art, Crazy, General, Strange

25 of the Greatest Self-Made Men

As the year comes to an end it’s time to reevaluate where you stand, your current situation, and stuff like that. Time to get a resolution and stick to it, not like last year. This year is different…!

When I’m actually motivated I think I’m not half-bad at stuff. So when I see a list of the 25 Greatest Self-Made Men (courtesy The Art of Manliness), I think to myself “Hey self, get of the couch and apply yourself, work hard everyday, have discipline and you could make ONE MILLION DOLLARS. Cash.” Then I hit the bong again and watch Big Trouble in Little China.

The idea of the self-made man is inextricably tied up with that of the American dream. It is his image that has lured thousands of immigrants to our shores, all hoping for the chance to turn a handful of beans into a vast fortune.  The self-made man is he who comes from unpromising circumstances, who is not born into privilege and wealth, and yet by his own efforts, by pulling himself up by the bootstraps, manages to become a great success in life. Frederick Douglass, a self-made man himself, said the discussion of self-made men was the discussion of “manhood itself, and this in its broadest and most comprehensive sense.” Douglass sensed that the story of the self-made man is the story of manliness personified. The self-made man harnesses and utilizes the most important masculine qualities: hard work, perseverance, and most of all, personal responsibility. The story of the self-made man embodies the goal of every man: to become the captain of his own destiny.

What is a self-made man?

Although typically associated with the rags to riches story, a self-made man is anyone who attains far greater success than his original circumstances would have indicated was possible. The self-made man often has to overcome great obstacles to achieve his goals. Self-made men attain their success through education, hard work, and sheer willpower. While no man is an island, it’s not external help or special relationships that make the crucial difference in the self-made man’s rise.

Nor is luck the deciding factor. Society loves the story of a man whose success came to him largely by chance, from an opportunity dropped from the sky. Such stories allow unsuccessful men to excuse their failure as due to unavoidable bad luck and demerit the success of others by chalking their achievements up to chance. Sadly, too many men today believe that lounging on the shore, waiting for their ship to come in, constitutes the best pathway to reaching their goals. Instead, self-made men throughout history have made their own way in life by reaching deep inside themselves and through willpower and elbow grease, creating their own destiny. While there are always many factors to success, all are subordinate to work, which is the great key to success.

The History of the Self-Made Man

In his rise from being the son of a candle maker to a legend among men, Benjamin Franklin became America’s original self-made man. Abraham Lincoln likewise captured the public imagination when he made the improbable leap from lowly log-cabin to the White House. Yet the concept really took hold in American culture during the post Civil-War period. The so-called Second Industrial Revolution was in full swing, new inventions quickly made men rich and famous, and factories sprung from the ground, seemingly overnight. While a young man’s destiny had formerly been laid out for him practically at birth (he would follow his father into the family business) the possibility now existed to leave hearth and home and strike out for one’s individual success. For the young man who was willing to work hard and get ahead, the nation seemed to offer innumerable opportunities to strike it rich. Inspired by real examples like Andrew Carnegie and the fictional heroes of Horatio Alger’s novels, a man’s success seemed limited only by his drive and ambition.

After the heyday of the self-made man, the concept took several hits. During the 1920’s, America experienced a (thankfully) brief infatuation with eugenics and the idea that a man’s destiny and character were almost entirely determined by his DNA. The idea of the self-made man was further weakened during the Great Depression, when men who had seemingly done all the right things-worked hard, scrimped, saved, and invested- saw their fortunes wiped out and all they had worked for washed away. Buffeted by grave external forces, it was hard to retain faith in the idea that one’s life remained in one’s control.

The modern age continued to assault our culture’s belief in the self-made man. Sociologists and public policy experts stressed the effect of poverty and culture in determining an individual’s success, arguing that these factors greatly inhibited the rise of those beset by them. My American history textbook in college twice called the idea of the self-made man “a myth.” Most recently, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, posits that great achievement is largely the result of cultural background and good luck.

Read the rest of the story at The Art of Manliness.