Where Are The Self-made Men?

What does it take to be successful? Michelle Obama commented (said something) about that recently. So did the president of Harvard University and Michael Lewis, who wrote the book Moneyball, which became a very successful movie. But let me start with what we call The American Dream and Frederick Douglass.

The American Dream isn’t the kind of dream you have at night while you’re sleeping. It’s an unwritten expression (a way to show how you feel, what you think) of American values (ideas about what’s right and wrong or important). Everyone’s American Dream is probably a little different. But at the core (the center) there are some values that most people agree about.

Much of the American Dream grows out of (comes from) the Declaration of Independence, which says that “all men are created equal” and have been given certain rights (something you are allowed to do or have). These rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit (to try to get or achieve) of Happiness.” According to the American Dream, these rights make it possible for someone to succeed, become prosperous (rich and successful), and move up in society by working hard.

Many years ago, in 1859, Frederick Douglass described the secret of success in a speech he called “Self-made Men”. According to Douglass, self-made people (people who are responsible for their own success) succeed in only one way: they work hard. Success doesn’t come from being born into the right family, knowing the right people, having social or economic status (position in society), receiving money from your parents, going to the right school, or any of the things we often believe to be necessary for success.

Douglass should know: he lived the American Dream; he was a self-made person. He was an African American who escaped from slavery and became a famous public speaker, writer, statesman (national leader, especially one who is wise), and early leader in the anti-slavery movement.

Even though Douglass stressed (emphasized) the importance of hard work, he acknowledged (say that something is true) that other people contribute to (add to; help) our success. He said that nothing can make someone totally independent of the people who came before (lived earlier). In other words, even hard-working, successful, self-made people need other people.

Michelle Obama’s recent Democratic National Convention speech has received a lot of well-deserved (appropriate) attention. In her speech, she told about the people who contributed to her and President Obama’s early success. She said, “We learned about gratitude (being thankful) and humility (not thinking you’re too important); that so many people had a hand in (contributed to) our success, from the teachers who inspired (encouraged) us to the janitors who kept our school clean; and we were taught to value (to consider important) everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect.”

Earlier this summer, President Drew Faust reminded Harvard graduates (someone who has completed a university degree) that they were “extremely lucky” to be graduating from Harvard. She reminded them that even if they had worked hard to overcome (fight and win) many obstacles (something that makes a situation difficult), their success was partly due to good fortune, to events they couldn’t control.

Michael Lewis told Princeton graduates the same thing. And he illustrated (showed) what he meant by telling the story of his life. For example, he got his first job because he sat next to the wife of a company executive at a dinner. After the dinner, she told her husband about Lewis and insisted that he give him a job. Lewis would say that he was lucky, or fortunate, to get that job. He got it because of a situation he didn’t create or couldn’t control.

In addition to recognizing the importance of other people and good fortune, Lewis challenged (strongly encouraged) the graduates to remember people who aren’t so lucky, or fortunate. He told them that success creates an obligation (responsibility) to help people who aren’t so fortunate. In other words, successful people need to help people who aren’t as successful as they.

What do you think it takes to become successful? Are there any people we can truly call self-made? Do you agree that success brings obligations to help other people?

~ Warren Ediger – English coach/tutor and creator of Successful English, where you’ll find clear explanations and practical suggestions for better English.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

This entry was posted in Life in the United States. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Where Are The Self-made Men?

  1. Dan says:

    Hello guys,

    WoW Warren those are tough questions.
    I am afraid I am not gonna be able to answer that.

    First one: It is so hard to give a definition of success.. I feel like I was successful just coming to live on this planet, since my mother told me I was about to die because I was a twin and the doctors did not see me. Morover, I always keep on a little spot of my mind that we are like a chain’s ring and we are here for a brief stay, so I feel luky, successful and satisfied.

    Second one: At the moment I am re-reading The Misterious Island by Jules Verne so my answer to that is: “You Did not bild that”… It takes the direct/indirect help of others to make

    Third one: We should help each others regardless ours so called “success”.

    Thanks Warren for the always interesting informations you provide us and plus make us think.

