Self-Made Person:
Myth, Reality, and Promise

(c) by Hugh LaFollette 2022

             Some of us who are not victims think we are.  We also fail to recognize those who are victims, including those we victimized and those whose victimization benefit us.  For example, we fail to grasp how pervasively race, gender, and class—themselves shaped by time and circumstance of birth—frame people’s options.  Even so, few people are devoid of control.  We are not mere pawns in a chess game of life.

            On the flip side, many of us think we are self-made, that  our accomplishments sprung (almost) entirely from our intelligence, ingenuity, and diligence.  That may be qualifiedly true of some “making it” from deprived backgrounds.  But only qualifiedly.

            This tandem of misguided beliefs is kin to our propensity to asymmetrically judge our actions (and those of people we like) relative to those by others, especially those we dislike.  We blame our failures on something other than ill-advised choices, limited abilities, or laziness.  If I receive a poor grade, do not land a coveted promotion, or am spurned by a potential lover, I may blame others’ ignorance, biases, or my unfortunate circumstances.  I scrounge for ways to excuse or mitigate responsibility when things turn out badly, while taking credit when actions turn out well.  I am unlikely to do same for traits or behaviors of those I dislike.  I am not alone.

            The core phenomenon here is more pervasive than inappropriate pride or blame-deflection.  Many who know that a robust notion of “self-made person” is fiction still assume they have extensive direct control of their lives.  Not so.  Although not leaves tossed by winds of circumstance, we are shaped by complex causal chains largely beyond our control and often our ken.  Grasping this broadly and in detail reveals limits on our control and shows why the control we do have is indirect.  Understanding that and how myriad forces shape us empowers us to work with and within forces to create or isolate levers maximizing control; we can become more responsible moral agents.


Dewey and “Grace”

            John Dewey identified these forces and their roles a century ago.  He noted that many ways our lives unfold are matters of luck.  Their contours and trajectories are framed by forces we did and do not directly control: genes, parents, businesses, and governments—forces and worlds given us by our predecessors, just as our predecessor’s worlds were given them by theirs.  That is what Dewey meant in averring that “It is of grace, not of ourselves that we lead civilized lives.”

            We live in a world of art and music, bridges and roads, trains and airplanes, computers and cell phones, democracy and a vigorous press, public education and health care because of actions by generations of predecessors.  Without their insight, innovation, persistence, and luck, we might still chase deer on the savannah.  We are better off than folks during the Great Plague, not because we are more worthy, but because we had three centuries of innovation between them and us, innovation making our world more inviting to us, more receptive to our choices and actions.  No one born then would own a computer factory.  Neither would many of these people today:

a.    A New Guinea villager.

b.    A poor, uneducated Syrian immigrant in Madrid.

c.    A Harlem vagrant with a crackhead mother and no identifiable father.

            Although, any of these could happen, we do not expect it barring the serendipitous intervention of others.  The point is familiar.  Who is more likely to become a partner in an esteemed law firm: a child of bright lawyers and physicians, or the child of a preschool teacher and sanitation worker?  That is not to say the former will make it and the latter cannot.  Only that the former’s doing so is unsurprising; the latter’s, rare.

            These facts are frequently masked in public imagination.  If you google “the best predictors of success,” you find studies isolating characteristics of successful people: intelligence, hard work, emotional stability, critical thinking, etc.  Although these traits are vital, someone possessing them may not succeed.  Nor do we know how these traits matter.  Or how successful people acquired, developed, or deployed them.  After all, although some intelligence and persistence are necessary for success, they are insufficient.  My parents were bright, tireless workers.  Yet, for a variety of reasons, they lacked options some contemporaries had, and many people today expect.


Setting the Stage

            No one’s traits arise in a vacuum.  We are shaped by genes, families, and friends, as well as cultural, political, and business environments in which we live.  But this does not mean that choices and actions are impotent.  We are better off because of other’s choices and actions.  No one makes the world anew: each generation transmits what it receives, altered and ideally improved.  Knowing that shows us that, how, and why choice and action matter; and, how we can shape our own lives.  Let me elaborate.


What Shapes Us


            Some physical features—including eye color, general height, early onset myopia, and facial structures— are writ in our genes.  Some are wholly trivial: whether one can roll her tongue.  Other traits, e.g., some genetically-based diseases (or the predilection to developing them) are life-shattering.  Many cannot be bested, although the contours of some can be influenced by acute attention to lifestyle or diet.

