Thursday, December 31, 2009

The myth of "a self-made man"

I wish to welcome the new year 2010 with a sobering thought! Hence this post.

Many first-generation successful people across the world are often showered with the typical "Oh, he is a self-made man. We are so proud of him." This typically happens with people who have not had a family history of 'success' in the same field. This showering of praise is, in fact, so typical and regular, that people start getting accustomed to it, and some actually start believing it, i.e. they start believing that they are "truly self-made".

Believe me - nothing is further from the truth. THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A TRULY SELF-MADE MAN in this world.

So, if there is nothing like purely self-made, what is the truth? Who are achievers then? Are their achievements not worth celebrating?

The truth is - we are all mere reflections of sum total of all effort that has gone into our making by tens, or maybe hundreds of other individuals who are part of our lives. Our family, relatives, community and friends. Each one of them shapes a certain part of our personality, and without knowing it, we start owning it as if "we" built it in the first place! These individuals who affect our lives, are in turn, a product of many more such individuals who affected them, and so on. It's a really long chain!

The more successful you are, the more "polished" a reflection you are of the sum total of this aggregate effort of others. (Yes, this means that your effort is going into shaping others, at the same time.)

What kind of efforts go into the shaping of us, as human beings? I feel 4 most important factors are:

  1. Aggregate Human Evolution Effort - Lacs and lacs of humans have lived and died before us, and their entire learnings have gotten codified in some or the other format into us. Yes, "into us". There are two basic ways this codification happens - genes, and memes. Genes are the biological tools through which eons of cumulative group learning of mankind is passed onto the coming generations .. so like it or not - your parents' genes that were passed onto you, had eons of wisdom gathered at the cost of millions of human lives. Similarly, cultural learnings that are passed onto us, are memes. They are as profound, if not more, than genes. So we find that right from birth, we are inescapably tied to our past - and our personalities and character have strong links to everything that's preceded us. Of course, rationalists often contest this view, finding it too demeaning to accept. But I am sure of the importance of this singularly important fact - we are but just a reflection of our past humanity. Interestingly, this "toll tax" paid by humanity through the deaths of millions of humans by diseases (over millennia) has resulted in the fantastic immune system we carry within our bodies. To find out what happens without it, just watch the Hollywood blockbuster "War of the worlds". So, full credit for these basic codes (which we simply inherit without any effort) goes to our ancestors, not us.
  2. Deep Cultural Impact - We did not invent the alphabet, did we? Someone else did. That "someone" was not "one", but "a society" or "a series of societies". All we are doing today is enjoying the rich dividends of not being born at that point in time in history when the alphabet was still evolving. We have inherited the refined and fully evolved alphabet from our forefathers and we start learning it as a matter of fact, from our nursery and KG standards. To understand what we would be without this unique advantage, imagine your situation if you had no alphabet to learn in your early years, but were told to invent one. 99% of us would have died illiterate, trying to climb trees or eke out a living from the caves! So, full credit for this advantage that is conferred upon us goes to our ancestors, and not us. (I use the word Deep to connote the immensity of time that it took to develop). Yes, this logic naturally can be extended further, and we can clearly see that a hundred years from now, our grand-grand-children will be enjoying the fruits of our labour - imagine what Facebook and Orkut would have evolved into by then, and just visualise what medical science would have become by then! Do you really think you will want our grand-grand-children to take full credit of science and technology's state of affairs as it will exist then? Naturally not! A lot of that will be owed to you, the generation that's evolving it today, using the building blocks left for us by those who preceded us.
  3. Deep Scientific Impact - The alphabet and the seemingly basic cultural memes are elementary tools that help us stand up in modern society as "humans". But there are refined versions of these tools, like scientific theories and facts that help us evolve really fast as "modern complex humans" able to live in a technological society. You may take pride in your scores and marks in the school tests and college exams, but who designed the theories you are using so effortlessly? Did you invent ANY ONE of these? Or even a part of any one of these? NO. It's a one-in-a-million chance that YOU will invent/discover anything of lasting value to mankind. Yes, your contribution will help things improve incrementally, but chances are rare that you will do something that totally changes things. Individually, we all are pretty feeble creatures. Our wonder lies in our cumulative wisdom, the sparks amongst us that shine so strong that they illuminate everyone around, howsoever mediocre. Albert Einstein famously said - "All I have done is stand on the shoulders of giants who came before me and look farther afield than would have been possible had I done it all by myself." So it is true that all we do is take what is already available in society, make it our own (by paying a price - time or money we spend) and move on claiming full "ownership" of that knowledge. But that knowledge is not ours! Even copyright and patent-holders are not truly the owners of what they have made. Come to think of it! A significant part of their incomes must be donated to charity as a mark of respect for the generations (that came earlier) and contributed towards the basic tools that enabled these people to build something bigger and better. Could Google have existed without the alphabet, the University system, the decimal system, the microprocessors, the legal system, and the pioneers of the algorithms? Sergei and Larry are lucky they had all of that handed over to them on a platter while they were growing up.
  4. Immediate Societal Acceptance - no man (and woman) is anything or anybody unless the existing society accepts his/her creation and applauds it. So the brutal truth is - no matter how good you think you are, if others do not think so, and express so, you are a nobody! So who makes whom here? Are we making "ourselves" or are others making us? Anyone rude enough to feel he has made his own destiny, is missing the whole point. Steve Jobs is the king of the corporate world only because we think he is uber-cool, not because he thinks so.
These are humbling thoughts. But they are helpful. They help us understand our limits, and the very nature of our own existence. Intertwined destinies.

