better results for schooling, roads, sidewalks, etc for a lower price.

    • thinkbannedthoughts

      I think we’re actually saying the same thing. Everyone should pay their fair share. What is that fair share? I’d be more than happy with a loop-hole free flat tax across all demographics.
      I’d be happy to pay 25% of my gross income if it meant that everyone got an education through their undergraduate degree, health care, roads, libraries, firemen, police services…
      I also think that the retirement age should be raised to 75. We live to be OLD now, yet everyone wants to retire younger and younger – that math just doesn’t work out.
      I’ll write my check if you write yours.

  3. Few things delight a writer more than to have their work well “grokked”. That you picked “Wake Up to the Gifts” as the maxim to highlight tells me that you understand the true heart of this little book. If we really do the math we must come to the conclusion that we receive far more than it is possible to return. But this is not a popular perspective. Thank you for taking the time to write about the book and share your enthusiasm. This is precisely how the book will stay alive. I am in your debt. Thank you.

    • thinkbannedthoughts

      Thanks so much for stopping by! I’m honored. I have a couple more chapters to go on your wonderful book. I cannot wait to share it with everyone I know. I’ll be recommending it to all of my writerly clients as well, it says so much.

      Thanks again for sharing your wisdom with us all!

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