The oversold fallacy of the self made person

I work in technology. And when you work in technology there’s a huge Silicon Vally influence on how you’re taught to think, feel and behave. With Silicon Valley being in America, a lot this is based on the American dream. The story of people going from rags to riches, making it on their own — conquering the world and defeating all the odds.

But, before I get started with the bulk of this post, I want to get a few things out of the way:

  1. If you haven’t read Outliers: The Story of Successby Malcolm Gladwell, I couldn’t recommend it more.
  2. This isn’t a post that takes away from how hard we all work, it doesn’t invalidate the 20 hour days you might be working or the self sacrifices you’ve made to be successful.
  3. This is a post that is trying to shine a light on how we can recognise our own privilege, the negative attributes of what we see as success and, crucially, the stories we tell ourselves about what success means.

Now that that’s out of the way, a lot of what I’m going to write about isn’t original and I don’t want to claim I’m the first person to think or write about this — but it’s something that I think is massively important to open a discussion about.

But, why is it important?

When you’re consistently told that people are able to go from rags to riches on their own, without any help or support it creates a false economy for success. It leads to a negative working culture where burnout is a reality, where you’re pushed to work 20 hours a day in the hope that you can help yourself make it.

We ignore all of the help and support that we’ve had along the way. From the simple words of encouragement, through to the person who gave you your first job. All of those little tidbits are insights into how we become successful and to ignore them is to ignore the real journey you’ve been on.

More often than not, a lot of these crucial details that are left out of rags to riches stories. Again, this isn’t a criticism of successful people — no one can ever take away from success, it’s just time to open up the conversation about the journey to success.

Somewhere along the line, the people who have “made it”, have had help, support or even something as simple as someone believing in them. Malcolm Gladwell does a really good job of explaining this in his book and it’s important that we can open up the conversation about the reality of success.

Those stories are as important as anything.

We are taught that people can go at it on their own, defy the odds and live to tell the tale. What we don’t get taught is the about the mentor they had who helped point them in the right direction, the supportive partner who helped paid the bills or the teacher who gave them extra lessons to ace that test that got them into Oxbridge. In talking about this stuff, you’re giving yourself the credit you deserve but you’re also being honest about the opportunities and privilege you’ve had — that humility is worth more to someone struggling than your success.

Our access to networks, community and different models, modes and ways of thinking are as important to our success as the ability to do our jobs. It’s important to pay kudos to the people who have helped get you to where you are (thanks mum and dad!). As much as success is down to the individual, it’s because of the people you have around you too — even if your success is despite them.

Reading Radical Help really spoke to me about the difference between success and failure lying in the hands of the communities and networks we build for ourselves (or in reality, the ones that we have access to). Plus, it highlights that the things we consider to be luck or coincidence, are in reality things that have been built into the systems we have access to.

For example, where you live often determines where you go to school, which will determine your peers, networks, education and role models. Dependent on who you have in your life, will determine how you interpret your prospects, ambition and so on.

So, what we think is luck or hard work, is often prewritten for us and we owe it to the people around us to be honest about those things. When we look at successful people, look at who they’ve had around them their whole lives — that will help reveal the truth of their rags to riches story.

Finally, success is personal.

There is no set, final, definitive definition of success. Success is personal. It’s something that you and only you can define. What you perceive as a leg up or success can often mean the opposite to the person you’re thinking about. It’s important to detach your judgement of other people’s success, help or hinderance, and focus on your own.

What does success mean to you? Who’s helped you on your journey?

We’re taught that success is equal to money and power. But, that is not what success means to me (that’s a whole other blog). Success is whatever you want it to be, it could be:

  • How many people you can help
  • The impact you have
  • The amount of people you make smile
  • How many sneakers you can buy
  • How much cake you can eat
  • How many press ups you can do

There are micro and macro definitions of success and it’s important to define and determine your own, rather than trying to live up to someone else’s.

Take some time to reflect

A true mantra of mine, self reflection is key. Take the time to understand your own journey and your own definition of success, and use that to help guide you.

Start telling your story, your real story and help shift the narrative from rags to riches, and start giving kudos, props and a realistic portrayal of how you’ve made it.

If you want to encourage someone to think about the external factors that they might have overlooked in their story, ask them about it. Take the time to really engage, listen and ask questions. Don’t just write it off as another story but dig a bit deeper. And if you’re the one being questions, take the time to think of your answers. Is there something you’ve missed out? Is there someone you always call for advice? Those bits of gold add more humanity to your story, they don’t take away from it.

Let’s shift the narrative to help give people the tools they need to get more access to opportunities, to level the playing field and to help people have the tools to define their own success.