            Genes also influence intelligence.  “Geneticists have isolated genes responsible for half of someone’s intelligence.”  No single gene does the trick: Intelligence is shaped by the expression and interactions of several.  Likewise for personality traits, such as depression or outgoingness.

            Given genetic inheritance, we expect many parental traits will be replicated in their biological offspring.  If parents are moody or pensive, we infer their children may be, too.  The full explanation for these traits, though, requires also studying relevant environmental forces.  If a child’s parents are usually depressed or quick to anger, this environment makes most children stressed or withdrawn.  If the parents are educated professionals, their children are likely literate.  Were children not shaped by upbringing, we would not be concerned about the nature and stability of the family.  Nor would parents seek locales with fine public—or affordable private—education.  If these did not matter, parents seeking them would waste time and money.

            Other traits alter what children can do easily—or only with extreme effort.  We expect that children of musical prodigies can carry a tune, while ones with short, stubby fingers will not be concert pianists.  Nor should someone born with essential tremors to pursue neurosurgery or defuse explosives.

            Of course, there are legions of lives these children might live, careers they could pursue.  My point is not that size, dexterity, personality, intelligence, and eyesight dictate the way someone’s life goes.  However, these features open some options, foreclose others, and make achieving others easier or more difficult.


Time and Circumstances of Our Births

            Although genes frame the kinds of people we can be, the time, location, and circumstances of our births are likely more significant.  Someone born in 500 CE anywhere in the world could not have driven a car, used a computer, attended a state-sponsored university, had open-heart surgery, been vaccinated against polio, or read a paperback.  Not only were these not options fifteen hundred years ago; they were possibilities few could fathom.  We have these options from grace—because our predecessors made them imaginable and possible.  People then lacked options because they were born at the wrong time.  Many who lack them today, lack them because they live in the “wrong” part of the world.  Someone in the slums of Mumbai or on the Mongolian Steppes lacks options afforded most in Western industrialized societies.  That is not to say all in an industrialized country have the same options.  Their lives vary further depending to the circumstances of their births.


Social Structures

            Businesses and social structures influence us in ways often escaping notice.  I realized how substantially during the family’s first year in Scotland.  Our flat had a small (“dorm room”) refrigerator.  Why?  We did not need a large one.  We had three bakers, a fishmonger, two butchers, and a vegetable/fruit stand, as well as an all-purpose grocer, within 200 yards of our flat.  Each day one of us would make the rounds to purchase food for the day.  We used the refrigerator for staples (margarine) and some leftovers.  Once every few weeks, we would drive two miles to purchase canned goods.

            Some would not like this way of living; we adored it.  However, the option of eating food purchased (and often made or picked) within a day or two is viable for few Americans.  The design of towns and the location of food stores requires virtually all of us to drive to purchase food; therefore, virtually everyone needs motorized transportation and a large refrigerator.  What eludes most of us is that relying on large grocers and refrigerators is not a choice we made.  Our options were set by economic arrangements and business practices.



            Businesses shape what we perceive to be needs and interests, and then shape available means for achieving them.  In so doing, they frame how we spend our time.  There are many things we would have never dreamed of wanting sans advertising.  Then, once we are accustomed to a device or service, we cannot envision life without it.  Other social influences create and then shape or reshape options and means.  Consider the roles of friends, schools, and churches.  Affluent parents often live in communities with better public schools or affordable private ones; they can also obtain special assistance for their kids.  Their children usually do not have to work for money and can devote more time to studies.  Thus, they tend to be better educated, intellectually curious, well-read, better at math; they often speak and write grammatically, even elegantly.  In contrast, children in poorer families usually must work while in school; and their schools are often middling.  Finally, their parents are unlikely to model academic excellence, even if they model other valuable traits.

            Collectively these factors mold not only what people can or will do, but what they consider options.  My parents were lower middle class with eighteen years of education between them.  They wanted me to go to college because they thought it was a ticket to “a better life”—where that phrase was parsed as meaning “one with more money.”  However, they did not appreciate what a quality higher education could or should provide.  Nor did I.  Hence, I never considered leaving the state for college.  Like my parents, I did not know why attending an elite college could create more options, enhance my ability to see more choices, and the skills to realize and benefit from them.

            The view of choice and action that many endorse ignores incontrovertible facts about the direct and indirect ways that time and place limit or expand our options.  Parental intelligence influences the child’s intelligence, their socio-economic status influences their child’s financial future.  Sure, some who start out poor can succeed.  But when they do, we can point to genetic or environmental factors enabling success.


