Tuesday, November 29, 2022

"Self-made" gets thrown around way too much.

I’m acquainted with a content creator that shared the following opinion with a limited audience via their personal social media profile:

“Most people are offended by people that are self made because they see it’s possible, and realize they simply chose to be mediocre. That’s hard to process.” (sic)

I'll give them the benefit of a doubt that its something they might still be workshopping.

Their opinion prompted several comments—most in agreement, a few requesting some clarification. Observations were made about what it means to be “offended.” Some commented with their personal definitions of mediocrity. Only one other person brought up the term that stood out to me more than the rest, questioning their own understanding of what it meant: “self made”—the definition of which could potentially transform a merely vague notion into a perplexing and ineffable conviction.

I made the following contribution to the comment thread:

“An individual can be self-aware, self-motivated, and self-assured. All qualities that can lend themselves to success when applied wisely—regardless of how one defines success for themselves.

“I don’t think it’s possible to be “offended” by “people that are self made…” for the same reason that I don’t think it’s possible to be offended by leprechauns: one cannot be offended by something that does not exist.”

(I included a link to an excerpt from a commencement speech given by Arnold Schwarzenegger where he emphatically states that there's no such thing as Self-Made Man.)

My comment was met with the following reply by the acquaintance who shared their opinion:

“…I appreciate the sentiment, how would you differentiate those who have created something from nothing VS those who simply inherited or were given everything?” (sic)

I responded with an abbreviated version of the following:

...that's a great question.

Some would argue that the only entity to have ever created something from nothing was God. There are also those who believe that even God’s creations were formed from preexisting matter, and everything that has come into existence since then has been through complex processes that continually rearrange matter and energy that has always existed.

The same principle remains true in this context. You mention “those who simply inherited or were given everything.” I think it’s safe to assume that “everything” refers to “wealth” and all the trappings that come with it—a sense of entitlement, perceptions of power, unqualified influence, etc. I picture the Roy children from “Succession” when I think of this. Our culture equates “wealth”—especially when it’s inherited—with money and property with monetary value. Wealth is a resource—especially in the eyes of entrepreneurs.

One may infer from your question an assumption that people either have resources at their disposal or they do not and that it’s somehow possible for a person without resources to create something like personal “wealth” from nothing.

The problem with that assumption is that it ignores the existence of “public” resources, i.e., the wealth and the infrastructure it builds that we all own collectively and is available to everyone—albeit with varying degrees of access and ability to use them effectively. One might even suggest that public resources are collectively inherited by virtue of being born into an organized society.

The ability of most people to simply function, maintain employment, have somewhere to sleep, food to eat, etc., would not be possible without public resources. People can’t work if they cannot fill out a job application which requires that they know how to read and write—basic skills that most people acquire through public education. People cannot travel for their job, nor can raw materials be imported and finished products shipped without public roads and other public transportation infrastructure. The availability of clean water, basic sanitation services, access to electricity, and the internet, are all public resources.

Every company that makes money with digital navigation software would not exist were it not for the publicly funded and operated GPS system. A resource that can be accessed by anyone, with the right tools, worldwide without having to pay for it specifically. Imagine how much money it would cost to use Google Maps if Google had to design, develop, build, launch, and maintain its own network of satellites.

No individual can realize their full creative and financial potential without a basic education to start with. That includes successful content creators using internet platforms—that do not require any upfront costs; access is basically given away—developed by other people, using a digital infrastructure that would not exist were it not established through the publicly funded Arpanet.

That being said, let’s revisit the question:

“How would you differentiate those who have created something from nothing VS those who simply inherited or were given everything?”

My answer: The former is probably God. The latter is everyone else.

"Self-made man"
(AI generated image

However, considering the apparent context of the original post, I don’t think anybody is offended by—let’s just say “financially successful”—people. Financial success is not inherently offensive, nor are the skills used to achieve it.

People don’t find Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos offensive because of their success or their skills. Most aren’t even offended that they started out with inherited wealth—there’s nothing new about that.

What people do find offensive is that Musk, Bezos, and others like them, are narcissistic egomaniacs who refuse to ACKNOWLEDGE their existing advantages. In other words, they’re assholes—which might even remain true if they end up as bankrupt financial failures.

No one is “self-made” because no one exists separately from everyone else. Regardless of how one measures success, it’s not achieved without using existing resources. Those who don’t inherit resources from family can still use other available resources, many of which are publicly accessible.

In the end, there are those who acknowledge and express gratitude for the resources that made their success possible… and there are those who don’t.

How the latter is perceived by others has nothing to do with anyone’s personal choices.

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