So if all this is correct, why do people not see it this way? Not anyone's fault really. We humans are so caught up in our day-to-day affairs of existence, that it is very difficult for most of us to see the bigger picture that lies ahead. So forget about the big picture that lies behind! Just pick up the newspapers on first of January 2010 and see the headlines - they all will talk of "inventing the future" in the next 10 years. Very few will talk about how we reached here (that will have no value for advertisers!). Nothing wrong with that. This is human nature. We always look ahead, and it is too much to expect people to keep remembering the past!

Well, so does Rajkumar Hirani (3 Idiots fame) deserve all the success he has? Does Aamir Khan deserve it? Yes, they do, but the primary reason they are sooooo successful is that they delved deep into what existed already (themes, concepts, learnings, thoughts, people, processes...) and dug up things more intensely than most others did. And then they connected these seemingly disparate pieces so well, that it all added up to something fantastic. But even they wouldn't be what they are, without "us" - their fans! So there.

Honestly, I can guarantee that there are at least ten more Rajkumar Hiranis out there who are more talented than "the" Rajkumar Hirani, but they never got the chance, the break, or the good luck to showcase themselves. Same holds true for Sandeep Manudhane as well.

So, should we lose all internal motivation, now that we have read all this? Not at all. Human history has been one of continuous striving. From the Egyptian pyramids to the Harappan civilisation, and Alexander's conquests to the European Renaissance.. we always strive no matter what. Our destiny is tied with this inner urge to strive. And the "achievers" amongst us those who have this sense of striving exhibited publicly the strongest. Yes, if we agree with what's written here, then we will surely feel a "different sense" of accomplishment every time now. We will not ascribe 100% credit of our successes to ourselves, but to the "collective ourselves", and I think that'll be a fairly good idea, given the modern context of global cynicism and chaos!

I know this post will force a lot of "achievers" to shift in their chairs, but I wrote what I strongly feel, and will love hearing critical comments! (Will more than love hearing praises, as this was a self-made blogpost. Ha ha!)

Cheers - have a wonderfully positive year 2010 ahead.


Unknown said...

hello sir,
you have written bitter words,but unfortunately truth is bitter.We all have to accept this fact and this fact will help us to recall what we have got from society.Also
it's our moral responsibility to return double than what we have received from society and fortunately it's indian culture.sir,pleasure reading your blogs,these are mind openers.

Akshay Kothari said...

Respected Sir,

Its true that life is like a mirror the way one behave,it reflects the same way back.I have experienced it many times.

Tell people on bikes to check their side stands and someday someone else comes and gives the same instructions.Thats the fact do good and you will be surely blessed in near future.

Talking about self made people like Narayan murthy,Indira nooyi,KV kamath,Gautam adani,Anil agarwal,Gautam thapar,Subhash chandra,Kishore biyani,Sandeep Manudhane and many more in the list may have surely faced tuff times in their life with lots of stress & pressure.And reason they are kings of their destinys because they outperformed in that situations.Does this power of pressure handling,innovation,patience comes automatically and it happens that self made people anyway come out of that, where whole the world quits???

Proton Akshay

Indresh said...

"Similar" and not same toughts at my blog.

Test said...

Ashish, Akshay, Indresh - thanks for reading and commenting! I hope you enjoyed the new year celebrations.

Jason Bourne said...


I found that this blog struck a chord that is close to my heart as I know my father to be a self made man.
After reading your blog I realized the importance of why he always says that he is thankful to all those who were ever involved in his work and life so far because they somehow directly or indirectly contributed to his success and that he'll be ever grateful to all those who helped him or assisted him in time of need and in reaching where he is now.
I now respect him even more and
want to do him proud.
I would keep everything in my mind if ever I turn out to be one such self-made man.

Thanks and Regards

Gaurav Kumawat

Arya said...

