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The Dark Side of Self-Made

You’ve heard that it’s far better to learn from someone else’s mistakes than to learn from your own. Like a banker investing with other people’s money, the banker can benefit from the gains and lessons while rarely suffering like the money’s owner when there’s a loss. What’s not to like! Why wouldn’t you take advantage of the opportunity to learn on someone else’s time and dime?

I can’t think of any good reason either. So, assuming you’re interested in saving yourself some pain, I’ll share with you a painful mistake that I and many others are waking up to and stepping back from. To help you avoid getting caught in this mistake, or to help you recognize and step back from it if you’re already caught, I’ll share a piece of my story. From my story, which just mirrors a larger narrative, you can reflect on your journey and see what connection you need to make.

Since my grammar school days, I was fed a heavy diet of those themes tied to the pursuit of the American Dream. You know that feeding . . . do well in school, learn a trade or go to college, get a good job, work hard, be honest, play fair, get up when you fall, don’t stop . . . and hundreds of more side-dishes to that diet.

My earliest memory of this diet is from my several years in the New Jersey foster care system. With the statistically dismal future that burdens your average foster kid, I later realized some of the adults around me were probably trying to turn around my odds by teaching me the American Dream was built on the ideals of rugged individualism, bootstrapping, and self-reliance. Ultimately, these ideals and the over-arching narrative are all about being the self-made hero. I whole-heartedly bought into these ideals and this narrative. Not just because I was a foster kid trying to please the adults around me. This diet was reinforced by the cultural air I and tens of millions of current adults grew up breathing.

Image Credit: Paul Knowlton

This narrative of being self-made, like a superpower, strengthened and served me well as I tirelessly worked to skip a year of high school, worked my way through community college and college and law school and seminary, and advanced through a variety of professional adventures from engineer to law firm partner. So, frankly, I’m still grateful to those foster care adults and am forever in their debt.

But there’s a downside, even a dark side, to this narrative that is so easy to get trapped by. Like any strength that is at first desirable, the self-made narrative can be so overdeveloped that it darkly becomes a liability. You’ve experienced or at least seen what I’m talking about: detail-orientated darkly becomes perfectionism, assertiveness darkly becomes arrogance, results-orientated darkly becomes impatience, friendly darkly becomes passive, and driven darkly becomes demanding, just to name a few strengths overworked to the point of being a liability. (If you need more, stream a few episodes of The Boys or skim your news feed to easily pick out the several high profile people who claim to be self-made and frequently reveal their dark side liabilities.)

It doesn’t matter where you started with your self-made narrative or the nature of your eventual achievements. The move to the dark side starts when your well-deserved satisfaction isn’t turned outward in gratitude but is turned inward in selfishness. That’s when you start to believe that you really are self-made, that you really did single-handedly earn what you achieved, that you really deserve what you have. That’s when the trap starts closing in and you begin to believe and act like you deserve more. You never realize that your overdeveloped self-made narrative strength has darkly become selfishness and greed. I’ll confess spending time on the dark side of the self-made narrative before extracting myself. But that’s one of the reasons I’m qualified to sound this warning. Learn from my pain and the pain of countless others, and don’t get caught in this trap.

As part of my story, I’ve asked myself, “What does our self-made narrative have to do with capitalism?” Well, capitalism isn’t driven by rules but by hearts. Economics and accounting and stock markets and laws and everything else we’ve developed and that we measure to create a structure that we can point to and call capitalism, those run on rules. But capitalism itself – its beating heart – is simply the sum of the individual beating hearts that is each one of us engaging with each other in the marketplace. I trust that reality isn’t a surprise to anyone.

What happens to the heart of capitalism when far too many of our own hearts move to the dark side of the self-made narrative, like we currently find ourselves? The heart of capitalism also moves to the dark side, of course. Watching the role of the powerful Vought International in The Boys will illustrate that dynamic. Any other corporations, real or imagined, you can think of?

Extracting ourselves from our self-made dark side traps, extracting capitalism from the dark side we’ve put it in, is no more complicated or difficult than stepping back from an over-developed ethic of maximizing shareholder value to an ethic of mutuality. Surprisingly, creating a better capitalism is no more mysterious or complicated than having a change of heart.

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"This book merits close, sustained attention as a compelling move beyond both careless thinking and easy ideology."—Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

"Better Capitalism is a sincere search for a better world."—Cato Institute


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