The Myth of the Self-Made Individual

You can hardly go through a day without hearing or reading tiresome iterations of “I did it all by myself,” or “he/she is a self-made individual.” When stated that way, it is often presumed that the individual achieved great success through their own efforts without any help. That’s what the people who say it would like you to think, but it just isn’t true. Let’s think about it for a moment. Is there really a self-made individual?

Quoting a statement  attributed to Bernard of Chartres, in a letter to his life-long rival, Isaac Newton wrote, “If I’ve seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton humbly recognized that discoveries were a product of building on the knowledge of others. We owe modern business methods to Adam Smith, the foundation of philosophical thinking to Plato, and the development of theoretical computer science to Alan Turing. These men and  many others,  made it easy for us to expand on their ideas so that we can create societies that  enable the individual flourish.

The invention of the internet  made unimaginable things possible. At the click of a button, we can overthrow repressive governments, meet new friends, make an industry obsolete, learn new things, and conduct billion-dollar deals via email. By leveraging the power of the internet, many have become millionaires and billionaires. In turn, these wealthy individuals have empowered millions of people across the globe.

The life expectancy of the individual has improved tremendously compared to the 1700s . Due to advancements in medicine, polio and many other life-threatening diseases have been eradicated in most parts of the world. Except for a few bellicose states, most countries advance their interests through diplomacy, thus there has been a decline in war-related deaths. Literacy levels have increased, and many United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals have been met thanks to policy makers around the world.

For publicly advocating for the end of Apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela and many others were imprisoned under harsh conditions for over two decades.  In the United States, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, and Medgar Evers were assassinated for their Civil Rights Activism. In Nigeria, the military government frequently had Fela Anikulapo Kuti beaten and imprisoned for championing the cause of the average man through music. Everyday around the world, status-quo-clinging power structures are being dismantled. Today, it’s less costly to be lesbian, gay, transgender, or black compared to centuries before. If a whiff of racism or bigotry is suspected, the offender might serve a jail term if found guilty by a court of law.

Let’s not forget the role of the family in raising confident and strong children who can contribute to the betterment of society.  To quote an African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  Even an orphan does not  feed or bathe itself within the first few years of life.  Since children are vulnerable and highly impressionable, the quality of their lives is determined by the kinds of influences their parents or guardians expose them to.

Perpetuating the notion of the self-made individual is disrespectful to our predecessors, who through struggle and deprivation,  handed down to us all the luxuries we now enjoy. I think it’s narcissistic and plain stupid to dismiss our collective heritage by not giving credit to those whom it is due.

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