The idea of the self-made man is inextricably tied up with that of the American dream. It is his image that has lured thousands of immigrants to our shores, all hoping for the chance to turn a handful of beans into a vast fortune. The self-made man is he who comes from unpromising circumstances, who is not born into privilege and wealth, and yet by his own efforts, by pulling himself up by the bootstraps, manages to become a great success in life. Frederick Douglass, a self-made man himself, said the discussion of self-made men was the discussion of “manhood itself, and this in its broadest and most comprehensive sense.”
Douglass sensed that the story of the self-made man is the story of manliness personified. The self-made man harnesses and utilizes the most important masculine qualities: hard work, perseverance, and most of all, personal responsibility. The story of the self-made man embodies the goal of every man: to become the captain of his own destiny.
What is a self-made man?
Although typically associated with the rags to riches story, a self-made man is anyone who attains far greater success than his original circumstances would have indicated was possible. The self-made man often has to overcome great obstacles to achieve his goals. Self-made men attain their success through education, hard work, and sheer willpower. While no man is an island, it’s not external help or special relationships that make the crucial difference in the self-made man’s rise.
Nor is luck the deciding factor. Society loves the story of a man whose success came to him largely by chance, from an opportunity dropped from the sky. Such stories allow unsuccessful men to excuse their failure as due to unavoidable bad luck and demerit the success of others by chalking their achievements up to chance. Sadly, too many men today believe that lounging on the shore, waiting for their ship to come in, constitutes the best pathway to reaching their goals. Instead, self-made men throughout history have made their own way in life by reaching deep inside themselves and through willpower and elbow grease, creating their own destiny. While there are always many factors to success, all are subordinate to work, which is the great key to success.
The History of the Self-Made Man
In his rise from being the son of a candle maker to a legend among men, Benjamin Franklin became America’s original self-made man. Abraham Lincoln likewise captured the public imagination when he made the improbable leap from lowly log-cabin to the White House. Yet the concept really took hold in American culture during the post Civil-War period. The so-called Second Industrial Revolution was in full swing, new inventions quickly made men rich and famous, and factories sprung from the ground, seemingly overnight. While a young man’s destiny had formerly been laid out for him practically at birth (he would follow his father into the family business) the possibility now existed to leave hearth and home and strike out for one’s individual success. For the young man who was willing to work hard and get ahead, the nation seemed to offer innumerable opportunities to strike it rich. Inspired by real examples like Andrew Carnegie and the fictional heroes of Horatio Alger’s novels, a man’s success seemed limited only by his drive and ambition.
After the heyday of the self-made man, the concept took several hits. During the 1920’s, America experienced a (thankfully) brief infatuation with eugenics and the idea that a man’s destiny and character were almost entirely determined by his DNA. The idea of the self-made man was further weakened during the Great Depression, when men who had seemingly done all the right things-worked hard, scrimped, saved, and invested- saw their fortunes wiped out and all they had worked for washed away. Buffeted by grave external forces, it was hard to retain faith in the idea that one’s life remained in one’s control.
The modern age continued to assault our culture’s belief in the self-made man. Sociologists and public policy experts stressed the effect of poverty and culture in determining an individual’s success, arguing that these factors greatly inhibited the rise of those beset by them. My American history textbook in college twice called the idea of the self-made man “a myth.” Most recently, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book,
Outliers , posits that great achievement is largely the result of cultural background and good luck.
Why this list of self-made men?
While the popularity of the self-made man may have faded in recent times, it is worthy of being revived. The concept of manly personal responsibility has greatly eroded, and too many young men today believe they are the helpless victims of their circumstances. The following list provides a strong remedy against such thinking. It is full of stories of men who refused to be satisfied with their lot in life and instead chose a different, more extraordinary path for themselves. They set a course for greatness and proceeded to work without rest until their goals became a reality.
These stories prove that it doesn’t matter who your parents are, where you’re born, or how much education you acquire; the difference is in your character and willingness to do whatever it takes to be the best and achieve your dreams. As we honor these self-made men, we hope to inspire you to join their ranks. As Frederick Douglass said:
Though a man of this class need not claim to be a hero or to be worshipped as such, there is a genuine heroism in his struggle and something of sublimity and glory in his triumph. Every instance of such success is an example and help to humanity. It, better than any mere assertion, gives us assurance of the latent powers of simple and unaided manhood. It dignifies labor, honors, application, lessens pain and depression, dispels gloom from the brow of the destitute and weariness from the heart of him about to faint, and enables man to take hold of the roughest and flintiest hardships incident to he battles of life, with a lighter heart, with higher hopes and a larger courage.
This list of great self-made men is not all-inclusive; both the past and the present are studded with far too many remarkable strivers to possibly cover them all . But here we highlight some of the most extraordinary of these stories. While some of these varied men were far more virtuous than others, none were saints. All had flaws and made mistakes. Some were ruthless in their pursuit of success. Any time a man’s life is held up for an example, it is incumbent upon the reader to glean the valuable lessons to be learned from that life, while discarding those things which he finds distasteful.
And now the list:
Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790
ben franklin older years portrait reading
Does thou love life? Then do not squander time; for that’s the stuff life is made of.
