Self-made Men?

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. 

31 thoughts on “Self-made Men?”

  1. Thank you for mentioning the ranking. When I read it, I was also puzzled by it. I thought I had missed some explanation, but evidently, there wasn’t one.

  2. Miss Susan,
    I hope you will indulge another ramble from an old man.
    I agree that there are no “self-made” men or women. A man or woman provided a service or some “goods” through the sweat of his brow. Food for the table, a system of transporting energy for cooking food, medicine and care for the sick. For this he is payed. He then wisely or unwisely uses that payment, whether it is two goats or a thousand dollars to pay someone else for the goods and services that person provides.
    A person can have all of the drive, ambition and imagination, but if there but if you can’t put it to use what good is it. I can know all of the law there is, but unless I have someone to share it with, to provide a service to, it is as dust on the sea.
    A “self made” man is dependent on others to pay for what he provides.
    A “self made” man does not craft a pencil, he buys one, he does not keep his money in a sock under the mattress, he puts it in a bank which pays him interest and puts that money to work providing working funds for other men, and women. Money hoarded in a dark cave somewhere is just paper that won’t burn well enough to keep someone warm. And no matter what huge pile of paper you have you are not rich unless you are using it, for your own good, the good of others, investment in ideas and if for no other reason, your comfort and enjoyment of life.
    Self made man? Humph! I know that I would not be who I am today with the love help and support of my loving wife (whose name is Susan) and the shoulders that I have stood on. I hope my legacy, if I have one is that my shoulders were strong enough and wide enough that others can stand on mine and go forward, higher and stronger.
    Bill Brower

  3. Dear Susan
    I’ve been an avid listener of your husband’s podcasts and reader of your musings for years now. I do not express my appreciation for you both nearly enough, especially since you and the dear Rabbi are frequently referenced with love, gratefulness and admiration in my household.
    Thank you for yet another musing that inspires much thought and promotes wisdom.
    Continued blessings to you and Rabbi Lapin!

    1. Camille, it means a great deal to us when people take the time to tell us (even infrequently!) that we bring value to them with what we do. Thank you for a lovely – and much appreciated – note.

    1. The attitude of parents who may be struggling financially and even facing discrimination, in my opinion, makes all the difference in how children might turn out. I wrote a Musing once (don’t have time to find it) about a (very financially successful)friend of ours brought up in intense poverty in Jamaica, whose mother caught fireflies so that he could study after dark. Was he poor? Only financially, but his mother gave him the tools for success.

      1. Some should make a movie about that mother! What a wonderful picture I got in my mind when I read that!

          1. Thank you for looking that up for me! Enjoyed reading it. When we have schools wanting more and more dollars for education, this reminds us that learning doesn’t require dollars as much as it requires inspiration to learn. That, I believe, comes from loving and concerned parents, whose focus is where it should be. On their children. Blessings.

          2. Agreed, Lynn. And neighbors and teachers can step in and provide that inspiration either in addition to parents or in their place if, sadly, necessary. .

  4. Mazel tov, Susan. Your writing is always superb! It’s wonderful to know I’m not the only one who sees the above example of what’s gone sideways in America. Blessings.

  5. I wonder how many of these men ever took time to thank the almighty God who not only made them but blessed the wherewithal i.e. The gifts that highlighted in your commentary to accumulate all this wealth. I also wonder how many of these “men” we’re women. There have been many who while perhaps not as rich as some, who have contributed more to society and the world at large. Margaret Thatcher, Harriet Taubman and Golda Meyier to name just a few. Were they on the list? We had freinds who were struggling to make end meet. When inspired by God to open their home and minister to travelers they soon found there freezer full and their house and car paid off. As the Rabbi says it’s no sin to make money. But God will reward you according to how you use it. If you use it for your own aggrandizement and none of it to enrich society what have you really accomplished? God Bless and Shalom,


    1. It’s a completely different topic and I didn’t read through all 400 bios, but there were very few women and I’m not sure how many would be left if you took away inherited wealth. This list is specifically the financially richest people in America. Forbes makes no claim that they are the people who contribute most to society. I don’t see any value judgment in the list; it’s strictly a financial ranking.

