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Heroku founder Adam Wiggins: The Legacy of the Self-Made Man (2008) (heroku.com)
85 points by daverecycles on Dec 26, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

Well I'm glad the last 100 years of business history can be summed up with a single strawman. It's such a relief that there was no nuance or complexity in history, now I won't have to do any of that nasty "thinking".

Sarcasm aside, you present an entirely simplistic view of history perfectly tailored to the point you're trying to make. The only people who are going to believe anything you're saying are the people who already agree with you, because people tend to be less than critical when it comes to their pet theories.

As a counter-point, here are some of those grey-suited company-men from the post-Teddy Roosevelt era:

Henry Ford

Alfred Sloan

Thomas Watson

Walt Disney

Will Kellogg

Warren Buffett

William Boeing

Gordon Moore

Henry Kaiser

There are more. So what exactly is your point? There were clearly self-made men after Roosevelt. Are you arguing that there were more self-made men before Roosevelt? I'd like to see some evidence to that. Or maybe you're arguing that the general "sentiment" was against self-made men. Again, I'd like to see evidence of that, and good luck finding it. First you'll have to define just what the national "sentiment" is, then find scientific studies of people both before and after Roosevelt that tried to discern it.

I don't think he was trying to say there were fewer nouveau riche post-Roosevelt, but that there were demonized in a new way, and that that stigma didn't really fully lift until the tech boom.

He's talking about fashion and sentiment, not the actual number of entrepreneurs.

Whether they were demonized or not would require some studies as I mentioned in the last sentences of my previous post. Who demonized them? How much of the population demonized them? How strongly did people feel towards them? And how did these sentiments compare with people prior to Teddy Roosevelt?

Without answering those questions we can't rightly draw any conclusions about people's attitude towards the self-made man.

Does it really matter? It's not like that was the point of the article.

> America became the first large-scale experiment of a society that could be called a meritocracy

Bit of a fail here. The word meritocracy comes from a book of the same title written in 1958 by Michael Young (interesting fella, wrote the UK Labour Party's manifesto in 1945, founded the Open University).

The point about meritocracy is that it is a satirical term. (The beauty of it being that in any society the wealthy and powerful can claim they rose on merit. In the time of the Divine Right Of Kings, merit was being chosen by God.)

But don't take my word for it, read Michael Young on the subject in 2001.


Prior to the industrial revolution, status in most societies was based on one thing only: heredity. No matter how much you accomplished - or didn’t - you stayed in the same station of life.

Ye, this isn't really true. Lets take, for example, 18th century Naval officers from the UK:

* Captain Cook - discovered Australia, mapped the Pacific etc. Father was a farmer

* Horatio Nelson - Defeated the French, considered greatest Naval commander of all time. Father was a minister

* Arthur Philip - Commander during American Revolution, lead colonization of Australia. Father was a teacher.

It is a very common misconception that in old society it was impossible to move from the lower classes into the upper classes. The British Empire, the prototypical aristocracy, was largely shaped and developed by people who were raised in the lower classes. This is because the military, navy, their universities (eg. Isaac Newton), and many other parts of government and private societies were strict meritocracies.

The upper classes actually produced a very small number of notable people, outside of royalty (Charles Darwin, Churchill, Brunel (although his grandfather was a French farmer)

(Edit: "America became the first large-scale experiment of a society that could be called a meritocracy." - Citation needed. See above.)

"The Industrial Revolution was a period from the 18th to the 19th century [...]"

Please excuse my quoting from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution

So using 18th century people to illustrate that hereditary factors were not dominant pre-IR is a bit strange.

Most of these guys were born and already famous before the steam engine patent - let alone the real industrial boon

The Wikipedia summary isn't wrong, it is just misleading. The inventions and innovations that lead to the industrial revolution were founded in the late 18C, but the real transformation was much later (although it did happen, comparatively, quickly)

It is a bit like saying that the 'Internet era' is from the 1950's, because that is when the integrated circuit was created

The environment of 1700 seems likely to share more characteristics with 1750 than 1600. Whether these people were famous during or _just before_ the IR does not change my point.

Steam engines were invented many times during and before the IR. What allowed the IR to happen was more likely coal, I think.

As I tend to point out any time someone goes on a masturbatory flight of fancy like this: there ain't no such thing as a "self-made man". There are only people who are too short-sighted or too narcissistic to acknowledge the others who helped them get to where they are.

Just because progress or achievement necessarily occurs in some social context does not mean it comes about as a result of it.

The fact that your criticism can be levied against any result in the world should give you a hint as to just how vapid of an idea it is.

> Just because progress or achievement necessarily occurs in some social context does not mean it comes about as a result of it.

