They Did It All by Themselves

The other day I read a short news story about the success of the singers at the local university in a regional competition. The story highlighted each of the singers, and the only mention of their background was the name of the university. I said something about that to the head of vocal studies at the university, and she said, with a rueful smile, “They did it all by themselves.” Her unspoken point was, of course, that these students hadn’t gotten there all by themselves. Each had a professor, or several, who spent hours each week with him or her going over diction, tone, phrasing, etc., not to mention the classes in theory, literature, methods… and all the rest of the curriculum. Then, to top matters off, when the subject came up later among another group, someone else said that the Music Department was so fortunate to have such talented students, as if all their professional education meant nothing at all.

While this is just a small example of a problem that’s much larger, it did get me to thinking. Over the years, I’ve watched various sports, and I’ve found it amazing to see how a quarterback, for example, who’s done well with one team, suddenly doesn’t do so well with another, while another who was considered washed up with a former team shines with his second team. A good part of the answer is that he didn’t do it all by himself. You can be the best passer in the world, but it won’t matter if the offensive line can’t or won’t give you the time to throw.

Likewise, in the financial and business world, a great deal of media focus and excessive salary and other compensation goes to the CEO. But just how much of that is really deserved, and how much goes to all those below the CEO who did all the grunt work that make things work out well? Microsoft seems to be doing just as well now that Bill Gates isn’t in charge. Might that not indicate that, while he came up with the initial ideas and entrepreneurship, for the last decade or so, he really didn’t do it all by himself?

As an author, which is one of the more solitary occupations these days, I still can’t do it all by myself. I need an editor to catch any stupidity that might linger in the manuscript, a copy-editor to catch the inevitable typos and stupid little mistakes, someone to publish the book, someone else to provide a cover that conveys the idea/impression of what is between the covers, and a whole lot of bookstores and booksellers to carry and sell the books. And that’s what’s needed for a one-person operation, since, contrary to some popular opinion, books do not just produce themselves, walk off the shelves, and carry themselves to the check-out registers.

Yet… in field after field from collegiate activities to professional sports, to education and business, there’s this myth that people “did it all by themselves.”

Did they really? All of them?