The Self-Made Fallacy: Most of us Owe Our Success to Privilege
This is another post I’ve been wanting to write for a while, and never got around to it.
Today that changes because I have a fire lit in me like no other.
You may have read Forbes recent feature on Kylie Jenner, who they say is on track to be the youngest self-made billionaire ever.
If you haven’t, go read it. It’s actually really well-written (surprising coming from Forbes, I know) and pretty insightful.
I don’t dislike Kylie Jenner or the Kardashians. I think they’re very intelligent women, who capitalized on an opportunity — just like any smart person would — if they were in their shoes.
What I do dislike is Forbes and other media outlets use of the word “self-made.”
According to Dictionary.com, self-made means succeeding in life unaided.
With that definition, it’s pretty clear that just about none of us are self-made successes, although that’s the story we love to tell ourselves in America.
“Anyone can make it.”
While I do believe this, I also believe we’re all starting at different places in life, and sometimes it can feel impossible to catch up. In fact, sometimes it is impossible to catch up.
And reading these sensationalized stories, cleverly titled things like, “How 20-Year-Old Kylie Jenner Built A $900 Million Fortune In Less Than 3 Years” and “How I Went From Underemployed Waitress to the Top 1% of Millennials in 6 Months,” (Yes, I’m guilty) makes readers think succeeding in life is easy.
The reality is, it isn’t. It’s a fucking struggle.
And the other reality is, the overwhelming majority of successful entrepreneurs, places like Forbes write about, are the product of generations of privilege that facilitate success.
I’ll use myself as an example.
Growing up, my father owned two dry cleaners, which my grandfather, who was also a small business owner, loaned him the money to start.
My father’s businesses afforded me the opportunity to attend a pricey Catholic school my entire life, and while I was definitely not rich, especially compared to my friends, I lived a very comfy life.
I excelled in school, because it was my sole focus. My job was to do well in school. I was showered with presents — like diamond earrings and Bloomies shopping sprees — when I got straight As (I always got straight As).
When I finally had to get a job at 16, I worked for my dad, so it’s not like school still didn’t come first.
I was able to join every club I wanted to. I enrolled in pricey SAT prep classes, and I was fortunate enough to be able to apply to numerous colleges (application fees are damn expensive!).
I’m not sure I would’ve discovered what I love to do if I hadn’t attended college for at least a little bit. And I’m not sure if I would write as well as I do today, if it wasn’t for two teachers in particular — my middle-school English teacher, Ms. Beyer and my college journalism professor, Prof. Speere.
Because I was accepted into the journalism program at UCF, I was fortunate enough to be there at a time when the school still had a student-run newspaper — Central Florida Future.
Writing for the Central Florida Future paved the way to more published writing opportunities, and because most professors worked for the local newspaper, Orlando Sentinel, I had an “in” to getting published, if my writing was up-to-snuff.
And because my dad supported me throughout my first few years in college, I was able to undertake two unpaid internships that secured me a hell of a lot of identity capital.
And because I had all that identity capital (that a career specialist at UCF pulled out of me and put onto a resume), I was able to talk a local print shop into hiring me full-time before I had to move home because I couldn’t afford to live on my own anymore.
Again, my dad saved my ass.
He let me live with him until I landed an impossible-to-get waitressing job at a fancy restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. The only reason I landed the job was because I was well-spoken, pretty and professional — all characteristics I have due to privilege.
While I waitressed, I freelanced for someone my dad knew — the local small business next door to him. The experience I gained freelancing for her helped land me a high-paying job in Boston, which I was promptly fired from three months later.
Fortunately, connections I made at that job, got me my next job, and the rest is history. I’ve been steadily increasing my income ever since.
So while it looks on the outside that I became a highly paid millennial overnight, it’s actually been seven years now in the making.
Kylie Jenner has been on tv since she was 10, thanks to her sister Kim’s dream of producing a reality tv show. If it wasn’t for Kim wanting that, and then their mother, Kris, doing everything in her power to make it happen, Kylie would not be on the brink of being a billionaire.
The article even states:
Steered by their mother, Kris, each scion had a moneymaking scheme, from mobile gaming (Kim) to modeling (Kendall) and even socks (Rob), but the teenage Jenner felt adrift.
“I struggled for a minute with finding something to do on my own,” Jenner says. With her mother’s guidance, she started making seven figures as a model, notching endorsement deals with British retailer Topshop and Sinful Colors nail polish, among others.
Because Kris helped her land modeling gigs, Kylie was able to fork up the money to invest and build a company of her own.
“I said, ‘I’m ready to put up my own money. I don’t want to do it with anyone else,’ ” Jenner recalls. She used some $250,000 of her earnings from modeling gigs to pay an outside company to produce the first 15,000 lip kits. An intuitive marketer like most of her family, she spent months teasing the kits on Instagram, then announced the launch via social media just a day before they went on sale–November 30, 2015. The kits sold out in less than a minute. Resellers started offering the $29 product on eBay for up to $1,000. “Before I even refreshed the page, everything was sold out,” Jenner says.
While it’s completely impressive what she’s done, don’t be fooled, her success is facilitated by her extreme privilege.
The majority of us aren’t hot enough, or connected enough, to make six-figures modeling.
I used to think you didn’t need money to make money, but I’m starting to think I might be naive. You need some sort of resources to get started — whether that’s a house over your head, a laptop to build a website, or a parent’s business to grow to make a name for yourself.
Even Gary Vaynerchuk isn’t self-made, in the sense that he was fortunate enough to have his dad’s business to grow in the first place.
Again, I’m not knocking Gary Vee, Kylie Jenner or myself. What each of us has done — on totally, totally different scales — isn’t easy. It takes motivation, grit, determination, resilience, aptitude and a whole lot more.
But we as a society need to stop buying into these “self-made” stories, and we, as fortunate individuals, need to be eternally grateful for the lives and opportunities we’ve been afforded.
More successful people (and media outlets) need to trade in the “self-made” narrative for a more accurate depiction — that the only way to climb your way to the top is by standing on the shoulder of giants.
Originally published at thenewandthenext.com on July 12, 2018.