But it is fair to say that progress and achievement depend on a certain level of social support, right? How many tech entrepeneurs come from abusive homes with no food?

My argument isn't necessarily on the same topic, so it won't be sound, but it does have some intuitional merit: consider any person that is at the peak of any given trend, whether it be a self-made entrepreneur, a political figure, a scientist, or the community head. They are (IMHO) a result of both their social context and their volition.

You could say that, based on your logic, Hitler was not a self-made man but was the result of his social context - his rise to power was truly phenomenal and would you therefore say he had no "self-made" qualities? I tend to believe that any figure head is the apotheosis of the ebb and flow of the pool they swim in - but it does take volition and self-made qualities to become the instance for a given class of thinking.

I know Hitler and Germany as premises for an argument are far removed in many specific aspects from the discussion of self-made business men and entrepreneurs - but, one must concede, there is a curious link that runs through all men of power, wisdom, or accomplish. It is that link I'm speaking to.

Agree, "self made man" is a myth which underlies the perpetuation of some of the worst political thinking in this country.

I'm not one for Randian Hero worship but you're being unnecessarily negative and acrid.

I think the point here is that he's optimistic for his future because he sees a lot of opportunity opening up. I would also go so far as to say that he feels fortunate for having been born when he was.

That's hardly narcissism.

I think I'm being realistic, and cautioning against the fiction that is the idea of the "self-made man".

Since he's mentioned specifically, and idolized a bit, in the article, consider Andrew Carnegie. Where would he have ended up without the charitable library established by Colonel Anderson (consult any decent biography of Carnegie for the details)? Also, note that when Anderson's library encountered financial difficulties and instituted a two-dollar-a-year fee, Carnegie wrote a scathing letter of protest, demanding that the library remain free. If you must, to paraphrase a bit, demand the fruit of others' labor free of charge, than just how "self-made" are you?

(Carnegie did, at least, remain morally consistent and recognize the impact the library had on him, since he used his later wealth to establish free libraries)

And this isn't an unusual example, nor is it just a cherry-picked scene from one famous businessman's life. If you look at any highly-successful person's background, you'll find episodes like that one; success does not and cannot happen in a vacuum, and the idea that it does (and is correlated with certain qualities, such as rebellious anti-authoritarianism, which many HN readers would like to perceive in themselves) is a self-deluding myth.

The argument that there are no self made men is typically made in the context of arguing that guys like Andrew Carnegie (or Adam Wiggins) don't have a right to the wealth they've created (i.e. since they didn't create the wealth in a vacuum, others must have a right to share in it.)

But the question that's rarely asked is, who are those people that helped them create the wealth? is it random strangers? is it welfare bums? no, of course not. They were able to create great wealth by working and benefiting from other successful people, by voluntary mutual cooperation.

So you're right, people don't create wealth in a vacuum, they create it by working with other similarly ambitious like-minded people. They had the same chance to try, and fail, like everyone else has in a free country.

They need the masses to buy their products, drive on their roads, etc. They need the whole society which provided them with infrastructure, food supply, safety, all kinds of working grunts supporting the whole thing. Before the invention of farming, for example, "entrepreneurship" was clearly entirely impossible, as everyone needed to forage for food most of the time (I recommend "guns germs and steel" for some insight on that). All "success" is dependent on the total system in which it takes place. Successful people have every right to their success but they don't have the right to claim the rest of the world below them had no effect on their success being possible. It's the ultimate in hubris.

Consider the flip side, which is an argument that (unlike your straw man) actually happens on this site: people who take pride in being successful "self-made men" denigrate those who are not as successful and either imply or outright say that those less-successful people deserve their lot on account of some inferiority or failing of character.

Which, when you think about it, isn't too far off from the old notion of the "nobleman" -- all we've done is shift nobility from something granted by God to something granted by monetary wealth.

(also, since the article contrasts the modern era with the old hereditary aristocracies, take a look sometime at how many prominent Europeans today are descended from or associated with descendants of the Habsburgs and the Bourbons, or just how incestuous US government has been over the past fifty years)

It's a fascinating philosophical dichotomy. I'm quite sure the closest thing we'll get to objective truth varies widely between instances.

On the one hand, you are right, no success happens in a vacuum, and a lot of wealth is acquired directly through a good ol' boys network.

On the other hand, most successful entrepreneurs probably deserve credit for building a company no matter how many people help them. Aside from being well-compensated in many cases, it's a tenuous argument that the employees of a successful startup would be creating the same amount of value without the inspired leadership and focus created by the entrepreneur.

I don't think the statement: "all we've done is shift nobility from something granted by God to something granted by monetary wealth," is fair. Clearly society distinguishes between inherited and self-made wealth. The question of who deserves what is subtle, and I'm hard pressed to come down on one side or the other.

