Monday, December 01, 2014

The Myth of the Self-Made man.

Wow ! It has been a while since I blogged. I've been busy on my first Law Exams which took me out for about 3 weeks, and after that, I've been playing Dragon Age : Inquisition and trying to move into my new condominium.

It's going to be almost a year since my last pay-check and it's been quite a struggle maintaining my fiscal balance in 2014. I have to settle two semesters of fees and condominium furniture and appliances on a year of investment income and I've been barely making it with some of my counters declaring fewer dividends ( like that blasted Sabana Reit counter ) over the months ahead. But so far so good, one of the biggest benefits of law school is that I no longer have any time to enjoy the stuff that I eventually pay for so my personal expenses have dipped below $200 a week.

2015 is all about interest rates with the Fed expected to raise rates over the year. Everyone is speculating how this would impact their investments, but Im going to sit this one out as I believe that many other countries like the EU and Japan will start their own QE in the months to come.

Today I'm just going to blog on what I've been observing among my non-law school friends ( Yes, I now have two categories of friends because of social pressure to conform to law school norms of drinking and talking about cases. ). As you know, many of us are approaching our forties and I've been realising that we middle-aged uncles, having sort of found our positions in society, are starting to erect very elaborate psychological defences to cope with middle age.

One such defence is the idea that there is such a thing as a self-made man.

The idea of the self-made man comes in many forms. The "weak form" of the self-made man idea is that it is inherently more noble not to receive help if you have privileges in society. A "strong form" is that you are actually better off not receiving help even if it is normally expected that you do so because we are an Asian society because it makes you grittier and more amenable to succeed.

Personally I think that this idea is comforting because it has a hidden purpose and meaning. When faced with mid-life and mediocre life outcomes, middle aged men like myself want to create that impression that we did it the harder way. It's an act of the mythologizing the self, so that we seem more heroic in spite of our pathetically average life outcomes in our health, finances and relationships. It's also quite easy to find evidence to support this stance, there is always a wastrel in the family from the rich side of the branch who amounts to nothing ( We forget that folks who are low in conscientiousness can come from both the rich and poor branches of a family ).

I'm against such psychological defences ( I am actually not entitled to it because I grew up in a relatively ok middle class household. )

My first disagreement is that there is no nobility in mediocrity. There should be little nobility in success, if you feel morally superior, use your success to help others. No point crimping yourself and not receiving help from your rich parents when you can give so much more to the world if only you get a slight push. You might as well say that you have average outcomes because you are a good and moral person.

My second disagreement is that a gritty life is a choice. If you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth, it's still your prerogative to choose a harder target to meet. If you have more, you can desire to achieve more.  If your peers are trying to get to a University, you can always choose to create jobs for others because you have started out with so much more. In Dragon Age III, you can choose the level of difficulty of your play experience. You can slam rich and successful people but there are those among their ranks who have created thousands of jobs today who would never apologise for using their social advantages.

My third disagreement is that even if you did not receive advantages from your family. A lot for folks are blessed if they have families which do not impose a burden upon them. You need to explain why you are mediocre when some folks who are born to gambler parents can still achieve greatness. In such a case, the psychological defence fails when someone who have less than you do, end up doing so much more.

Finally, I think folks who adopt this stance needs to ask themselves this question : If you really believe in the self-made man and that it is better not to tap your natural social and economic advantages - are you consistent with that philosophy when raising your children ?

Do you deny your children comforts, refuse to pay for tuition or even refuse to give them your personal time ? After all, if you are truly consistent, your kids will be grittier and more successful right ?

At this point, if I go further, I would just generally end up losing my friend.




  1. Some parts of this post remind me of Facebook articles that circulated when steve jobs died. The article would describe his less than desirable background, and contrast it with his legacy. And then end off with "what is your excuse?"

    I believe in the ovarian lottery and that you should use every resource at your disposal to get a head start. We have been programmed to admire people who built their empires from thin air with their own bare hands, but whatever man, whichever way gets the job done is the way.

  2. Of course, that being said, we should also not give too much credit to those who make it because luck and circumstances play a major role in their success a well.

  3. very thought provoking post :--)

    is a self-made man same as self-reliant, a virtue that is diminishing in today fast paced world?

    I am of the opinion what we are seeing is the tip of the ice-berg. The behavior that you mentioned underlies the need to be accepted and loved by the people we are closed to...........

    why is it so tough to go about our own life without telling people? Simply, we are all social beings and the need to be connected is vital.

    Don't we all want praise, a pat on the back, a word of encouragement or a hug that we had put in the effort and telling the world to appreciate us for what we had done?

    I see that a lot of times in my clients with their struggle in their relationship.

    I would pick up the lessons from the self-made man - determination, confidence and ability to stand in the heat and apply to my own live.

    thank you.

  4. Personally think that we all should be self-man man as we are the only one should be responsible to our life and no one else. Ultimately, only we can make ourselves laugh, cry, sad or happy.

  5. Hi Christopher,

    I think behind every self made man is a man who thinks if he has the backing of a successful and rich parents, he'll be able to achieve even more. As you put it, it's merely a psychological defense to cope with life without having such backings.

    I'm not beyond seeking help from my parents, but they are unable to do so. It's good enough they don't have to take up a lot of my resources. I've known friends whose parents quit the moment they graduated to enjoy their rightful retirement, all at the expense of their kids who had to give maybe more than half of their salary to their parents to support them, ON TOP OF settling their own life. It's a miracle they can even stand on their own feet with such a big burden.

    To them, a big salute. I'm glad my parents aren't like that. So neutral is not such a bad position, given that parents can possibly be a net-liability to oneself.

    Either way, I desire to be successful. Without the backing of parents, so be it. I'll still achieve success in spite of it. That should be the attitude.