The November 14th issue of Forbes magazine includes the 35th edition of the annual feature, “The 400 Richest People in America.” I don’t know if the scorecard I noticed this year is new or just one that I never paid attention to previously, but as part of each billionaire’s biography there is a “self-made” rating.
Each individual is given a score on a scale of 1-10 as to whether his or her wealth was inherited or self-made. Although I looked, I couldn’t find a reference guide anywhere that defined what earned one a score of 4, let’s say, versus 5, leaving me to guess for myself. The top four entries, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg are all rated as 8s, while 10s are doled out sparingly. Not surprisingly, some descendants of great entrepreneurs rank as 1s and 2s.
These rankings irked me. While I abhor the notion of “white privilege,” “male privilege” or any other kind of privilege terminology employed as a form of extolling and perpetuating victimhood, these rankings seemed to ignore reality.
Perhaps the ranking is completely financially based. If you inherited a company or money with which to begin your career, your ranking depends on how much you increased the amount. To use small numbers, if you started with nothing and now have $10, you rank a 10. If you started with $10 and now have $12 or even $8, your rank will be low.
However, that completely materialistic way of looking at things makes no sense to me. Furthermore, it makes little sense in the real world.
Let’s look at one man (and the list is overwhelmingly male) who scored a 10—presumably the crème de la crème of ‘self-made-ness’. According to the magazine’s bio of Jan Koum, co-founder of What’sApp, as a sixteen-year-old the Ukrainian immigrated to America with his mother. Yet the bio lists one factor in his success that the algorithm creators clearly didn’t see as something that mitigates the idea of self-made. “His mom brought pens and Soviet-issued notebooks in her suitcase to avoid paying for school supplies for Koum…”
Doesn’t that seem as crucial to you as it does to me? My suspicion is that she wasn’t “avoiding” paying for school supplies as much as worried that she wouldn’t be able to afford them. As such, she used the minimal luggage space she had for crucial items—those things that would allow her son to buckle down and learn. I’m not minimizing the difficulties Mr. Koum overcame including being an immigrant from a non-English speaking country. I would rank as another difficulty his being abandoned by his father, who, some further research shows, chose to stay in the Ukraine. Yet, surely, having a mother (and presumably the grandmother with whom Mr. Koum also immigrated) who cared about education and were willing to work hard belies the notion of self-made.
Who in the Forbes pantheon decided what gave or removed self-made credits? One could ask all sorts of questions. In today’s world is not attending college a benefit or a liability? How about not having a father in one’s life? Should people like Mr. Koum lose self-made points for coming from a culture and family that extols achievement rather than one that encourages victimization?
I’m all in favor of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, but suggesting that anyone is self-made rings false. Aside from any Divine gifts including intelligence, the support and proper values of family, mentors and community needs to be appreciated. Inheriting great wealth, which certainly supplies a financial launching pad, obviously precludes thinking of oneself as self-made. Yet the overwhelming majority of people who honestly attain great wealth without inheriting a penny also received priceless gifts that let them soar.