Why We Should Remove “Self-Made” From Our Business Vocabulary

by | Sep 10, 2018 | Money & Finance

It is not good enough, tells popular media, to simply build a decent income as a business owner. To be a millionaire is not enough either. It is the accolade of self-made billionaire that is held up for us all to aspire to. Woah.

Entrepreneurialism has become idolised. Celebrated entrepreneurs are themselves stories of success, overcoming famous failures along the way.

But most failed business ventures don’t have a stage for their stories. The coverage is misleading and expectations are consequently higher than ever. Meanwhile, us founders are left with the societal pressure mounting.

In all honesty, just ticking off a couple of overdue to-dos, managing to keep the outgoings lower than the incomings and keeping customers happy(ish) feels like an achievement. And whether or not I would be classed as self-made is both irrelevant and premature, I’m surviving the first year and that’s enough.

A tale of self-made turmoil

An infamous example this year is that of Kylie Jenner, when Forbes selected her as their face of self-made female billionaires.

“At 21, she’s set to be the youngest-ever self-made billionaire,” Forbes wrote. “Welcome to the era of extreme fame leverage”.

Their self-made criteria is pretty questionable. If we consider the case of Kylie, she grew up in a wealthy and famous family environment. She was born into white upper-class privilege in America. Does that make her unworthy of her fortune, her business and success? No. But titling her ‘self-made’ sparked heated debate across the twittersphere.

Dictionary.com shortly became involved in the conversation to clear up any confusion. Their humour is undeniable, but does their definition actually make sense?


The power of semantics

Let’s take “self-made means having succeeded in life unaided”. Firstly, success is based on personal interpretation. Secondly, is it possible to do anything unaided?

Cambridge English Dictionary defines self-made as: rich and successful as a result of your own work and not because of family money: I.e. a self-made man/millionaire  (I’ll just let the sexism pass here, that’s for another post…)

Kylie Jenner is, of course, an extreme example of family wealth and fame. But where is the self-made cut off point?

Are you self-made if you inherited £100K which enabled you to launch a business? The Cambridge dictionary would probably say no.

How about if your parents supported you through university? Tough one. As babies, we are all totally dependant on other adults – does that count?

In business as in life, nothing exists in isolation.

The term self-made insists that it is possible for us to exist and act in isolation from anyone and everything else. This is actually impossible.

But when has popular media ever allowed the impossible to get in the way of a good expectation? Size zero anyone?

Why the term “self-made” is irresponsible

The issue here with self-made criteria is two-fold.

One, it evokes a “me versus you” stance. Self-made calls you to judge someone’s background. It prompts you to compare who has had it easy and who has had it tough. It’s divisive. It’s egotistical. And if there’s anything this world needs less of, it’s both of those.

Two, self-made is presented as aspirational. It encourages the thought that it’s not only achievable to walk alone, but desirable.

But let’s be real here, entrepreneurialism can be a very lonely existence. Often, it’s not actually the money you need the most, it’s the encouragement from those around you. Community and collaboration will always trump seclusion and detachment. Build a team, or at minimum build a strong support network. Do not try it alone.

Our focus needs to transcend independence to interdependence – that’s where the real magic happens.

Let’s lighten the load

Whether the odds are (or ever have been) in your favour or not, your success is not that of yours alone, and neither are your failures.

That perspective is actually pretty freeing when you think about it. Your success is not yours alone, but neither is your failure. Life goes on, the universe keeps ticking over, and you alone are not responsible for the way it all pans out.

So let’s stop putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves by using the self-made term. Let’s rebel against a label that divides and agitates. And let’s hope that the Forbes brand can recover from their faux pas…


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