The Self-Made Myth

It’s always baffled me how so many successful, usually white, usually male, individuals claim that they alone were close to solely responsible for their success, discounting or ignoring so many factors that contributed to that success.

One factor that’s so often discounted is simply the fact that it’s easier to take risks if you’ll still have a safe place to sleep and something to eat if that risk turns to failure. Another is knowing that you have the skills or qualifications to get another job. Yet another is having a lighter skin color. Another is having a manner of speaking that’s accepted. The list of other overlooked “advantages” is far longer than most “self-made” men will ever consider. And I’ve certainly had more than a few of those usually discounted or overlooked advantages.

Then, there’s luck. Now, it is true that people who work and try harder do have more “luck” than those who don’t, but in all the fields in which I’ve worked, I can name a number of people who had more talent and who worked harder that others who were more successful, largely because the successful ones were in the right place at the right time.

Obviously, it’s not all luck. I do work hard. I’ve averaged writing 2 ½ books a year for more than twenty straight years, and I’ve visited almost forty percent of the B&N bookstores in the U.S. over the past 20 years, as well as hundreds of other bookstores, not to mention the time and effort spent on the website and other activities, but there are other authors who worked that hard as well, and not sold as well as I have, and there are some who haven’t worked as hard as I have who’ve sold a great deal more.

I was a marginally successful short story writer – very marginal – until Ben Bova wrote me a critical rejection letter. He didn’t have to write it. I was fortunate that he did, because his suggestion that I should write novels was absolutely accurate. I was also fortunate that David Hartwell read all the major SF magazines, because when I submitted my first novel to him, he recalled my name from the few ANALOG stories I’d written, and that meant that he turned to reading my manuscript before those of totally unknown writers. Now he bought the book because it was good enough to publish, but I’m sure there were others good enough to publish that probably didn’t get bought for various reasons. I was also fortunate that David prompted me to do to my first SF convention, because the experience at that particular convention prompted me to write The Magic of Recluce, which I never would have considered, at least not until later, and Tor published that book with a Darrell Sweet cover just a year after The Eye of the World, the first Wheel of Time book, which had a Sweet cover, and the fact that The Magic of Recluce also had a Darrell Sweet cover and was released so soon after The Eye of the World certainly had to have helped enormously in launching my fantasy career.

Whether you call it luck or good fortune, it’s still a factor, and while I’m exceedingly happy that those events worked out that way, I’m also very well aware that they might not have… and that I could still be struggling to write short fiction while mired in a 60-80 hour a week high stress job in Washington, D.C. All of which is why I’m extremely skeptical of anyone who touts themselves as self-made. There are doubtless a handful of such individuals, but far, far fewer than most of those who claim such a title will ever understand.

7 thoughts on “The Self-Made Myth”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Sounds a bit much like “you didn’t build that”.

    There’s certainly a bit of truth to it, insofar as very few are 100.00% self-made – none are, if you consider that they had to have parents if only to exist, and that most successful people’s parents were rather more involved than that.

    But only a bit, I should think. Even today, in the boonies, one might clear one’s own access road, quite literally build from scratch the building in which one’s business was housed, etc. I’ve been in a place or two like that, and while they weren’t upscale, it was clear that the owner and family knew every detail of their products and services, as well as every brick of the building, personally.

    There are books from the 1800’s describing a vast range of practical skills for someone on an isolated homestead, such as Youman’s “Dictionary of Everyday Wants”

    While it doesn’t address modern equipment, and one might wish to exercise great caution with the medical advice (they knew about transfusions, but not about blood types!), the bulk of the information is practical, and aside from the additional modern complexity of red tape, probably sufficient for a variety of endeavors.

  2. CalebS says:

    Reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: the Story of Success. It’s a great look at how circumstances can make or break careers, and how what look like bad circumstances often end up giving a boost towards success.

  3. darcherd says:

    LEM is quite correct inasmuch as “self-made” is overused and that many people who are so described (or who describe themselves as such) are failing to consider or credit inherent advantages they may have which contributed to that success. But as all generalizations are false – including this one – there are some very successful people who in fact started with very little and with a lot of the cards stacked against them.

    The real key to success seems to be persistence, the willingness to keep trying despite failures and setbacks. Yes, dumb luck and being in the right place at the right time does play a part, but again, the only thing that can prevail over being in the wrong place at the wrong time is persistence.

    Or as the saying goes, it’s amazing how many “overnight sensations” worked for years to get there.

  4. invah says:

    I love the “self-made” myth, because it is the intellectual fruit of multiple cognitive biases:

    * overconfidence effect: the tendency to overestimate one’s own abilities

    * choice-supportive bias: the tendency to remember one’s choices as better than they actually were.

    * confirmation bias: the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions

    * illusion of control: the tendency for human beings to believe they can control or at least influence outcomes that they clearly cannot

    * outcome bias: the tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome instead of based on the quality of the decision at the time it was made

    * selective perception: the tendency for expectations to affect perception

    * anthropic bias: the tendency for one’s evidence to be biased by observation selection effects

    * bias blind spot: the tendency not to compensate for one’s own cognitive biases

    And most specifically:

    * self-serving bias: the tendency to attribute successes to internal characteristics while blaming failures on outside forces

    * actor-observer bias: the tendency for explanations for other individual’s behaviors to overemphasize the influence of their personality and underemphasize the influence of their situation. This is coupled with the opposite tendency for the self in that one’s explanations for their own behaviors overemphasize their situation and underemphasize the influence of their personality.

    * fundamental attribution error: the tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior

    * egocentric bias: occurs when people claim more responsibility for themselves for the results of a joint action than an outside observer would.


  5. darcherd says:

    Jeez, invah – Your list appears to sum up much of what it means to be human. At least, I recognize myself in all those biases and errors.

    1. invah says:

      Doesn’t mean they don’t apply, and it doesn’t mean that we minimize or ignore their role/impact in our decision-making and perception.

  6. Daze says:

    Long ago and far away (mid-80s, I think) there was a Harvard Business Review article called something like “Why intelligent people don’t learn”, which (from memory) looked at a whole load of McKinsey & Co project wrap-up meetings, and came to the conclusion that a roomful of highly intelligent people could find plausible reasons for everything that went wrong that didn’t involve their having made a mistake, and thus remove any prospect of learning from the process.

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