The Legacy of the Self-Made Man


Tue Feb 26 01:10:00 -0800 2008

Prior to the industrial revolution, status in most societies was based on one thing only: heredity. No matter how much you accomplished - or didn’t - you stayed in the same station of life.

This began to change a few hundred years ago, with the rise of classical liberalism and general shifts in the organization of society. Birthright was still important, but the merit of an individual’s achievement could potentially allow them to transcend the station to which they were born. America became the first large-scale experiment of a society that could be called a meritocracy. Rugged individualism became a part of our culture. The cowboy, the frontiersman, the prospector - one man against the primal forces of nature, making his way in the world with nothing but his intellect, hard work, and relentless determination.

This grew to its peak around the turn of the 20th century, with the emergence of what came to be known as the self-made man. A perfect example is Andrew Carnegie. Born into poverty in Scottland, he emigrated to America at age 13 and began working menial jobs. He used each job as an opportunity to learn new skills and accumulate meager savings, thereby springboarding into the next, and slightly less menial, position. By age 18 he had taken on management positions; by age 20 he had begun making investments; and by 25 he had begun operating his own business. Over the next twenty years he grew an empire in the steel market and became one of the richest men in America. He spent the last part of his life as a philanthropist: he eschewed excessive personal luxuries, and preferred instead to give back to the world with what he had made. The quintessential rags-to-riches story; the embodiment of the American dream.

In the meantime, new political philosophies were afoot. Marx and others proposed that individual achievement be deemphasized. Instead, the products of the labor of all members of society should be grouped together. No special reward should go to those who contribute more than others. These ideas came to America in the form of the Progressive movement, championed by Theodore Roosevelt. One of his nicknames was “the Trust Buster,” because his administration used government power to break up large corporate conglomerates. This turned the tables on the founders and owners of those corporations - men like Andrew Carnegie. No longer were they the self-made man, embodiment of the American dream. They had been recast as power-hungry, cigar-chomping fat cats; men seized by uncontrollable ambition and thirst for wealth, taking advantage of the capitalism and free markets to crush the average citizen. America watched this drama play out in worker strikes and antitrust legislation and they everyone rooted for the “little guy.” Nearly overnight, the self-made man had become the villain.

With the self-made man out of a fashion, a replacement arose in the middle of the century: the man in the gray suit. This is a company man: he plays by the rules, starting at a low position at a promising firm, and gradually building respect from his peers and his superiors by doing his job well, but never attempting to be outstanding in any way. He patiently climbs the corporate ladder at an average pace, for to try to do so faster would be greedy and overreaching. He builds a family, providing for his wife and children, who live in a new type residence: the tract home, which itself is in a new type of urban area, the suburbs. He is respected for fitting in, for knowing his place in the larger mechanism of society, and for not asking for more than his fair share.

Toward the end of the 20th century, the pendulum of fashion started to swing back the other way. Now the man in the gray suit is the object of scorn. He’s a conformist; a cog in the machine; a mindless drone, living in the rat race, with nothing unique to offer the world.

And finally, at the very end of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, we’ve come full circle. The self-made man is back: he’s now called a technology entrepreneur. Young, hip, ambitious, with just a hint of a rebellious, anti-authority, anti-conformist streak. He makes his mark on the world by dismantling tired old institutions which no longer serve the needs of society. He may have emigrated to America, and perhaps he retains just a hint of an accent from his place of birth. He’s got nothing but disdain for large, bureaucratic organizations or the entrenched interests of large groups. But at the same time, he’s no lone wolf. He probably teams up with a few close-knit business partners; and he’s closely connected to one or more communities of like-minded people. He’s loudly opinionated, saying things that upset the status quo, but his articulate honesty causes people to listen. They get the sense that this irreverent-yet-earnest young guy is smart and really tells it like it is.

He and his company might be profiled in Time Magazine or appear on the cover of Business Week. They have legions of adoring fanboys (and, to a lesser extent, fangirls), giving the whole thing an air of rockstardom. He might have a piercing, or a tattoo. Or maybe not, but he certainly never wears a suit, and probably not even “business casual.” His clothes say: judge me by what I do, not how I dress.

Who are the new self-made men? Off the top of my head, I can think of quite a few: Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, David Heinemeier Hansson, Linus Torvalds, Max Levchin, Steve Jobs, Evan Williams, Joe Kraus, Paul Graham, Steve Shih Chen, Jeff Hawkins. They aren’t all in software, either: Martin Eberhard and Chris Larsen are bringing the “silcion valley way” to other industries. Nor are they all men: consider Gina Bianchini, Pam Marrone, and Ryan Phelan.

Of course this is all rather good news for me. I’ve always fancied myself a future self-made man, and never understood how this fell out of vogue for so long. For me at least, the timing couldn’t be better for it to be back - and I don’t think I’m alone.