In my first job after college, I wrote grant applications for a major orchestra. This work required me to stay knowledgeable about local philanthropy, so I once attended a panel discussion featuring several of the city’s leading donors, discussing their priorities for giving and their preferences for how to be approached for a gift. The room was filled with other grant writers, major gift officers, development directors, and others, waiting to discover how to tap into all that wealth.
Most of the panelists were in their fifties or sixties; their giving came after a successful career provided them with the means to give. One donor, however, was only a few years older than I was. The scion of an old and wealthy family, she had inherited millions in her early twenties, upon the unexpected death of her parents. While she spoke strongly about causes she supported, what jumped out most to me was her frustration with fundraisers who hadn’t done their homework, approaching her for gifts to organizations she would never support, ignoring the clear guidelines of her family’s foundation, and, worst of all, confusing her family with another local dynasty with a similar name:
“They don’t even know who I am!”
At the time, her comments struck me as incredibly arrogant. I couldn’t relate to her at all. I was on the opposite end of the ask, trying to get her to write a large check so that I could justify my low-paying, barely-making-ends-meet job, while she (I imagined) lived a carefree Scrooge McDuck-style life. She was right. I couldn’t care less who she was: I just wanted her money. Continue reading Seeing the Person, Not Just the Money→
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)