There’s No Such Thing as a Self-Made Man

A self-made man
This statue of a self-made man was, interestingly enough, made by someone else.

Few phrases bother me more than “self-made man.”

First, no one can literally make himself. Even if your parents contributed nothing more than the biological material out of which you were formed, other people were involved in your life from your earliest days. Even if their involvement did more harm than good, it’s still part of who you have become.

Even if the figurative sense, however, I strongly dislike the idea of a “self-made man.” It diminishes the fundamental connections between ourselves and other human beings, especially those which have laid the groundwork for our own achievements. Frederick Douglass, in his lecture “Self-Made Men”, provides a definition of the term:

Self-made men […] are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results.

I think this is how most people use the term: a person who owes his success to no one else.

Yet Douglass qualifies the concept of “self-making” by stressing the importance of relationships and the work of past generations:

It must in truth be said though it may not accord well with self-conscious individuality and self-conceit, that no possible native force of character, and no depth or wealth of originality, can lift a man into absolute independence of his fellow-men, and no generation of men can be independent of the preceding generation. (Emphasis added)[1]

Do we give enough credit to the preceding generations who created the environment for our success? Going further, do we conceive of our work as preparing the world for future generations?

Multi-Generational Work

Earlier this week, I realized that InterVarsity was the youngest organization that I had ever worked for (at least in a full time position), and it was founded in 1941. My brief curriculum vitae:

  • The Louisville Orchestra, founded 1937 (76 years old)
  • Cincinnati Better Business Bureau, founded 1926 (87 years old)
  • InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, founded 1941 (72 years old)
  • The E.W. Scripps Company, founded 1922 (91 years old)
  • Organized Living, founded 1919 as the Schulte Brass Company (94 years old)

Average age: 84 years old. It’s probably just coincidence, but perhaps there’s something about me that is attractive to pre-WWII organizations.

Working for these storied companies has instilled in me an appreciation for the influence of history on present conditions. As a grant writer for The Louisville Orchestra, I often requested financial information from a bookkeeper hired by the founding music director. Many of our donors dated their love for the orchestra to children’s concerts of the 1940s and 50s. I regularly wrote grants to fund contemporary music series, descendents of The Louisville Orchestra’s groundbreaking First Edition series, which recorded premieres by many of the 20th-century’s greatest composers.

With InterVarsity, I often encountered faculty whose ties to InterVarsity went back 30 or 40 years. Sometimes, this meant they were far more invested in their local InterVarsity chapters than even the staff members who ran them. Occasionally, it meant that decades-old conflicts over theology or personality created walls between faculty and staff who had been in grade school when the original conflict arose.

Without an awareness of the causes and effects of old wounds, it’s impossible to heal them. Indeed, I’m frequently amazed at how often organizations’ long-term, structural problems are actually made worse by staff turnover, when you might expect old problems to disappear with old personnel.

No Small Actors – Past, Present, or Future

We live in a myopic culture, which values the new, the novel, and the not-too-long-from-now. Recently, a technology recruiter told me of developers who fear their skills will be considered “obsolete” if they stay at the same company for too long — “too long” being about 24 months. All you have to do is turn on CNBC or Fox Business and watch the livestream of stock data for a few minutes to see how our obsession with the present and the near-future influences our working life.

Who is thinking of the knowledge, practices, and structures that we inherited from the past? Who is honoring the foundations laid by previous generations? For that matter, who is thinking about the generations who will inherit our work?

When asked why he studied ancient creeds, the great historian Jaroslav Pelikan replied:

There ought to be somebody who speaks to the other 19 centuries. Not everybody should be caught in this moment. I’m filing a minority report on behalf of the past. – Washington Post

So, too, there ought to be somebody who speaks for past – and future – generations of workers. It’s the easiest thing in the world to identify the blind spots and failures of past generations. We have the benefit of hindsight to see exactly where and how they failed to live up to our ideals. C.S. Lewis provided great wisdom with regard to reading old books:

People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them. (“On the Reading of Old Books” from God in the Dock)

Something similar could be said about our work.

As for the future? Like Lewis said, the books of the future are not available to us. We can, however, keep the people of the future in mind as we work. When I’m working with code, I always appreciate developers who write code with clear structures and good comments, so that those coming behind them (me!) can understand how their code works and what needs to be done to adapt it to new situations. Their example challenges me to write code that will be just as useful to people coming behind me.

Honoring both past and the future generations will look different in different contexts. It might mean treating company founders with respect and honor, long after they have ceased to contribute to the daily work of the business. It might mean avoiding long-term commitments that falsely assume that present conditions will continue indefinitely, or short-term solutions that do permanent damage to people and the land.

In all cases, it means extending our neighborly love to our neighbors across generations, not just those across the hall.

  1. If I understand Douglass here, he was addressing the problem of “success” being determined primarily by access to the already-successful through race, class, and connections, rather than the hard work and merit of the individual. That’s a perfectly valid concern, and I’m opposed to the abuse of individualism, rather than the abuses that Douglass confronted.  ↩

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