We used to hear it more often, heartily proclaimed as a statement of praise for the likes of business leaders, politicians, authors, explorers and other celebrities. From Henry Ford to Sean (P.Diddy) Combs, Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama…
“[Phil Indablanc] is a self-made man!”
While it’s not quite as common to hear this idiom these days, the notion lives on as strong as ever. It’s disguised in the form of sensational author bios and glorious “about” pages full of accomplishments and promises to give us impressive credibility, and maybe most of all, the absurdly strange and sad “necessity” of trumping up our social follower counts so that we looks credible as we promote ourselves.
Yet even if you’re not busy self-making, you’re reading about other’s victories in countless articles online heralding the unlikely success stories of the latest founders and entrepreneurs.
Yesterday: nobodies. Today: celebrity millionaires, investing, counseling and changing the world! Everyone respects them, loves them and wants their position. Our society’s heroes!
I love a good “rags to riches” story as much as anyone.
I’m all for overcoming obstacles and chasing your dreams!
I understand the importance of hard work.
My grandfather and father plowed fields in triple digit heat with no cabs or air conditioning. They roped and flipped cattle by hand to hold them down in the dirt and manure to brand and doctor them. They stuck their hands up the “south end” in the middle of cold nights to pull a calf out, saving the life of mother and calf both, and potentially thousands of dollars of profit. They rode through the mountains on horseback in extreme weather and conditions to not lose a single animal, and trucked hay for hundreds of miles with little sleep to make ends meet. They built debt free lives and futures for their families.
I’ve tasted my share of the same work (though admittedly less extreme in most cases), and have since walked my own paths to “success” of differing degrees in different industries and fields.
However, I’ve never done a bit of it by myself; neither has anyone else.
“Oh sure you have! You worked for it! You learned it! You earned it!”
Again, I’m all for applying what you have and working hard, but whether you believe it came from a divine creator or a primordial-soup-o-something, you didn’t do a thing to get what you have! Further, I didn’t do a thing to receive my circumstances or nurturing so that I wouldn’t be lazy! I also didn’t do a thing to not receive abuse or poor circumstances that would motivate a determined drive to overcome and change the situation.
“What if a guy goes into the woods and lives all by himself, grows a garden, shoots his food, milks a cow and is totally self-sustaining!?”
Somebody had to teach even those things to him in order to reach that phase of “success”!
“Yea Okay, I Get That My Mom Taught Me To Tie My Shoes.” But Do You Really?
I know, you know that already, right?
But do we really know this?
Do we really know that nobody succeeds alone? As in: Not. Even. Close!?
Not Benjamin Franklin and his ambitious rise from 15th of 17 children of a candlemaker to a renaissance man, a founding father of the U.S. and the country’s first millionaire. Not John D. Rockefeller. Not Andrew Carnegie. Not Sam Walton, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, Harry S. Truman, or any other rags-to-riches story you want to name!
Every one of them, and every one of us, has been taught, modeled for, and nurtured or motivated every step of the way in some way or the other, and the only people who experience “success” – in whatever form – are handed it by you and me.
The Problems I Create By Promoting Myself
You might be thinking this is over dramatizing a silly idiom that just means, “they worked hard and never gave up” – which is a fine quality to be sure – but I think this often-prevailing and almost-always-underlying tale that we spin of men and women “taking their destiny into their own hands” and “working hard to create their own future” and “overcoming all obstacles by their sheer willpower” actually has a negative impact on our society and workforce.
The “American Dream” is not, and was never meant to be, one of an individual powering their way to “success”, but rather, a group of individuals (albeit large now) building something together in a collective.
It’s one of a road being paved, layer upon layer, upon layer and relayer for those who travel it with us and after us.
Spinning the story any other way actually negatively affects our society’s unity (or lack of), work ethic (or lack of), voting and political involvement (or lack of) and so on.