Franklin’s life is the pattern from which all other self-made men have been cut. His rhetoric of hard work, ambition, and thrift was not merely a philosophy he preached; it was he code by which he lived his life. None of his successes came by chance; they were created by the ceaseless way in which he organized his life to maximize productivity. Such discipline was necessary if he ever hoped to rise from his humble beginnings. Franklin was the 15th of 17 children born to father Josiah Franklin, a candlemaker. Granted only two years of formal schooling, Franklin supplemented his knowledge by constantly having his nose stuck in a book.
When he was 17, young Ben struck out on his own and traveled to Philadelphia. Unlike other aristocrats of the period, who used slave labor to free up time for their other pursuits, Franklin created an enormously successful printing business which allowed him to retire and became a veritable Renaissance man. His accomplishments are too numerous to list. As an author he penned the Poor Richard’s Almanac k, his famous autobiography, and numerous classic essays. As an inventor, he created the lightning rod, the glass harmonica, the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, and the flexible urinary catheter. As a thinker he established the Junto discussion group, the first subscription library, and the American Philosophical Society. As a scientist he made important investigations into the nature of electricity. He served his country, state, and city as a councilman, postmaster, recruiter of the Pennsylvania militia, Speaker of the Pennsylvania State House, delegate to the Second Continental Congress, ambassador to France, President of Pennsylvania, and Founding Father. Not bad for the son of a candlemaker, eh?
Ross Perot, 1930-
ross perot portrait famous self made men
Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game one foot from a winning touchdown.
Born in Texarkana, Texas to a father who worked as a cotton broker, Ross Perot could have lived and died in obscurity like thousands before him. But from a young age, Perot’s ambition set him apart. He became an Eagle Scout in high school and then attended the Naval Academy where he helped establish the school’s honor code and became class president and battalion commander.
After leaving the Navy, Perot became a salesman for IBM. Perot quickly distinguished himself from the pack, filling the year’s sales quota in two weeks. Full of entrepreneurial ideas, but ignored by the higher ups, Perot left IBM in 1962 to found his own company, Electronic Data Systems. Things started off rocky; Perot’s initial attempts to sell their data processing services to corporations resulted in 77 rejections. Yet Perot persisted, won EDS government contracts, and turned the company into a technology powerhouse. EDS was eventually bought by GM for a cool 700 million. Not content to rest on his business laurels, Perot began to involve himself in political policy issues, an interest that culminated in his famous run for the presidency in 1992. Garnering the largest percentage of the popular vote as a third party candidate since TR’s run in 1912, Perot’s success surprised the pundits and assuredly a lot of folks back in Texarkana.
John D. Rockefeller, 1839-1937
john rockefeller 1885 portrait black white
I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.
John D. Rockefeller needed neither a trust fund nor the example of a successful father to become the richest man in American history. His dad was a salesman who was rarely at home as young John grew up. Rockefeller was left to forge his own path. As a young man, he took a job as an assistant bookkeeper, saved his dough, and then partnered with others in buying a couple of oil refineries in Cleveland. In 1870, Rockefeller incorporated his holdings into Standard Oil.
Rockefeller’s business plan was simple; by obsessively increasing the efficiency of his refineries and pressuring railroad companies for discounted shipping, he successfully undercut and then bought out the competition. It was said he had the “soul of a bookkeeper,” and he loved to pour over his figures and see where waste could be eliminated. Utilizing both vertical and horizontal integration, Rockefeller soon owned nearly every aspect of the oil business and controlled 90% of the kerosene market. Such success netted Rockefeller great wealth; when he retired he was estimated to have accumulated a $1,500,000,000 fortune. Having won this wealth through his own toil, he didn’t just sit on this money. He donated much of it in hopes of providing others with similar opportunities for success.
Ralph Lauren, 1939-
ralph lauren portrait in office black white
Knowledge is not a passion from without the mind, but an active exertion of the inward strength, vigor and power of the mind, displaying itself from within.
Growing up as a Jewish kid in the Bronx, Ralph Lauren never hung out at the country club, played polo, or went sailing on a yacht. Although his brand is now a famous symbol of gentility and affluence, Ralph Lauren’s own beginnings were far more humble. Born as Ralph Rueben Lifshitz, his parents were Ashkenazi Jews who had immigrated from Belarus, and his father was a house painter. The family lived in a small apartment, with Ralph sharing a room with his two brothers. Ralph’s mother hoped he would become a rabbi, but from a early age, Lauren was drawn to fashion and entrepreneurship. He worked after school as a stock boy and sold handmade ties to his classmates in order to purchase stylish suits.
Lauren attended Baruch College for two years, but then dropped out. He never went to fashion school. After a stint in the army, he became a salesman for Brooks Brothers. They weren’t interested in helping Lauren develop his own line of ties, so he then went to work for Beau Brumwell Neckwear which allowed him to design and sell his own “Polo” brand ties in their showroom. The ties became popular and other stores started carrying them. Lauren started designing women’s and men’s wear, and of course, introduced his now famous Polo shirt. He soon had enough money to open his own store and develop his brand into an empire. Today, Lauren has 35 boutiques across the country, has expanded his brand to include home furnishings and cologne, and currently ranks as the 76th richest man in America.
Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895
frederick douglass portrait famous self
Allowing only ordinary ability and opportunity, we may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!!

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