Winning Against No Odds: The Myth Of Self-Made Success

"... it is unwise for most of us to imbibe the toxic mindset of self-made success."

Photo Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

| March 18 2019,

00:38 am

"How to be a winner" is a multi-billion dollar industry — a market that was, in fact, created for losers.

The formula for self-made success is easy: believe in yourself, make consistent effort, defer all expectation of rewards and focus on being committed to something bigger than yourself. Stay away from anything that adulterates your mental space. Tap into your community resources and rely on your support system to provide the things you cannot provide yourself. Sounds easy enough!

But some may have a few burning questions about this model. For instance, what if you're dealing with generational trauma or poverty? How easy is it to overcome if you are not extremely good-looking or talented? How do you pool community resources if you're homeless? How do you cultivate a positive mental attitude if you're a displaced foster youth, who is a victim of abuse, prostituting yourself to get through the day? What if you are dealing with a family full of people with poor mental health?

Well, according to the current hype, you have no excuse!

You can always open up a book, magazine or YouTube and you will find someone who claims to have faced the same odds as you did, thriving with fewer resources than you have. The question on my mind, is whether the narrative of self made success is really helping everyone feel like a winner. Sometimes I think the narrative of “winning against all odds” is hurting a lot of people who are indeed facing insurmountable odds.

It’s not hard to empathize with a winner. In fact, we do so mainly because we want to identify with the possibility that something superhuman exists within all of us, and indeed, we are all full of more potential than most of us realize. On the other hand, it is very hard to empathize with a loser — unless you are losing.

"Winners" seem to have devised a system of equity in which people are reaping only the benefits of their own actions, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, this is not how the world distributes opportunity. At birth, you enter a lottery system. Where you are born in our socio-economic hierarchy is the first roll of the dice. The stability of those around you is yet another factor left to chance. Then, trauma rears its ugly head and creates yet another set of obstacles for some people to navigate. The notion that the inequality many perceive in life is as a result of an individual's failure to adopt a “winner’s attitude” is sufficient to desensitize people who have encountered little trauma or adversity. Many people who are victims of conditions beyond their ability to control are left suffering in silence, being shamed by the narrative of the winner.

It’s always easier to side with an oppressor than to empathize with the victim. This is often because empathizing with a victim of unfortunate circumstances means that one has to alter his or her perception of the the world to accommodate the unspeakable. If life were extremely generous to you, would you be eager to accept the fact that every day horrible things happen to people who don’t deserve it and that such things could happen to you as well?

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Imagine you are Kylie Jenner giving an interview about the billions you made due to your own hard work and persistence. If suddenly you were to empathize with the struggle of those less privileged than yourself, you would have to deflate your ego and admit that many of the things you gave yourself credit for "attaining," were things you actually inherited in the birth lotto. Furthermore, who wants to think  of themselves as anything less than a hero or heroine in the world of winners?

"F**k all that, I’m a winner."

Who defined the archetype of the "winner"?  Likely, a PR or marketing firm. We’re taught to worship successful people and then follow the same system of rules as they did so we can become champions of our own causes. After all, winners have many of the material things we are taught to pursue relentlessly. Why shouldn't we celebrate anyone who claims they started from the bottom? One reason is that "self-made successes" frequently exhibit narcissistic or sociopathic tendencies due to low levels of empathy. 

R. Kelly is a "winner" who went from being a homeless street performer to a highly renowned artist, now accused of abusing numerous vulnerable women. Donald Trump is a "winner" who inherited a significant portion of his fortune and later accredited his success at making deals to his "perverse personality." Many believe that he won his campaign for the U.S. presidency by maligning traditionally disenfranchised groups.

Steve Jobs was another famous "winner" who championed innovation and personal freedom as values of Apple, the brand he helped to create. Yet, he was also the face of a company that evades paying income taxprofits from child labor and carts away minerals from African countries, then sells their products to Americans at such a high price point that it has become commonplace for people go into debt paying for their cell phones.

From these examples, it is clear that many "self-made winners" actually benefit from exploiting the less-privileged in our society. Defining a "winner" means that someone has to lose. This is why the concept of a self-made winner is so damaging. It encourages us to compare ourselves to people and feel better about our relative advantages over others in our society, regardless of whether those advantages are rooted in our merit.

Comparing ourselves to other people is a trap. The concept of a winner is the treat that lures us into the trap of group think.

Here is how this whole “winner” thing works:

1. We're told,  "Look at this person! They have everything — looks, money, power and friends."

2. Those things they have are universally recognized as great things to have.

3. You should have those things.

4. Here is a recipe for getting those things.

And hence, our value system has been infiltrated under the premise of giving us a winner’s makeover. 

So what does this mean for all the late bloomers? For all the people who have not even sprouted, or those who are still seedlings, being drowned by the same rain that is watering other roots? The first thing to do is to acknowledge your own truth. The world isn’t simply high achieving winners and unmotivated losers who refuse to get their shit together. Some people are winning because of their depravity or ability to compromise their integrity. Some people are losing because someone sabotaged them.  

Don’t drink the "cool-aid" of self-made success — it’s a known carcinogen. 

You can definitely be anything your mind can conceive. However, it is unwise for most of us to imbibe the toxic mindset of self-made success.

In reality, most of us have advantages that were created by the sacrifices of those who came before us. Without those advantages, life can feel like a rigged game we are destined to lose. "Winners" should learn to be grateful for the gains they secured from the winning the genetic lottery.

If you are struggling, please learn to have empathy for yourself, for your own limitations and for the narratives of those who are less privileged than you are. It’s OK to feel like a loser. It just means you are human and your time to win hasn’t arrived, yet.


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