If you’re one of the few who pays attention to the minuscule percentage of “leaders” in certain spheres you may not think so, but if you step back and look at the big picture of our society and the total numbers of people, it’s a stark reality we’ve created… We have a large number of people just out to “get their own”.
Don’t believe me? Listen to popular music – the prophets of our day – they’ll confirm I’m telling the truth. We’re obsessed with “getting what’s mine” and “promoting yours truly”.
When in reality, nothing has ever been mine and I’ve never done a thing on my own, and for the majority of my life I have not been and will not be worth promoting! Thinking otherwise will actually just reciprocate the problem by creating more people modeling their actions after mine.
This perpetuates a selfish, self-centered, self-serving, manipulative and demanding society. Stuff we’d all say we hate, unless it’s serving me at the moment.
Look What My (Clueless) Hands Have Made
Let me be the first to admit I’ve had my king Nebuchadnezzar moments. I’ve looked out over my “kingdom” and thought to myself, “Look what my hands have made!”
I’ve scorned my counselors and teachers, disrespected my mentors, and taken for granted my investors (relational and financial). I’ve thought my ways more learned, intelligent, and wise. I’ve thought my superiors or predecessors ignorant or apathetic.
However, I’m continually saddened and alarmed by the amount of young men and women whom I see, and hear storied or storying themselves, with little to no acknowledgement of their mentors or praise for shoulders they stand on.
Most of us couldn’t pass a business history, church history, or american government history test if our lives depended on it.
I fear the truth is that most of us young grumblers actually have no idea how high we’ve already been lifted nor whom lifted us here.
Thus, how could we respect or appreciate it?
If we are aware, we’re utterly unappreciative, and that’s even worse.
I fear for many young men and women vying for the next position, to be the next voice we all listen to, thinking they have the make-up to be someone worth following and worth heeding, that are truly talented and hard working people who have never learned the immeasurable value of honoring their authority.
Though some may claim we know that nobody actually “makes it” on their own, we rarely act, speak or write as though this is true.
With the near-limitless ability to exalt ourselves, we take every opportunity to do so. Worse still, the rare occasion we do utilize someone else’s accomplishments or authority, it’s simply just that, “utilizing” and manipulating for the sake of further self advancement.
The examples I have seen and heard are too numerous to list. You won’t have to think hard to think of many yourself.
Referring back to the biblical story of King Nebuchadnezzar, one character stood out in the story more than any king, licensed professional or other royal member. He was a captive named Daniel, and whether you subscribe to any of the spiritual beliefs of the story, you cannot argue an overarching “moral of the story” that Daniel arguably had more influence than multiple kings, more respect than any advisor, and more success than any peer.
He attained this status precisely because he never worked for any of it and he repeatedly honored his authorities in his life even when it would appear his choices wouldn’t just not benefit him, but even endanger him!
As much as anyone ever could, Daniel had every right to be resentful, to think his authorities wrongly placed. To think himself more wise and talented than his colleagues.
It’s a moral that anyone can appreciate from any belief system. We all would like to think we are that person, and we all want people under us who act like that, cause well, that’s good job security!
Yet is it not remarkable how little of this we see modeled in our society in business, politics, religion or even family!?
“No It’s Actually Quite Common!”
I hear it already:
“Everyone knows that the booming technology, software and startup world is loaded with advisors and mentors. Every successful company has them. They factor it into their budgets!”
I would pushback though and say, “No, actually not everyone knows that.”
I suspect very few actually know that.
All we see and hear about is the success; all we subscribe to are the CEO’s blogs; all we follow are the amazing Twitter feeds and Instagrams. Often, these are ran by paid teams and skilled staff of editors, and they look glorious, glamorous and, yep, self promotional.
Sure the discerning few may say, “This is polished, filtered and edited to look successful and make me want to follow, emulate and purchase whatever this person is doing” but it’s extremely rare that someone discerns this, and wrong of us to assume many do this – especially the young.