Religion and Culture

            Our lives are shaped by the contours of social and religious environments.  We often fail to acknowledge their sway.  As Mill confesses, he did not originally notice that factors making him a churchman in London would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Peking.  He—like most of us—assumed he rationally adopted his beliefs.  That may be partly true for some.  However, it is not entirely true for any of us, and largely untrue for most.  To rephrase Mill, why are most East Indians Hindu rather than Christians?  Did they examine competing holy books and adopt Hinduism?  Although that happens, it is rare.  Unfortunately, many of us think the views of vast swaths of humanity are ignorant, often mysterious, and perhaps repugnant.  Yet, were that true of people reared as Hindus or Muslims or Confucians, what reason could we have for thinking that it is not also true of us, our family members, and our friends?

            Likewise for cultural norms.  Why do Japanese have an especially tight bond of extended family that many westerners lack?  Is it that they considered various social arrangements and settled on the one in which they were reared?  Of course not (Diamond, J. 2019: Chapter 3).  Or why, for a century, did a majority of white Southerners support slavery?  Did we think African Americans were equals of Caucasians, and decided, on available evidence, that they were naturally a slave class?  No.  We were reared in environments where these views were norms; and we lacked the impetus or opportunity or ability to seriously examine what we learned.  Some of us went through motions of questioning our views: we asked simple-minded questions to which we thought we already “knew” the answers   The problem is that although we acknowledge human fallibility abstractly, we think we are spared this flaw inflicting others.   As J.S. Mill elegantly puts it:

Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgment which is always allowed to it in theory; for while everyone well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion of which they feel very certain may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves . . . liable.

            What is true of our beliefs is also true of the way our lives unfold.  If we are rich and successful, we may assume that wealth, status, and success are mostly of our making. even if they are better explained as products of our genes, environment, and circumstances.  Although some people may be “self-made,” most reflective people see that many of their options are not of their making (Frank, R. 2016).  Each person builds her life on foundations erected by those who lived before.   If someone’s parents were educated, smart, wealthy, or hard-working, her opportunities will be far greater than those born to poor, uneducated, unstable, mentally challenged, and slothful parents.

            This defies question.  My parents never made it to the mid-middle class, but not because they were dullards or lazy.  Their options were limited by factors cited earlier.  They had no realistic opportunity for higher education; neither inherited more than a pittance.  What is amazing is not that they were not wealthy, but that they did so well.  Brights and hard work mattered, but only so much.

            What about education?  I inherited my initial view of its nature and function from culture and parents.  My parents, as most in my culture, thought of it as a ticket to a better economic life.  Fortunately, I had a cadre of teachers who challenged me to think for myself.  In so doing, they enabled me to see options I had not seen.  Even so, upbringing and finances constrained what I saw as options.  Although I knew I wanted to go to college, I considered only two local-ish ones.  It was not that I examined options and chose local.  I never considered anything further afield.  More generally, although I had to be able to pursue options that were visible and viable, I rarely created these alone.  My culture and family are key elements of the causal story.  So, too, the government.  Yet some commentators contend, government is a menace we must banish if we wish to make ourselves.  Malarky.


The Deep State

            These conservative commentators aver that governments always act insidiously.  Sometimes they do—which is why genuine democracy is important.  Government is crucial essential for what it does directly and in what it enables others to do (themes are chronicled in Gallagher’s magisterial: How the Post Office Created America (2017).  Here, I identify forms of control we have, given our options and abilities--forms enhanced by good governments.


Control We Can and Do Have

            The aforementioned factors do not eliminate our control.  Being aware of them, however, should change how we should understand it, and can exercise and expand it


Giving to Posterity

            Dewey avers that gratitude is the root of all virtue.  The significance of his claim escapes us until we team it with the truth and importance of his explanation of “being civilized,” and ways in which the forces in our lives are amplified by serendipity.  We can act to make the world better or worse than the one we inherited, but usually not by ourselves or directly.  Thinking we can is hubris.  We can, however, influence ourselves, our children, and grandchildren in ways that predecessors and contemporaries influenced us and our worlds.  We can make it worse, by damaging the environment or vital institutions.  Or better by protecting and enhancing the environment, as well as supporting institutions essential for democracy and realistic self-control.


