May 16, 2013

The Myth of the Self-Made Person

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

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?

Bomb suspectOprahBf

The answer: All of these individuals are said to have become who they are by their own individual means.

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.

SculptureThe 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.


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That's interesting, as I believe that we can change and become whomever we like. However, surrounding yourself with the kinds of people you'd like to emulate helps a lot! :)

It's curious that as a sociologist you have decided to attempt a conversation on this topic from the perspective that to describe oneself as self-made or autodidactict strictly entails one believing that they have achieved their success within a "vacuum" without any extrinsic input. I disagree that anyone would believe such an idea about those labels.

It is a narrow and incomplete presumption to present this topic from such an isolated perspective. Care was not taken to assess how the public understands these labels, which is generally an "expert" mistake since experts often presume they are sole bastions of their specialized knowledge.

The self-made autodidact is not a person who believes they could not have gotten where they are without the help and input of others. They recognize they could not be there without the guidance and direction both directly and indirectly, consciously and unconsciously from the people and circumstances that constitute their lives.

However, what is a more appropriate understanding of the self-made autodidact is that they were not propelled by any one conventional method, individual, or circumstance be it university, a demanding parent, or the "right place right time". Each self-made person, each autodidact has their own understanding of why they apply that label. Generally speaking, these people have circumnavigated and even broke through and defied convention to attain their goals.

Therein lies the complexity of this argument. It is not a simple matter of a neatly packaged definition attributed by those who otherwise followed convention and stand opposite to autodidactic individuals; at least in majority.

There isn't an issue using the label "self-made" as the majority of the population understands what I've just explained. People really aren't that naive. Your article still has merit, but only as a subcategory to this conversation.

As for the terrorists, the President's label of "self-radicalized" simply meant that the brothers were directly connected to any extremist faction that urged them to do it that the FBI knew of. I'm not exactly sure why you believe the President or anyone else believes self-radicalized means having developed via complete isolation and totally disconnection from the outside world. That's a narrow perspective.

Typo: The brothers were "not" directly connected to any extremist faction.

And to clarify, experts generally view the general public as not having any additional, quality information that they don't know about. This isn't to say they aren't open-minded. However, I was happy to read James Suroweicki's book The Wisdom of Crowds, which dives into the issue of experts vs non-experts. It is truly a remarkable expose on this dichotomy and the implications it has for future growth in nearly every market, industry, etc.

And lastly, I recognize my comments may come off as aggressive, but I assure you they are simply meant to provide a necessary challenge to you current (or past 2013) understanding of the issue. It doesn't mean I'm right. But if I'm not, it's your job to rebuttal and provide me good perspective/information that can help to realign my understanding.


This is so insightful, a really authentic take on the whole concept of the ‘Self-Made’ individual. An important factor acknowledged here is that we live in a society and humans naturally thrive as social beings, by benefiting each other. So choosing ‘Socially-Made’ as an alternate terminology does indeed seem most fitting. We’ve actually curated an article along the same lines, which may help one gain more clarity, do give it a read:

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