Maybe a very interested and curious few will stumble upon a far back webpage or drop down menu that lists some advisors. Maybe we’ll chance upon a LinkedIn profile that says, “Advisor to such-and-such company.”
Most will not. They don’t have time for that. They’re busy living their lives, and watching everyone put out the best of the best filtered and polished material and thinking, “I’ve gotta do this! I wanna BE this!”
Even our favorite amateur bloggers and online personalities are “sponsored” by well paid spouses or alternative jobs the vast majority of the time. Yet, none of that is talked about. After all, we have to keep up appearances!
“Somehow the universe has just floated me up to this place of popularity and influence, and everyone (who doesn’t actually know me) elevates me like this! So, you should too!”
You Want The Most Sure Shortcut To Success?
So what am I getting at here? Is there a better alternative?
You already know I’m going to say so because I told you about the Daniel narrative. But, how does this look in our present culture?
It’s difficult to be sure.
Though biographies often tend to paint a picture of an extremely focused, hard working, driven person who overcame anything and everything life threw at him or her, I would make the bold claim that none of our glorified “self-made” men and women actually had any idea how one of their small accomplishments, jobs, learned skills or circumstances would have possibly taken them where they ended up.
They were just hard working, curious people who, for various reasons, didn’t get easily discouraged or become complacent. Some for better motives, some for worse motives, and all for mixed – no doubt.
Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, even posits that great achievements are largely the result of cultural background and good luck. So far I can vouch that any of my “great achievements” have been the same, as well as anyone else I’ve known personally enough to talk about it honestly with.
Have you ever stopped to consider the sheer number of people in the billions that have walked this earth who have never been promoted as self-made success stories simply because, all else equal or even greater, their circumstances just didn’t pan out to be noticed and praised as such?
Other than pure circumstantial luck, I’d also boldly claim that every high status or “successful” person, worthy of their status, knows full well that the way they got there was by honoring others.
They made their superiors look good until their superiors decided to make them look good!
So How Bout Doing It Different?
What if we did a better job of elevating our bosses and superiors, mentors and authorities?
What if we did a better job at magnifying other people’s stories instead of our own?
What if as we experience fame, fortune or other successes we proudly and boldly credited our coaches, mentors and advisors!
What if we used that position to invest in others, not for greater profit and success for our selves, but for them?
What if we made the most superstar role, that of elevating other people?
What if we wrote our about pages and designed our websites to also feature our mentors, business coaches, investors and advisors as much as our staff, leadership and self – even if these mentors aren’t highly regarded public names?
See, I’m convinced that one of the greatest leadership roles there is, and one we rarely see modeled very well, is that of teaching and modeling appreciation – true, genuine appreciation. Not an obligated “thank-you” for a business transaction of financial investment.
Possibly the most important questions I believe we can and should be asking prospective employees and young up-and-comers is,
“Who has invested in you? How have they invested in you? Why and how has it been valuable to you?”
I want to hear a well thought out and understood grasp of these matters! Then, this is a person to work with, to work for, or to have working for you!
This will be a person you can know will continue to learn and improve and will increasingly become a person more worth following and listening to.
If you are this person, you can rest assured that those who have paved the way before you. The ones who hold the current positions of authority, the financial means to make your dreams a reality and the public sway of opinions, these leaders, will want you around!
They’ll want you on their team. They’ll want to spend their precious resources on you, knowing you won’t squander them. They’ll trust they can endorse you without losing their own hard earned credibility.
They will advance you and your dreams.
This frees you up to just, be you! Learn to do other things really well besides promoting and publicizing yourself.
Then, when the time is fitting, you’ll have plenty of skills, experience, expertise and, most importantly, relational equity to accomplish whatever you want or feel called to.
In a world obsessed with the fastest shortcut to success, you can relax and know that, in fact, the surest shortcut to success is not stomping on the shoulders you stand on; rather, it’s seeking to understand and appreciate the fact that you’re able to stand there from years of hard work and careful thought from others.
If you want to be a leader, go be the person you would want on your team.