The Myth of the Self-Made Man, or maybe better said: Thank You.

My dear sons, Caslon and Logan–

Those that proclaim themelves “Self Made”, I am convinced, are either ignorant or marketers. Ignorant of the many people that help us along, push us along, often without recognition. Or marketers that are purposefully simplifying the story so as to sell something, in this case, themselves.

One proverb is “we make our own luck”, which, like all cliches has some truth to it but misses the point: which is that circumstances and people outside of our control make up the vast majority of the “luck” that lands us where we are. Gender, economic cycle, “being at the right place at the right time”, an unseen opportunity becoming available because someone else offended yet another person at just the right time, at the least the right time for you.

For myself, I feel lucky. And in my case because I was lucky. Born white, male, upper-middle class, to a functional family, in a country whose economy was soaring (because the rest of the world had been bombed flat 15 years before)– I was off to a easy start. Being a math geek at the fortunate time when computers were on the rise let me learn from a high school friend, Rob Bedichek, who hand-wired his own computer out of logic chips and switches. Then having the combined miracle of supportive teachers and an unseen college admissions officer that let a barely top-20%-of-his-class guy into MIT, gave me a leg up that I have not been able to live down completely.

Top career advice came a few times, one from Professor Gerry Sussman when I called to ask him to hire me into his lab so I could learn to make chips to protect the privacy of all phonecallers. He said, “I don’t know you, why should I hire you? Just come in, start working, and if you are any good then someone will hire you.” Little rough, kicked me in the butt, and his lab delivered– best advice ever.

Another was from Marvin Minsky and Danny Hillis: try to do your big idea, maybe in steps, but with the big idea always in mind– you may not achieve it, but achieving a goal is overrated. It is the journey and your fellow travelers that are the point. As Laurie Anderson pointed out from Moby Dick– it might not turn out so well for those that get their whale.

Steve Case and Jeff Bezos invested in me in more ways than they may recognize– yes, financial security, but also legitimization, self-confidence, and encouragement. I owe so much to those men, but also the help I got from their colleagues and communities that made their whole ecosystems so successful.

Maybe most importantly, family.  My parents, and that Mary Austin eventually said Yes to a marriage proposal, and we formed a team, propelled me in so many ways. Mary gently taught me about non-profits and book communities and how to keep friends for life. Her support meant I could take more risks in my career knowing she would be there even through the rough times. I hope she feels as appreciated and supported by me.

Outdated implicit advice from my parents: keep your head down. They lived this advice based on their growing up in the McCarthy era United States when trying new things could get you blacklisted, and did tank many people’s possible careers. But I found being bold to have worked well in my era, more ‘open’ the better, more giving, more straightforward the better. People then understood what I wanted to do, and then could more easily help. (This approach reached a logical conclusion, but tragically, with Aaron Swartz, someone who lived a completely open-source life, and worked for the public good, but in his case, he was crushed by institutions around him and was driven to suicide.)

Why do I get a beautiful view overlooking the San Francisco Bay this February morning? Why do I get to go sailing with my beautiful wife most weekends? Thank you.

So what is the point? I have been invested in, I have been made by my communities. At most we can be worth investing in, and appreciative of the support we receive at the same time as we invest in and help others along their paths. Few will win the lottery, but we can take satisfaction, and happiness, in the successes around us.

Thank you, all.

This entry was posted in Education and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Myth of the Self-Made Man, or maybe better said: Thank You.

  1. Genie Abrams says:

    Amen, brother! Wish we all would remember to be grateful more, and self-congratulatory less.

  2. Chris Britt says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Brewster.


Comments are closed.