The Fallacy of Being “Self-Made”

Aizaz Baqir
9 min readJun 12, 2022


According to Wikipedia, “Self-Made Man” is a classic phrase coined by Henry Clay of the United States in 1842, to describe individuals whose (so-called or capitalist oriented) success or achievements lay within the individuals themselves, not with outside conditions. Henry Clay also used the term “American System” or the policy of promoting industry in the U.S. by adoption of a high protective tariff and of developing internal improvements by the federal government. But his “Self-Made Man” concept seems to have promoted the American value system which means that “everyone is their own person, not a representative of a family, community, or any other group.” Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, has been described as the greatest exemplar of the self-made man.

The Monkey System or Every One For Himself: Henry Clay says “Walk in and see the new improved grand original American System!” The cages are labeled: “Home, Consumption, Internal, Improv”. This 1831 cartoon ridiculing Clay’s American System depicts monkeys, labeled as being different parts of a nation’s economy, stealing each other’s resources (food) with commentators describing it as either great or a humbug.

Thus it is rightly claimed that the myth of the self-made man has roots in America’s Puritan heritage, democratic ideals, and a capitalist system of wealth. Moreover, according to Swedish researcher Carl Cederstrom, Capitalism is built on a set of assumptions about human nature: We’re self-interested, obsessed with status and prestige, and inherently competitive.

And theory of the “survival of the fittest” also provided sufficient grounds for the Social Darwinist belief that a poor or failed person’s situation was the result of natural selection, and capable individuals with drive and talent could become anything he or she wanted.

However, to call oneself “self-made” , in my view, is really an insult to the universal wisdom and truth. The claim (in the context of above mentioned facts) mainly originates from an egotistical ideology (necessary for the progress of capitalist system) that has now invaded many cultures, especially western one where “hyper individualism” thus seems to have emerged as a new way of life. However, neither we can, nor were meant to live a life on our own and were also never meant to handle challenges and pain on our own. Nobody lives a life totally free from the need of societal protection, cooperation or cultural influence as culture shapes the way we think, talk and do. While society provides resources to meet our needs, culture shapes the way we work and play, and also makes a difference in how we view ourselves and others. Moreover, it affects our values — what we consider right and wrong. Thus the society we live in not only provides the environment to survive but also influences our choices. Although we are also individual and have individual self and identity, but this individual identity is constructed or projected in relation to others. If there is no other, there is no self. Within the social sciences and humanities the terms ‘self’ and ‘identity’ are used in very specific, yet inconsistent and contested ways. However, in general, ‘identity’ is used to refer to one’s social ‘face’ — how one perceives and how one is perceived by others. ‘Self’ is generally used to refer to one’s sense of ‘who I am and what I am in a social environment.’ For simple explanation, suppose if you are the only person inhabiting the earth, what would be your identity?

Even Robinson Crusoe (a prototypical “self-made man” specifically identified with capitalism and acting in his own interest) was not brave and capable enough to live all his life alone after being shipwrecked on a deserted island. According to the story, when he discovers a footprint (seemingly of a human) in the sand, he first becomes happy thinking he might have company. Moreover, his economy also can not function without another person and for the purpose of trade (after he is able to produce surplus) and thus to earn profit (as well as have more choices and a comparative advantage) he needs another person and thus enters“Friday,” a savage who was saved by Crusoe from a group of cannibals. And instead of making him a slave worker (that Friday is willing to), Crusoe wants to make him his friend. However, as some scholars postulate, whatever Friday’s response may be, his servitude is also a symbol of imperialist oppression throughout the modern world. Friday’s overall charisma works against the emotional deadness that many readers find in Crusoe. But Crusoe’s emotional deadness seems superficial (like ice hiding a fire beneath) as Crusoe’s closest and most meaningful relationship with a woman (the English captain’s widow) might reveal. She provides him with money in his early days and faithfully takes care of his money while he is a castaway.

In this context, Aristotle the legendary Greek philosopher, seems right in saying that “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual.”

Similarly a research article published in an Indian daily “The Hindu,” asserts that it is nearly impossible for a human to live or survive alone without any need or help from the society. In the words of the author, “Man cannot live alone, he must satisfy certain natural basic needs in order to survive. He has to enter into relationships with his fellowmen for living a life. No man can break the shackles of mutual dependence. This begins perhaps between the embryo and the mother and continues till his last breath. The need of the embryo may be more physical than mental, but the mother’s need is the other way round.”

