Dear Beloved Reader, we're going to be real with you.
We're asking you to join our membership program so we can become fully financially sustainable (and you'll get cool perks too!) and avoid shutting down.
Every year, we reach over 6.5 million people around the world with our intersectional feminist articles and webinars. But we now depend 100% on reader support to keep going.
If everyone reading this only gave $12, we could raise enough money for the entire year in just one day.
For the price of a single lunch out, you can help save us. We're an independent feminist media site led entirely by people of color. If Everyday Feminism has been useful to you, please take one minute to keep us alive. Thank you!
“I didn’t make excuses or cry about discrimination – I worked hard to get to where I am!”
Have you encountered statements like this one? It’s related to an idea that’s common the US – that we can get anywhere if we work hard enough.
While hard work is part of the picture of success, it’s sure not the only thing that helps people get to where they are. If you think that’s all there is to it, you might look down on people you see as less successful.
But before you get comfortable with the idea that “unsuccessful” people just aren’t working hard enough, check out what Riley J. Dennis has to say. She points out why factors like luck, timing, and support systems can make all the difference.
She’s also clear that this doesn’t mean you should feel bad about your success – but this information is really important to keep in mind so you don’t end up unfairly judging other people.
The Editors at Everyday Feminism
Click for the Transcript
Tell me if you’ve heard this before.
I’m a self-made man. No one has ever helped me in my life. I was down on my luck and I picked myself up by my bootstraps and made it big. I didn’t make any excuses or cry about discrimination – I just focused on what I had to do, and I got it done. I am where I am today because of hard work, perseverance, and determination – nothing else.
I’ve heard this so many times. The myth of the “self-made” person is extremely prevalent, and I think, at least in the US, this is largely rooted in the idea that we can get anywhere with hard work. I was always told growing up, “You can be anything or do anything if you just work hard at it.” And I suppose, on a surface level, that’s not terrible advice to a child. You want them to be encouraged and believe that with a bit of hard work, they can do anything.
However, the negative ramifications of this come into play very quickly. If you then become “successful” in one way or another – however you judge that – it’s extremely easy to look down on the other people you see as less successful and say that, “They just didn’t work hard enough.”
But you really shouldn’t think like that – because nobody has experienced life in the same way that you have. Yes, I think hard work is generally a prerequisite to success, but it is not the only ingredient. And no, I’m not talking about determination or perseverance or any other résumé buzzword – I’m talking about luck, timing, support systems, government systems, institutionalized discrimination, privileges, and representation.
So, let’s use Bill Gates as an example, currently the richest person on the planet and arguably an extremely successful person. By the way, I’m going to be using famous people as examples here so that everyone can know who I’m talking about, but you can be successful without being famous.
Anyway, there is a lot of luck and good timing that went into Bill Gates’s success. He was born at the right time to be able to work in the computer industry. He was born in the United States where he learned English as his first language, and went to a private school where he had access to computers where he could learn to code. I don’t doubt that he’s a brilliant person, but if he had been born under different circumstances, I don’t think he would’ve seen nearly this level of success.
For another example, look at Justin Bieber. He’s ridiculously successful by any musician’s standards – but he didn’t get himself there. His mom uploaded videos of him to YouTube, which is how he was discovered. Had he not had his mother there, things could’ve gone much differently. What if he’d been gay or trans, and his mom kicked him out of the house or otherwise didn’t support him in the same way? As a straight, cisgender boy, he had privileges and opportunities not given to tons of kids out there who have to deal with homophobic or transphobic families.
Or what about Donald Trump? He said recently that his dad gave him a small loan of a million dollars, which he paid back with interest. This is just a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about. He thinks he’s self-made for having paid back that loan with interest. But what I find more interesting is the fact that he had access to a million-dollar loan at all. Do you think any young entrepreneur from a lower class family would have access to a million-dollar loan? Absolutely not. Trump wouldn’t be where he is today without that loan – but it was simply luck on his part that he was born into a rich family.
And I don’t know if you noticed, but everyone on this list is a white man. That’s not to say that there aren’t successful women or people of color – there absolutely are – but the institutions we have set up in this country are inclined to help straight, white, cisgender men. Women are discouraged from getting into STEM fields, people of color are prevented from even getting jobs if they have names that sound “ethnic,” and queer and trans people are regularly harassed, beaten up, and killed just for their gender identity or sexual orientation.
On top of all of this, we all benefit from government systems. Oftentimes, a person saying they are “self-made” is anti-government, believing that they garnered all their success without any help from the government.
But many of these people also attended public schools, drove on public roads, benefited from government-regulated clean water and safe food, benefited from government-controlled copyright or trademark law when starting a business, or called government-funded police officers or fire fighters. No matter how independent you think you are, you are part of a community and part of a country, and that all benefits you in some way.
I want to be clear that none of this is your fault, and I’m not saying that you’re a bad person for becoming successful with the privileges and circumstances that you have. I want to repeat that (because I already know what comments are coming): I do not hate you for being successful and having privilege. All I’m saying is that it is necessary that we acknowledge these things so that we don’t end up looking down upon everyone who we view as less successful than us.
Because when you realize that your success isn’t entirely your own, it’s hard to see yourself as any better than anyone else. Many extremely hard-working people never become “successful” for a wide variety of reasons. The equation isn’t as simple as putting hard work in and getting success out.
If you want to learn more about this, I will put a link down below to a book called The Self-Made Myth, which I have not read – but it sounds very similar to what I’ve discussed here, though obviously more in-depth.
And this video is a part of a series I’m doing for Everyday Feminism, a website dedicated to helping you stand up to and break down everyday oppression, so I’ll put some links down below so you can check out my previous videos in the series.
And I want to hear from you! What circumstances or people have gotten you to where you are today? Please let me know down in the comments. And have you ever heard someone say that they’re self-made? What was your initial reaction?
Okay so that’s all I have for you today. As always, I love you all very much, I hope you have a wonderful day, and I’ll see you next week. Bye!
Riley J. Dennis is a Contributing Vlogger for Everyday Feminism. She’s a polyamorous, atheist, gender non-binary trans woman with a passion for fiction writing, feminism, and technology. She got her BA from Whittier College in 2015 doing a self-designed major called Writing Worlds, a mixture of creative writing and anthropology, focused on realistic fictional world building. Find her on her YouTube channel, Twitter @RileyJayDennis, or her website RileyJayDennis.com.