  2. Olya, Ukraine says:

    Desire to help exists inside of the person, or it does not. Success changes here nothing

  3. HILARIO says:

    LIFE RACERS.- I think that what it really takes is love … and food. Life is a race at which the starting point is not always aligned for everyone equally. Love is with no doubt the main staple but education and health in the broadest possible sense are as important or even more in order to be successful in life. Some people can possibly argue that genetics also play an important role before the race starts but this is much more of the same again.
    Nature produces specialties with no doubt, in a variety of forms and random ways. Nobody knows the exact probability in its performance. The female and male proportion is a guide of these sort of nature patterns. Alpha people, leaders, natural gifted bright intelligence, extra-talented individuals, magnetic people, deep sight insiders and a wide scope of phenomenal people who are ADN backward coded and that they are simply called, self-made people, afterwards. As far as the so called American dream is concerned, both related to anglosaxon and Spaniard people, invaders in the whole Americas. The question is: should they be a little more modest and cautious about this false statement? They carried away “lesa humanity”, they caused abuse of position in a massive statement, they infected the naturals with alien viruses, immune undefended illnesses and social aberrations like religion, alcohol and other unnatural impositions. They wrongly considered the naturals as being beasts, but instead, they considered themselves as the aristos. It was a flagrant and extended prostitution of the human values.
    I don’t personally believe in conventional charity and social protection systems but I do in a convenient and preventive sharing of wealth, and also in those “helps” aimed to contribute toward motorization of low social classes, or social-change engines creators, a kind of realignment the starting point of the life race, telling the aristos that they can´t kidnap education and health, with always some food and less predication, at no cost and for their own selfish shake, because if they do it, then love comes alone and the self-made people, after that. What a terrible thoughts, are maybe they comunism?

  4. Peter says:

    “With great power comes great responsibility. ”

    Dear warren, 

    Let me tell you sth , the first part of your post didn’t grasp my  attention since it is one of those rags-to riches stories,The  cliche you have  heard over and over. If you work hard , and blah blah blah you will become successful and bluh bluh bluh.
    But, the second part of your post said it all, my friend.

     People who are totally into the self-made men idea never count  in a very important factor  that have a great impact on  the whole idea. 
     There are a lot of people out there who work their necks off 24/7 ,but sadly enough, they never get to movie up in the word. They never get a chance to accomplish the objectives they set up in life. You know why because they are not lucky enough.

    In every step of the way they bomb into unpredicted  complications and obstacles. The hurdles that  impede them from moving forward. 

    On the other hand , there are some people who never work as hard , yet miraculously they achieve unachievable. You know why because let’s just say : they were at the right place ,at the right time.  


  5. Dan says:


    Could you please explain that in plain English?


  6. Dan says:

    Hi there,

    I was re-reading my post and I thought it better to say something about the book The Mysterious Island
    that someone may have not read.

    It tells the story of five men plus a dog named Top that menage to escape from their prison with a baloon.

    It take place during the American civil war and they are northener that are kept prisoner by the southener.

    After they escape with the baloon they end up on this Island in the Pacific due to a hurricane.

    They have nothing except one another’s help and their great leader Cyrus Smith engineer ans scientist.

    Thanks and have a good Sunday.

    Have you guys there in California seen the Space shuttle flying over? That was something.

  7. HILARIO says:

    PLAIN WORDS TO DAN.- My three paragraphs attempt to be sort of personal answers to the three final questions posed by Warren, and it combines with the story of Mr.Douglass, having success in the life race as self-made man, he being black and from the lowest-class extraction. The context is the falacious statement of the AMERDREAM as the carrot and the stick invented by the American wild capitalism to foster to those who have nothing, to work hard, to live with less, and to pursuit always the carrot.

  8. Lisboa says:

    Hi Guys

    Sometimes in our life we work hard, but to be well successful it is necessary to know a person who will introduce us to an advisor or company’s manager, for example. So, people can work hard, but without network and somene to”helpe”us to achieve the success, we will not walk longer success can be never exhibited.

    For people well succeeded, it should be a pleasure to help people “less succeeded”, however, it does not occur with frequency around us, unfortunately.


  9. Betty says:

    Dear Warren

    Thank you very much indeed for this sophisticated article. I had to read it very slowly in order to digest it. I think reading it slowly also offer me a chance to learn how to write better English.

    I have always admired Michelle Obama. She is very beautiful and very intelligent. Above all, she likes to teach little children, which is a virtue not found in every leader’s wife.

    As far as successfulness is concern, I don’t think I can tell what it takes to be successful. It is a very complicated question.

    Very often “successful” parents produce “unsuccessful” children. On the other hand, some poor illiterate farmers produce world class scholars.

    How do you measure successfulness? One person’s success? One family’s success? One country’s success?

    My answer to your second question: No, no one is truly self-made.

    My answer to your third question: Yes, I agree that success brings obligations to help other people.

    Thanks again, Warren, I am very grateful for your tireless effort to help us learn more successful English every day.

    Best Regards

    Betty 🙂

Comments are closed.