  6. So correct me if I am wrong… if I teach my son to play catch and later on in life he becomes a franchise owner of a winning baseball team he would score lower on the self made score card than if I didn’t exist? What kind of moronic logic is that? Pile that in the “New Math” waste can.

    1. Well, according to the way I think Forbes is calculating (though I’m not sure) if you own the team and he inherits it from you then he scores lower.

  7. ‘Pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps’ sounds great, and very ego-affirming, but where is the guidance and civilized behavior that family and community are SUPPOSED to confer? I have known more than a few ‘hardscrabble’ success types, some honest, a bunch not so. I frankly think that in most cases, a less abrupt rise would make a better man (or, yes, woman), and a better society.
    We should not have to re-invent the wheel with every generation! But, sadly, many parents do not know how to teach what they know.

    1. CK – and quite a few of the new billionaires are, of course, in the tech industry. This is a new kind of phenomenal wealth and it’s easy to be unprepared for that.

    2. But what if you don’t have any of the advantages of family and community? I take issue with our culture saying that bootstrapping is impossible precisely because of those without advantages – we are telling them that no matter how hard they work, because they were born disadvantaged, they’ll never make it. I personally disagree with that, and I think American history is on my side. Best wishes 🙂

      1. Clare, I don’t disagree with you at all. I can think of any number of people who overcame terrible family and cultural messages. What I meant was that they are exactly the ones who should get a 10 (though maybe no one can actually get a 10 because they are alive for which they have to thank God and at least one human). I was saying that if the Forbes 10 is only a financial reckoning it is missing other factors that give a leg up.

  8. Hello wife of my FAVORITE RABBI- GR8 post. In reading this ‘John Galt, Francisco d’Anconia, Ragnar Danneskjöld, as well as men like Hank Rearden and Dagney’ are all 10’s. Though she claimed to be atheist(Ayn Rand) there is more spirituality learned than people want to see…..
    In my personal life I will be possible in the top 400, combining GREEN and INDUSTRY in HEMP…..I am building an ‘ABEL’ business not a ‘cain’ business.
    Tell MY RABBI HOWDY, Carl

    1. Hi Carl, actually d’Anconia and Dagny inherited businesses built by their fathers so they wouldn’t rank as 10 in Forbes calculation. Intriguing use of Cain and Abel there.

  9. Susan, I can’t help but contrast your Musing (which I view as being right on point and bumping up against the seemingly lost trait of humility) with the view of Barack Obama, Senator Elizabeth Warren and seemingly all other Progressives who take the position that there is no such thing as a self made man because of all of the “assistance” that Government provides to all economically successful people (“You didn’t build that!”). No room for Divine assistance in their world view. Keep up the good work.

    1. Ally, without minimizing Divine assistance, I think parents and community impart values that either spur one to achievement or to failure. I thought of President Obama’s comment and decided it was a separate discussion, but I’m glad you mentioned it.

    2. Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, has been quoted as saying, “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. It is in the spirit of that recognition, and with utmost humility, that former President Barrack Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren says that no man is entirely self made. Certainly no malice is intended.

      Both former President Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren came from humble beginnings, and accomplished far more, and with greater affection for the human condition that most Americans. Nevertheless they don’t shout “self made” from the rooftops. It is unfortunate that this forum is being used by some to belittle them and to make light of their accomplishments, intellect and faith in God. After the most perfunctory of checks, someone acting in good faith, would conclude that both former President Obama and Senator Warren have a deep and abiding faith in the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. And they, more than most, recognize and appreciate divine assistance. When we say that no man is entirely self made we are merely asserting what John Donne said in his “Devotions”, that “No Man is an island”. Further the spirit in which it is said that no man is self made is not unlike the sentiment of the hymn “No man is an island”.

