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No One is Self-Made

Daily Stoic Emails

Marcus Aurelius opens Meditations reflecting upon what he has learned from various influential individuals in his life. It’s titled “Debts and Lessons,” and the 17 entries spanning nine pages and more than 2,000 words make up nearly 10% of the entire book! Marcus writes with the humility of someone in the final act of their life taking stock of how lucky they are to be where they are.

It’s beautiful. And it totally dispenses with the notion of the “self-made man,” the idea that someone got somewhere all on their own. Marcus knew he was a product of so many mentors, influencers, advisors and teachers. Debt is the operative word in that title—he owed them so much.

When we talked to Arnold Schwarzenegger on a recent episode of the Daily Stoic podcast, he talked about this very idea (in fact, he references how inspired he was by Meditations in the final chapter of his fantastic new book Be Useful). Because on the surface Arnold Schwarzenegger’s remarkable life story is a classic example of that idea of the “self-made man.” Born and raised in a small village in Austria, seemingly on his own sheer will and determination, Arnold achieved extraordinary success in the worlds of bodybuilding, acting, business and politics, ultimately becoming a global icon.

But he didn’t do it on his own, Arnold told us. “I have been a creation of hundreds of people,” he said in our episode. “Thousands of people. I had Kurt Marnul, Mr. Austria, say to me when I was a scrawny 15-year-old kid, ‘You can become Mr Austria in a few years from now. Go to the gym with me, and I will show you how to exercise.’” For the next two minutes, Arnold went on talking about just of the people who helped him throughout his life. “It’s unbelievable the amount of people that helped me and pushed me,” he said.

Ultimately, each of us is the sum of our surroundings. We are products of our influences, our environments, our family and friends. Success is a collaborative effort. The myth of the self-made man is just that, a myth. Embrace the idea that we are all interconnected, and our achievements are a collective effort. We are, in the end, a reflection of the support and guidance we receive from the countless people who shape our lives.

P.S. “I have always learned more from my failures and therefore I was never afraid of failure,” Arnold Schwarzenegger said while on the Daily Stoic podcast. The ultimate example in the power of hard work and perseverance, Arnold shared his wisdom in being useful while you still can, how to transform your liabilities into assets, and tips to best nurture both your mind and body. This episode is full of nuggets you can directly apply to your life so be sure to check it out. And for more of Arnold’s uniquely earnest, blunt, and potent insight, pick up his new book Be Useful: Seven Tools For Life, available over at the Painted Porch!