Tuesday, March 06, 2018

What Makes A Self Made Man? Why Is "Earning It" "The Old-Fashioned Way"?

The cover has his picture and the words:

"The Self Made Man
USC Trustee Mark Stevens built success the old-fashioned way.  He earned it." 

I don’t know Mr. Stevens and this response isn’t about him.  

It’s about whoever wrote the text on the cover.  

I have a couple of problems:

These are weary cliches that promote the myth of the old Protestant Work Ethic.  What actually makes him a self made man?  

There’s nothing in the article that is linked to this title and subtitle.  It’s as though someone just picked the cliché out of thin air.  

So, what makes him a self made man, as though he alone is responsible for his success?  Let’s see. 

The article says 
  • he was adopted by a family that included an electronics test engineer father.  
  • Who, by the way, got his training from the Navy.  

We know nothing about his birth parents, but do you think he would have done as well in life if his birth parents kept him and they were addicts?  
  • Is it possible that his adoptive father had an influence on his choice of occupation?  
  • What if he had gone to a school that was wracked with violence and drugs?  
  • What if he hadn’t had teachers who took an interest in him?  
  • Who paid for the scholarships that enabled him to go to USC?  

Many successful people do think of themselves as self-made men.  But that ignores all the people who helped them along the way, all the institutions paid for by people they never met, that helped them gain skills and connections.  It ignores the society they live in that has a strong economic system that gives (some) people (more) opportunities (than others).  

Let’s look at the second part of the title:  “build success the old fashioned way.  He earned it.”

Why is earning one’s success ‘old fashioned’?  Is there an implication that successful people today no longer work hard and earn their success?  What exactly did he do so much better than the rest of us to 'earn' his billions?  What percent of his clients' earnings did he get to keep?  In this case does 'earning it' mean he just picked a profession that is structured to make a few people obscenely rich?

Lots of people work hard to earn a living, but not in fields that so richly reward them for their work. When someone becomes a billionaire, it suggests to me that others have paid an exorbitant price for the service or product that got the billionaire so much more money than 99.9% of the population.  

I think of school teachers, of farm-workers, of wait-people in restaurants, nannies, truck drivers, and many many others.  Our society is structured in such a way that certain occupations don’t get richly rewarded (economically)  no matter how hard the people work.  And a few are wildly compensated.  

Let’s be careful about the clichés and have the cover titles reflect that the title-writer actually read the article.  

And again, I want to reiterate, that these questions don't reflect on Mr. Stevens at all.  He isn't quoted as thinking he is 'self-made' and didn't get help from countless other people and institutions along the way.  


  1. Yes, it's a cliche, and even worse, to my editor's eye, it's a cliche from an ad. Smith Barney, 1979. What total lack of integrity and imagination from the writer.

    The guy who wrote the Smith Barney ad must be wishing he got a royalty every time uncreative people steal his cliche.

    Interesting to think of the advertising slogans that have transcended their commercial origins and become just plain cliches.

  2. Kathy, thanks for the reference. Here's a link to that Smith Barney ad, but surely it dates back longer than that. No?

    1. I found a news story from 1987 saying they were cancelling the John Houseman campaign after eight years, so apparently 1979 is about right.

  3. The old-school approach used in this ad is so seductive to an American audience -- don't we all just love English costume dramas and being round such style?.

    For me, Houseman's ad man is rooted in a big myth about financial services everywhere: that investors 'earn it'.

    No, rather like punters earn their money at the races - risking their wager - and so, the myth persists.


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