They had the same chance to try, and fail, like everyone else has in a free country.

You're right everyone has the same chance to try and fail, but not everyone has the same chance to try and succeed.

Some people get the deluxe starter kit, and some people get a blank sheet of paper. You can turn both into a billion dollar business, but one's a lot easier than the other.

Since they didn't create the wealth in a vacuum, others must have a right to share in it.

I don't think it has to go there. I think there can be a responsibility to give credit that is distinct from the responsibility to share the spoils.

The question here is not whether Andrew Carnegie had a right to keep his wealth, but whether we as a society have a responsibility to give some of the credit for "his" achievements to the other people who made them possible.

"Self made man" is a common phrase, and arguably an expression of a collective understanding.

Everyone of us has recourse to the contextual/environmental support that you (correctly) point out. But only a few manage to use it effectively. In that context, the skillful individual has accomplished something that most other individuals apparently can not (or do not wish to do).

I'm from Pittsburgh. Once, on a business trip, I met an old woman. Over the course of our conversation, our common origins became apparent. She asked me, "Do the men still have to change their shirts after lunchtime?"[1] I said, "no, not anymore." "Well, maybe I will go back there again one day."

Carnegie stepped on a lot of heads on his way up. [2]

1: There was so much soot in the air, your shirt would be dirty by midday, so blue-collar workers brought spares and changed.

2: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homestead_Strike

You're so right. Carnegie et al. should have used the non-polluting cold fusion technology that was widely available at the time. He didn't of course because he was an evil bastard and loved poisoning people.

Also, as is widely acknowledged, union bosses were in no way responsible for any violence or wrongdoing. It's all so obvious and one-sided in retrospect, you know.

Look, on the way from a nepotist aristocracy to creating a prosperous middle class you don't get it right the first time. Shit gets fucked up, and yes lots of people do bad things along the way. It's trivially easy to look back and point out how they only got it 30% right and ignore the fact that everyone before them got it 10% right.

You're both being dogmatic. Steveklabnik is claiming that Carnegie could've done more to be an ethical leader, Axiom is claiming that he couldn't.

The truth is, both are possible. I am baffled as to how either of you thinks the question can be answered without looking at the specific history and the specific choices Carnegie made and deciding whether he was willfully destroying lives.

Please see my response, which is a sibling to you. I'm being dogmatic on purpose, responding to the tone of TFA.

I think Carnegie was kind of a jerk, but if he hadn't done it, some other jerk probably would have. I try not to spend too much of my life casting moral judgements on others, so I'm still not quite how sure that shakes out.

Unions continue to destroy this town to this day. I'm not saying that Carnegie was pure unadulterated evil. But he's not the purely good man that TFA holds him up to be, either. That's all.

When I was 19-20, I helped this great fellow Dr. Eisenstadt, a retired professor from Brooklyn College, self-publish his books for his family and friends. At the time he had a lot of files in WordPerfect for DOS, and I had to (basically manually) get them into Word somehow, clean up the formatting, and fix up some of the few spelling mistakes it found. At first he balked that he had spelling mistakes... he had very few, but then he saw they were there, he was happy :)

Anyway, he loved to write about America and particularly Carnegie. So through formatting his book I learned a lot about Carnegie -- the guy came from nothing, and he was truly active. Check this out: http://bit.ly/fDMBd9

The "status" of olden days, by the by, did not just happen. It was created at some earlier point in time by "self-made men": warlords, robbers and so on and then maintained by force or coercion.

One improvement about most technology entrepreneurs compared to the old self-made men - they're not crushing strikes or hiring Pinkertons to assassinate workers.

I'd often argue that it's not an improvement: at least when there's a baton hitting you in the face, it's a clear threat.


This is a great example of what separates entrepreneurs from other people: the ambition and belief that precedes any action at all. Given the list of people identified as self-made men, I would hazard a guess that there is a long way to go.

I think he is right on the major premise, but wrong on fashion -- a lot of the most revolutionary and iconoclastic people I've met dress well, in suits when appropriate.

"Prior to the industrial revolution, status in most societies was based on one thing only: heredity. No matter how much you accomplished - or didn’t - you stayed in the same station of life."

Status has always been based on power. Plenty of poor men grew up to be powerful men in the pre-industrial world. In this corner of the world (West) the routes open to the "self-made" man were the military and the clerical orders.

(It is of course true that the nobility had de facto access to the same spheres.)

Great post, and I wish more entrepreneurs were this reflective.

It would have been nice if he at least paid homage to Ayn Rand, who he has clearly read and was influenced by (along with millions of other people.) I know it's fashionable these days to read Ayn Rand, and then discard her by the time you're 18, but she was a pretty important figure in helping turn the tide he's talking about.

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