Character of Control

            Most of us have some control over our lives (although in dire circumstances, some may not have much).  Still, most people of moderate means in developed societies with active democracies often have considerable control—albeit not to the degree, and almost never of the kind, they suppose.  We do not carve our futures from vapor.  Our control involves working within and manipulating the world we inherited.  As I explain below, we may a) see options others miss, b) pursue some, and sometimes c) create new ones from cobbled remnants of our lives.  Most control is indirect and toward others, by creating options for them.  Some (the destitute, mentally challenged, or those with uneducated parents) may lack them entirely, while those of us with some control have little or no direct control. 

            As I explained, one reason some options are unavailable is that we never considered them.  For instance, the idea that I might attend an Ivy League college never crossed my mind, in part because I did not appreciate what one was or how it might benefit me.  The lesson can be generalized we can shape our lives by seeing options we previously missed . . . and then by pursuing some.  We can help others do same.

            It is an error, though, to think this is a singular ability; rather, it is a constellation of them: to understand the world as it is, to envision a somewhat different world, to see ways to move from one to the other, and to discern how actions hinder or facilitate movement.  Living in an environment with vibrant general education and decent medical care, basic amenities, and food make more options available to many of us.  Whether we live in a conductive environment depends in part on choices and actions by ourselves and others.  Knowing that helps us discern our options and responsibilities.


Our Responsibilities to Others

            We sometimes directly “repay” predecessors by ensuring they have adequate finances and medical care in retirement.  Mostly we “pay it forward” by supporting a vibrant government benefiting future generations.  Some do not think this happens.



            Although government is neither invariably evil or good, it is  difficult to specify appropriate limits on—and crucial roles of—government.  The notions of ‘grace,’ ‘gratitude,’ and ‘serendipity’ give us direction.  They reveal that and how government is important, and why good government is essential for flourishing.  Let’s first let me use some autobiographical details to illustrate the notion and significance of serendipity.

            I saw serendipity at work when reflecting how I became a reporter for The Tennessean and then became a professor, and later came to travel extensively—and even live—outside the United States.  These historical realities for me were not possibilities I entertained as a teen.  Happenstance injected them into my life.  Nearing graduating college, a faculty friend introduced me to a renowned journalist and editor; suddenly an option was born.  Likewise, for being a college professor.   That too, I had not entertained until, during the 1970 election, I met a professor who thought I had talent.  I decided to take a few grad courses. I loved it.  Both seeming diversions turned out well, although neither was part of my plan.

            Each autobiographical example reveals the importance of having and seeing options; and having abilities to exploit them.  These exemplify forms of control most of us have, forms created and empowered by the forces identified earlier.


Proper limits on, and roles of, government
            Before explaining why government is essential, we should note proper limits on it and its agents.  They should not rifle through a person’s home, papers, finances, phone calls, or emails without compelling and transparent reasons.  Nor should a government imprison us for criticizing it.  These claims are uncontroversial.  We need more.

            In thinking about what it should and should not do, we must ask: relative to what?  A totalitarian regime?  Or a minimalist government?   Neither extreme is an appropriate benchmark.  We should compare it with functioning democratic regimes and explore how we might improve them.  Like Dewey, I contend that government should be at least—and arguably more—robust than currently in, say, the United States.  It should provide significant options for all citizens, by:

a.    Protecting, providing, and expanding public health, and robust safety nets.

b.    Making us more mobile, with accessible, safe roads, bridges, trains, etc.

c.    Supporting liberal education for all; this exposes us to the arts and empowers us.

d.    Promoting the expression of ideas via a free press, free assembly, and public media.

e.    Doing each of the above in ways that encourage civic friendship.

            If government does these, we will all see options we did not see—or have.  It will provide knowledge and skills to pursue them.  This is serendipity at work.


A Broadly Ideal Government


            An ideal government empowers all (most) citizens to flourish, by not harming them, by protecting them from harm, and, by enabling them to have skills and knowledge required to achieve their goals.  As I noted, this includes providing or making a full panoply of health care possible.  It also includes environments to support children with and from parents, say, by protecting them from abuse and neglect.


Getting from here to there


            Saying we should do this does not explain how to do it.  there is no simple roadmap, in part because times and contours are always changing.  Each change and movement remakes the landscape, and so shifts routes for moving toward a desired end.  That said, there are common points we must consider:  It is not just individual actions that enable us, but the actions of groups, as well as democratic processes and elections, including, open legislative meetings, a vigorous press, and a fair criminal justice system.  Each can protect and empower us.  Doing each for all helps us navigate treacherous individual and collective terrain.  It is a sense of self-control with promise.



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