However, in spite of these truths, glorifying oneself seems to have become the chief end of the most of the people, especially in this age of smart-phone and selfies that has already been turned into a work of art. And “self-worship” is emerging as the world’s fastest growing religion, a religion that is also believed to be lying beneath many of the most hot-button social and political issues of our day. And what seems more ironical and even paradoxical is that on the one hand “selfie” is an exercise in recording self-made private/individual memories/adventures and projection of self-image, on the other hand the self-worshipper feels a pressing need to share them with hundred or thousands of friends including strangers online?

There is a quote that is attributed to John Bright (a British radical and liberal statesman who was also an MP and actively opposed the Corn laws of 19th century that were designed to protect English farmers from inexpensive foreign imports of grains) which says something like this:

Although this quote has many versions and is also attributed to many other people, such as William Allen Butler, Henry Clapp, Junius Henri Browne, Howard Crosby, Henry Armitt Brown etc., the essence of the quote is same. For instance, a similar quote is also attributed to the humorist Henry Clapp in The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (J.T. White, 1907), p. 121: “World, H. G. is a self-made man, and worships his creator."

But irrespective of the ambiguity about its original author or speaker and/or version, its message is clear and unambiguous that the term “Self-Made” smacks of arrogance, boastfulness, and egoism or self-centeredness. In other words, it implies that man’s creator is man himself and thus when he worships his creator he is worshiping himself. And worshiping yourself is nothing less than erecting the idol of (your) self that you also want others to worship. It all results in self deception and self-deception is hard to spot in ourselves because it covers its own tracks. As Lewis Smedes put it, “first we deceive ourselves, and then we convince ourselves that we are not deceiving ourselves.” This, in turn causes many problems in society. One of the commonest form of self-deception is “self-enhancement” that is overestimating or projecting our good qualities to make others as well as ourselves feel good. For instance, according to a report in “Independent” titled “Hitler’s art of self-delusion,” Nazi leader Hitler remained convinced he was an artistic genius and was often irritatingly obsessed by art despite his failure as a painter. His three paintings (that were put up for sale by a Nuremberg auction house in 2009) reportedly fetched more than €15,000 (£13,000) apiece. Experts on Hitler’s paintings rate one of the watercolours, entitled White Church in the Wachau, as one of his chief works.

Here is also another version of the quote that tells “self-made” man is an egoistic man:

What the egotist “self-made” claimants or pretenders ignore is that we all are born in a ready made environment that is most favourable for our survival. In other words, we all live in a “built-together reality” as was put by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham in their book The Self-Made Myth: And the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed. In addition of government, informal society also helps (so-called successful) individuals from birth to death. Mother’s milk starts developing in her breasts in mid-pregnancy (around 12–18 weeks) even before the coming of the baby in the world. And the milk gets thicker and thicker and creamier in texture as the feeding continues. Moreover, mothers lap is not only the safest place for physical growth but also the first school for mental and spiritual development. Mother is believed to be the child’s most trusted friend and teacher who enables and prepares a child for the coming challenges of life with utmost love and care. Then comes the father who is the doorway of this school. After some three or four years, the child is sent to school where they learn social behaviours, socializing tricks and develop their personality.” After the education, state and society provide further opportunities for professional life. Thus from cradle to grave we are always dependent on the society including, family, community, and state. I addition to that farmers, manufacturers, and professional like doctors, teachers, social workers, bankers, transporters etc. provide necessary goods and service to make our life comfortable.Then there are artists, poets, writers, singers etc, who provide comfort for the soul.

In short, when we are born we are totally impotent and thus dependent on our parents and family for all our needs from food to shelter and growth as we are ignorant of the laws of life and must cry out to get the help we need. After a year or so, we can stand on our feet and walk a little. When we are about fifteen, we are expected to have understood the difference between good and evil, the beneficial and the harmful. And the life long learning continues in a social environment.

Hence it can’t be negated that society creates conditions and opportunities for the all round development of individual personality. Society ensures harmony and cooperation among individuals in spite of their occasional conflicts and tensions. Moreover if society helps the individuals in numerous ways, great men also contribute to society by their wisdom and experience. Thus, society and individuals are bound by an intimate and harmonious bond and the conflicts between the two are apparent and momentary. In a well-ordered society, there would be lasting harmony between the two.

Although Rumi famously said that “You are not a drop in the ocean, but an entire ocean in a drop,” but if there is no ocean there is no drop.

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Aizaz Baqir

I am a freelance writer and translator based in Multan, Pakistan having interests in reading, writing, travelling and social services.