The Myth of the Self-Made Person
What do the alleged Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have in common with Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, J.K. Rowling, Jimi Hendrix, and Ben Franklin?
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are said to have been self-radicalized. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, and J.K. Rowling are all said to be self-made billionaires. Jimi Hendrix, named as the greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone, is said to have been self-taught. Ben Franklin is often invoked as “America’s first self-made man.”
The official term for those who are self-directed or self-taught learners is autodidacticism. Although there are many well known so-called autodidacts, in the folklore of American history the most famous is the Horatio Alger story of the man who goes from rags to riches by “pulling himself up by his bootstraps.” The stories of Alger are often invoked as literary metaphors for achieving the American Dream.
I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this concept of autodidactism. To me, it seems like an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms. Even in Alger’s stories, the individual who goes from rags to riches is often aided by a willing and wealthy benefactor. So can we honestly say that a person is self-radicalized, self-taught, or self-made? Is it really possible for someone to become a terrorist, a billionaire, or a great artist completely on their own?
From a sociological standpoint, the answer to both of these questions is a resounding NO. After all, one of the basic principles of sociology suggests that we are social animals living in a social world who are socially created through our social interaction. It goes without saying that we are not self-contained individuals living independently and becoming ourselves through self-reflection, self-direction, or any other solitary experience.
The notion of the self-made person is arguably the most anti-sociological sentiment that we hear about in a society that often fails to grasp the sociological imagination. By invoking such a claim we are ignoring and discounting the whole array of social influences that make us who we are. The self-made myth disregards the indisputable fact that our lives are shaped by a myriad of social forces such as the people with whom interact, the resources (or lack thereof) at our disposal, and the formal and informal rules that govern behavior. Sociologists often refer to this explanation as the issue of agency (our capability to act a certain way) and structure (the factors that enable or constrain behavior).
The myth of the self-made person also rejects another foundational premise of sociology: interdependence. As I explained in a previous post, interdependence is the idea that all life is connected; none of us exist in a vacuum. Many of us like to believe that we blaze our own trail largely free from the influence of others. In truth, the values we hold dear, the norms we follow, the behaviors in which we engage, and even the thoughts that go through our minds result from the interdependent web of relationships in which we exist.
To say that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became radicalized on his own is just as misleading as saying that Oprah Winfrey is solely responsible for amassing her fortune. In both instances, as in all instances of autodidacts, these individuals could not become who they are—good or bad—merely through self-direction, self-initiative, or self-knowledge. All of us are products of the on-going life process of socialization (a third foundational premise of sociology that the self-made myth rejects). From the various agents of socialization—family, peers, religion, media, education, government—we learn how to be members of society. Socialization also plays the important role of influencing what, how, and why we become who we do—be it a Boston Marathon bomber, a billionaire, or a recent college graduate who is undecided about the future.
Not surprisingly, this last point about the social foundations of aspiration is often overlooked. This is what occurred when President Obama referred to Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as self-radicalized. The assumption is that the brothers developed their views on their own without being trained directly by any militant fundamentalist organization. Although it may be true that the brothers were not formally involved in any such groups, it is terribly misleading to imply that their views and their actions were not the product of social relationships and social influences.
The self-made myth is both popular and seductive because we are attracted to the idea that each of is the master of our own destiny. There is something comforting in believing that you can be whoever and whatever you want to be. Sociologists are less likely to endorse this perspective because we recognize and acknowledge the power of the social world in shaping individual lives. The sociological position does not negate or deny that each of has some agency or individual initiative that we may wield; however, we are cautious to not to swing the balance too far to the individual-only side. Whether one is a suspected terrorist, a billionaire, or a recent college graduate, I would resist the moniker “self-made” and instead speak of the socially-made person. It’s not as convenient, catchy, or snappy as self-made but it is definitely more accurate.