      No man is an island, no man stands alone
      Each man’s joy is joy to me
      Each man’s grief is my own
      We need one another, so I will defend
      Each man as my brother
      Each man as my friend

      No man is an island far out in the blue
      We all look to One above
      Who our strength doth renew
      When I help my brother
      Then I know that I plant the seeds
      Of friends that will never die

      I saw the people gather
      I heard the music start
      The song that they were singing
      Is ringing in my heart

      No man is an island, no man stands alone
      Each man’s joy is joy to me
      Each man’s grief is my own
      We need one another, so I will defend
      Each man as my brother
      Each man as my friend

      1. Ian, I’m glad you read this column even though you must disagree with much you read. I interpreted President Obama’s statement as, “the government helped you build that so we need to increase the power of government,” rather than talking about family or God. But, it’s good to know that you found another way to interpret that.

        1. Hello Susan,
          I don’t really believe that these statements of Barrack Obama and Senator Warren are meant to justify a “power grab” or inappropriately seize assets from the wealthy. Recently Rabbi Lapin argued that when people buy condominiums and leave them empty -as is occurring in Vancouver, Canada, where you were on vacation- it is highly appropriate to charge then an additional tax. He argued that when you actually live in a community and use the services, from groceries to dry-cleaning et cetera, you contribute in a way that you don’t when you are an absentee land-owner. The extra tax compensates for the loss to the community incurred because of your lack of use of those services. I thought that his argument had great merit. I also believe that former President Barrack Obama and Senator Warren’s argument is in the same vein. When you build a business in a community, you profit from the community and it is reasonable that you should contribute or “give back” to the community.

          Let us consider Amazon. Jeff Bezos developed a brilliant and highly successful enterprise. He deserves the great success he has reaped. However he could not have done so without the world wide web and the internet.

          So what Obama said, was, and I quote, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

          And what you said was, “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.”. Is that thought really so different from that of former President Barrack Obama? May I say, “great minds think alike”, or would it be sacrilege if I suggested that both you and Barrack Obama are on the same page on some things?

          Shakespeare in his play the Merchant of Venice (from 1599), puts these words in the mouth of Shylock:
          “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?…”
          I wish that sometimes the readers of your blog, would consider that “Democrats” , “Progressives”, and indeed, the supporters of “Black Live Matter” also have eyes, hands and organs … and also bleed when pricked.

          You say that you are glad that I read yourblog notwithstanding that I might not agree with much that I read. If truth be told, I actually subscribed to your blog after reading Rabbi Lapin’s “Thou Shall Prosper” and listening to some of his CDs. I appreciate the wisdom and depth in some of your writings. I am chagrined that your fan base was is rich with apparently “alt-right” sympathizers. But perhaps this just proves, that in the end, we are all just human and not so different. We all bleed when pricked.

          1. Ian, I again appreciate your taking the time to write such a long and thoughtful answer. You are right that I agree with much of President Obama’s quote, The sticking points was these sentences, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.” If he was saying what you think he said – and you make that argument well – he phrased it very poorly. Anyway, please continue writing in – though I’m not even sure what alt-right means, but I do agree with Shakespeare.

  10. Susan, it’s always great to have your perspective. There is a saying, “From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”. The point there is that even though one may inherit wealth from a presumably self-made man, there is no guarantee that one will increase it without dedication of one’s own. Even the man (and “man” can mean humankind, allowing room for women in a culture in which they are no longer necessarily pinned down by homemaking and child rearing) who is not “self-made” deserves credit for hanging on to/enhancing his wealth. In Jesus’ parable of the talents, the wrath of the lord is reserved for the bad-attitude servant who buries his “talent”–coin or ability–in the ground. And a man–“self-made” or not–may well have a Proverbs wife!

    1. Deb, my husband points out that the vast majority of long-time members of the list also have long-time marriages.

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