Shattering the myth of the self-made human
Here’s why we all need a little help to get by.
Busting myths and changing narratives can be a key step towards making a change in your life. Take, for example, the myth that you can be a “self-made” person.
The truth is that success is a team sport. It typically involves a combination of personal effort, inherited advantages, and external support.
Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard and starting Microsoft with Paul Allen in a garage is not the full story.
The Rupert family starting life as poor South African immigrants is not the full story.
The late Dr Richard Maponya’s rags-to-riches success under tough Apartheid conditions is not the full story.
Usain Bolt did not become the fastest runner on the planet on his own.
Yes, they all worked hard and deserved their success. But they all had help.
Buying into the “self–made” myth creates an impression that success and wealth are achieved purely by the sweat of your brow.
We also tend to believe the corollary, that if you have not achieved wealth or success by working hard on your own, then it’s your fault, and you’re a failure. That’s untrue.
It reinforces individualism and ignores the systemic barriers in society.
As Bonang Mohale, Professor of Practice at Johannesburg Business School puts it, “If hard work is directly correlated with wealth, then all African women should be billionaires.”
Let’s take a look at some of the factors that help people to succeed.
Genetics: We are the realisation of our ancestors’ wildest dreams
The Scottish philosopher and author, William MacAskill, believes we should be grateful to our ancestors for the luxuries we enjoy today.
We have harnessed heat, insulated against the cold, crossed oceans, discovered fire, forks, fridges, and Facebook, all thanks to the progress made by our ancestors.
We are not isolated individuals. Our existence is intertwined with the progress made by those who came before us.
Our genetic makeup, gifted to us by our ancestors, shapes our potential for success.
Environment: We are shaped by our environmental context
Our psychological and behavioural differences are influenced by a complex interaction between our genes and our environment.
In 2009, MIT scientist Deb Roy launched what he called the Speechome project. Using cameras and microphones, he recorded his son’s first three years of life.
By analysing 100,000 hours of data, he discovered that children who grow up in homes with irregular meal times, lack of routine, and multipurpose rooms, tend to develop language skills at a slower pace.
In South Africa, many people live in overcrowded spaces, with multiple occupants and multifunctional rooms.
Understanding these challenges can help us show more empathy and provide nurturing support for vulnerable and marginalised individuals.
Community: We get by with a little help from our friends
When it comes to our aspirations for success, significance, wealth, and physical and mental well-being, it’s important not to be afraid to ask for help.
When Steve Jobs was 12 years old, he called Bill Hewlett, a co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, to request spare parts for a frequency counter.
Hewlett not only sent him the parts but offered the future co-founder of Apple a summer job at Hewlett-Packard.
Most people never pick up the phone and call. That’s what separates those who do from those who only dream about doing.
We recommend the following five practices as the bedrock of success:
- Build a support network
This can include building strong relationships with colleagues, participating in professional or community organisations, maintaining connections with friends and acquaintances, and having mentors, sponsors, or executive coaches.
- Be open and honest about your needs and limitations
Getting the assistance you need can help you avoid burnout and other issues that may result from taking on excessive tasks. It’s okay to not be okay.
- Seek professional help when needed
If you’re facing difficulties in your work or personal life, try consulting a therapist or coach who can offer guidance and support.
- Help others by “paying it forward”
Helping others allows you to build community and strengthen your support network.
Whether it’s a colleague struggling with a project, a friend going through a tough time, or a community organisation in need of volunteers, extending a helping hand can have a positive impact.
- Take care of yourself, physically and mentally
Get enough sleep, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, practice mindfulness or other stress-reducing activities, and avoid negative self-talk.
Ban “I am useless, I am a failure” from your vocabulary. Replace it with “Everyone struggles. I am human”.