Even when taken in the narrow perspective in which people are normally declared self-made, there are many things that have been overlooked. A rich multimillionare entreprenuer for example may have had his roots in a poor family in a small village. But we ignore various issues such as any kind of mentorship he may have got in his childhood, the inspiration he may have received from others or simply the fact that he was not born in some Darfur in Africa.

I think that the concept of self-made is irrelevant. It would be much meanigful if we evaluate people on thier ability to filter out the effects of the experiences they receive in life that shape thier attitude, understanding and eventually life. This ofcourse can come only after some maturity - when one is capable of deciding which experience is meaningful enough to have an permanent imprint on his personality and actually go forward to make it convininent to have such kind of experiences.

In short, no man is self-made but it is possible for a person to determine atleast to a certain degree who and what he allows to have a major effect on his attitude, understanding, life and in what way.

Manish Ramje said...

Respected Sir,

I read twice this blog and may be fortunate enough to understand the four pillars of effective existence of human beings. This blog I feel was much philosophical, but I took incites from it.
Thank you.
With regards,
Manish RAMJE

Unknown said...

Hi Sandeep,

You are absolutely correct ? But isn't our media and culture is absolutely focussed on that. We are always touting the virtues of a selfmade man. Infact I remember in lot of movies the guys' Dad is saying I am a selfmade man. I started with nothing and look where I am. No one talks about God's grace and other's help that they got in their life. It's said that the Devil lies in the details well samething is true with anyone's life itself. It's the minutiae and the people in the grass roots who have helped you in critical as ell as seemingly insignificat moments of life are the ones everyone should be grateful for. But it doesn't happen.The moment people start acting humbly you are out of lot of things especially in our Great country. Every Day Economic Times is singing praises about the top gun recruitment happening in the IIMs and IITs. How much is the top salary offerred etc. And then the Parents are saying to their kids look Son "yeh hota hai success and ye hota hai self made man - itni kum umar mai itna success". Well we should all value hardwork and determination, but why a guy who misses the JEE by 2-3marks is immediately relegated to a pariah by his own people. I am glad that someone like you is writing these nice blog. One should always read the book "Happiness" by Tal Ben-Shahar. I think we as a nation should introspect everyday that do we practice what is being preached by our scriptures. We are Hindu fanatics lovers of Geeta but on the other side we are running after material successes and comparing each others on Networth and our kids are trophies for us when they get top grades or make it to the IIMs or the IITs. I think this makes our society very tenuous and brittle day by day.

Once again I love your posts and respect you all immensely.

Unknown said...

something digressing ? but what do you think of this post

Avdhesh Shukla said...

Hello Sir,
You have written something which is thought provoking and very well expected from a person of the stature of Sandeep Manudhane.
It's great to see the humility and obligation you have portrayed in the post. It also has a slight reflection of Hindu Darshan (Philosophy), which has always portrayed same thanksgiving to hundreds of generations who have passed before us.
Your suggestions of codification of genes and cultural influence on mankind is of utmost importance, I concur in all my ability.
But its also said in Hindu Darshan that everything you hear, any ideals you follow is ARDHSATYA (Half-Truth), and I deduce this "Self-Made" blog, you wrote might have started with the same premise (Just thought so, no offence). The god and its pure feeling (may be bhakti, bliss or prayer), is regarded as the the only and Absolute Truth in Hindu Darshan.....and I can very well see that, somewhere God is underlying here in your writings.
In the end I would deeply Thank You to show a different dimension of Self-made philosophy....

Avdhesh Shukla

keyur joshi said...

Respected Sir,

Great Post indeed. Well, Today right now as I am in a hurry I am not commenting ..

However, I am sharing the wonderful link with you all. Its about great inventions of 'Pravan Mistry.'

keyur joshi said...

Respected Sir,

the correct address of link is given below.

Keyur Joshi.

Test said...

Keyur - thanks for sharing a nice link. He is a famous man, and his solid Gujarati accent makes his presentation so strongly Indian, it's a pleasure to watch!

Avdhesh - thanks for reading and commenting. This topic is close to my heart, and looking at a lot of people around, I thought I might just as well speak out on this topic!

AmitJain - thanks for reading and commenting. It's a lively comment you've made!

Manish, Arya, JasonBourne - thanks for reading and commenting!

Somil Bajpayi said...

Dear Sir,

Very interesting. There is something that I would like to add to this. I think that the decisions that we make are a result of intelligence with the suport of knowledge.

Intelligence is something that we are born with. Much of the intelligence that we have is inherited from our parents. A union of their thinking. There is a lot that we learn throughout our lives which is the knowledge part. Going to a good school, college helps us get an insight into the world and thus empowers our intelligence to make good decisions.

Somil Bajpayi