The American Dream   /   Summer 2013   /    The American Dream

Problems and Promises of the Self-Made Myth

Reconstructing the fading story of an American trope.

Jim Cullen

Henry Clay/©Stapleton Collection-Corbis; John D. Rockefeller/© Oscar White-Corbis; Steve Jobs/ © Robert Galbraith-Reuters-Corbis.

A self-made man means one who has rendered himself accomplished, eminent, rich, or great by his own unaided efforts.
—John Frost, Self-Made Men of America (1848)

These have not been good days for the self-made man. The very phraseology offends: in an age when even corporate titans ritualistically affirm the value of teamwork, “self-made” sounds unseemly. “What’s wrong with the ‘self-made’ theory? Everything,” says Mike Myatt, a prominent CEO consultant, in a 2011 article in Forbes, a publication where one might expect to see such a figure affirmed. “If your pride, ego, arrogance, insecurity, or ignorance keeps you from recognizing the contributions of others, then it’s time for a wake-up call,” he admonishes.11xMike Myatt, “Self-Made Man—No Such Thing,” Forbes (15 November 2011): <>. In the 2012 book The Self-Made Myth, authors Brian Miller and Mike Lapham define the phrase as “the false assertion that individual and business success are entirely the result of the hard work, creativity, and sacrifice of the individual with little outside assistance.”22xBrian Miller and Mike Lapham, The Self-Made Myth and the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2012) 2.

Such objections do not even begin to broach the difficulties of a phrase like “self-made man” in a postfeminist era, when any generic citation of “man” is at best a faux pas. Given the institutional, much less biological, realities that govern our lives, the very idea of the self-made man sounds like a contradiction in terms. No man is “unaided” because every man is some mother’s son.

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