So, You Think You’re Self-Made?
When it comes to how money and wealth are distributed in society, we’re asked to accept that it all depends on our usefulness. If we can create things that other people want, money and wealth will naturally flow into our pockets.
So what if the top 1% own nearly 30% of all the wealth in the United States?
So what if the top 20% own nearly 80% of all the wealth?
This is just the way the world works, right? If you’re a productive member of society, the market rewards you. And if you’re not, well, tough.
In North America, we have this unusual tendency to view ourselves as islands. We believe that the success we achieve is solely determined by our own ingenuity, passion, and grit, and that we, therefore, reap what we sow.
We use expressions like “self-made” to describe those we think are like forces of nature — nothing could have stopped them from achieving greatness.
But, can anyone really “make it” alone?
Competition first requires cooperation
We are all competing for finite resources, so we think of others as opponents or, at least, as barriers to us getting what we want. While that may be true to some extent, it’s not the whole picture.
If you watch any sporting event — like a football game or a tennis match — it’s obvious that everyone wants to win. There’s nothing like sports to get the competitive juices flowing. Everyone is competing against everyone else, and this pushes athletes to perform their best. This is a good thing.
But, we’ve all seen video clips in which a person or team refuses to play by the rules. The typically orderly events descend into chaos, and the game or match must be put on hold. In extreme cases, violence erupts and, suddenly, the skills that the athletes had developed over a lifetime are rendered meaningless.
We tend to forget that any game is defined by a strict series of rules and, critically, everyone playing is agreeing to abide by those rules. If someone behaves in a way that doesn’t align with the rules, everyone agrees they should be penalized according to the rules.
Even in sports — which is defined by competition — we’re cooperating with each other. And when we stop cooperating, the game can’t go on.
Cooperation, then, is a prerequisite of competition.
When people say they’re “self-made”, they’ve ignored or forgotten that as they rose in rank, wealth, and power they relied on others to follow the already established “rules of the game.” If society, generally, had decided not to follow the rules, perhaps none of those outcomes would have been achieved.
Therefore, no “self-made” person exists. At least, not in the way we typically understand the term.
When we recognize that cooperation is the defining factor that enables people to find success in society, it changes things.
Most importantly, it cuts through the lie we’ve been sold that what we achieve in life is entirely dependent on our own ingenuity, passion, and grit. These things matter but only because we cooperate with each other. If no one followed the rules, the landscapes of our lives would be unrecognizable.
Imagine there was no reliable source from which to borrow money. Imagine getting beat up for your wallet was a regular occurrence. Imagine you couldn’t trust your employer to honor a contract. Imagine the outcomes of the legal system were purchased by the highest bidder. Imagine there was no insurance to cover you if your house burned down.
Under any of these circumstances, the trajectories of our lives could easily have been very different.
Second, understanding that cooperation underpins society helps us recognize that just because the market distributes money and wealth to certain individuals doesn’t mean they deserve to have it.
You can believe one of these statements, but you can’t believe both:
- Your success is a result of your actions alone, and therefore you deserve everything you’ve earned; or
- Your success is dependent on the cooperation of everyone within society, and therefore you deserve only a part of what you’ve earned.
The idea that anyone is “self-made” is delusional or arrogant, or both. Some people might have overcome incredible odds, that’s true, but they still did that in a context where people were generally cooperating with each other — in a context where they could reasonably predict how others would behave.
It’s time to stop telling each other that we simply need to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” to find success. It’s time we accepted the liberating perspectives that no one is an island, that we depend upon each other, and that everyone deserves to live with dignity.
The alternative is to watch as power and wealth are slowly but surely consolidated into the hands of the lucky few, who will forever justify this position by pointing to all their accomplishments and claiming that they relied on no one but themselves to get there.
This is not just wrong, it’s unsustainable. You can only push people so far.
Can’t you already feel the tension?
Thanks for reading!
The ideas presented here have been influenced by thinkers like Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris.