The Fallacy of the Self-Made
Nobody advances in a vacuum
In my stories, I have been very candid about my childhood in a third world country, coming to America with a suitcase and a hundred bucks without speaking the language, living under the poverty line throughout high school and barely getting through college on scholarships. Yet somehow, against all odds, I ended up in the midst of software engineering history at Microsoft, Amazon, and Google for two and a half decades. I’m not a billionaire. I have not changed the world. But I’ve done things I never thought I could do. I earn roughly 100x what my parents earned — that’s a big jump in a single generation. The other day a friend and I were having coffee and he described me as a “self made man” — which got me thinking: am I really?
Stealing from this article, self-made people come from unpromising circumstances, not born into privilege and wealth, and yet by their own efforts, manage to become a great success in life. A self-made person is anyone who attains far greater success than their original circumstances would have indicated was possible. They often have to overcome great obstacles to achieve their goals. They attain their success through education, hard work, and sheer willpower.
There’s a lot to like there. Education, hard work, willpower. American ideals. But I also think it idealizes a lot of individual achievements and glosses over a lot of background, opportunities and privilege that made it possible for that individual to do whatever they did.
I recently read the book “Outliers — The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell. It is a fantastic read and it got me thinking about my own life, the way it appears to others, and what it actually is.
Gladwell analyzes the lives of outliers like Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft) or Bill Joy (founder of Sun Microsystems). He concludes, “We’re so caught up in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. […] They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some plain lucky — but all critical to making them who they are.” Gladwell doesn’t say the Bills weren’t extremely intelligent, or that they didn’t work extremely hard. They did.
He continues, “outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” In the end, it’s a combination of having opportunities and running with them.
Your childhood matters
Role models growing up make a huge difference. My dad was my role model. Very early, he taught me to apply critical and independent thinking, a skill that became invaluable in my road to becoming an engineer. Here’s an example. I went to a private super-conservative elementary school where we were taught very strict religious dogma, including things like “anybody who does not believe what you believe in is going to go to hell.” When I told my dad, he frowned. “What do you think?” he challenged. I hesitantly said what about a person that was good their entire life but simply grew up with a different religion. “Let’s do some math. How many people in the world are not catholic?”, he probed. I wasn’t sure so he pointed at the encyclopedia. 85% of the world population. “Do you really think God would send 85% of humanity to hell?” my dad continued. No, I did not. It was ridiculous. A teacher, an authority figure, had told me so, but my dad had pushed me to apply critical thinking, facts and data to form my own independent opinion — at age ten.
My grandpa was another role model. On Friday afternoons he would pack all the grandkids in his Renault 6 and drive us to his countryhouse by the river for the weekend. Every day all of us had to swim across the river. I was so little and the current was so strong; I remember struggling to make it across. I kept asking him to help me but he insisted I needed to do it by myself. He did slow down and swam next to me to make sure I was okay, so I kept going. The water was murky, and had piranhas that would occasionally nibble on us. I was terrified. But when I made it to the other side, I could see my grandpa’s eyes glowing in pride, every time. He taught me to be brave, self-reliant and tough when I needed to. To this date, when I’m about to go on stage and speak about something that I’m nervous about, I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and remember for a second those brown, piranha-infested waters, and how I had to “just jump in and swim”
What your family does matters. In Argentina, where I grew up, we weren’t particularly well-off but my family treasured education and intellectual achievements. Extended family is a big deal in the Latin culture and thus my dad, his sisters, and all the kids, would converge at my grandpa’s house every single afternoon for mate (an Argentinian tea that you share in a group) and heated conversations about politics, history, philosophy. The kids were fully expected to participate and articulate their thoughts and challenged when they didn’t. If I had grown up in a family where people weren’t close, or everybody just sat in front of the TV or was glued to devices instead, maybe I would be a different person.
I got exposure to a computer very early on, in the mid 80s. By a strange set of events my parents took a leap of faith and spent what was a fortune for them to buy me a discounted Sinclair ZX-81 when I was 8 years old. I taught myself BASIC and wrote programs every night, so by the time I started college I had been coding for a decade. Time practicing a trade matters. Maybe, if I hadn’t gotten my hands on that computer, I would be in an entirely different profession today!
More subtle advantages everywhere you look
There were other more fundamental dimensions in which I had built-in advantages, and it’s taken me years to even become aware. For example, I was a male. In the chauvinistic society where I grew up, if I was a girl maybe I would have been discouraged from studying engineering. I was heterosexual, so I didn’t have to deal with some of the struggles and bigotry some of my LGBTQ friends had to deal with. And for the most part I was Caucasian, which made being an immigrant in the USA a bit easier than for my friends of darker skins. Being a Caucasian heterosexual male was just a thing that was given to me at birth. Maybe someday we’ll live in a world where these things don’t matter, but they still do in today’s society sadly.
I was able to immigrate to the United States. My mom realized that given my passion, the US was going to offer me opportunities that I wasn’t going to get in South America. And she was willing to do something about it. She relentlessly applied for jobs until she found one that gave us the opportunity to come to the US and stay there. I recognized the opportunity and seized it by studying hard and working hard, but other people, much more talented than me, weren’t given a break like that.
I didn’t speak a word of English but I had amazing ESL teachers. I was lucky to end up in a giant high school with a very large ESL (English as a Second Language) program to support me. Without it, I think I would have flailed that first year. I would have been miserable and I would have been begging my mom to go back to Argentina. My ESL teachers made sure I didn’t get lost in the system.
I had a college advisor that relentlessly advocated for me. She knew money was tight and the only way I would ever be able to graduate from college was with scholarships. She constantly encouraged me, and pushed me to apply for scholarships (this is the story). I would have dropped out of college had it not been for her.
I had a college professor that took me under his wing. I took a course in Artificial Intelligence, and loved it. I frequently stayed after class to ask my professor all kinds of questions. He invited me to do some research on handwriting recognition with him for the following semester. The research position provided a much needed extra income and a few college credits. But most importantly, he shared my work with some researchers from IBM, they liked it, and they offered me a position there after graduation (this is that story). I lacked confidence, and up to that point, I had not considered I was good enough to work for a big company like IBM or Microsoft. That opened my eyes, when Microsoft came to campus I sent my resume in, and I ended up spending 11 years there in the nineties (this is that story).
I ended up in meritocracies. In some professions, your last name, family history, ethnicity, class, connections or looks matter. Software engineering is truly a meritocracy. Everybody goes through the same interview and promotion process. To remove bias, at Google we separate our interviewers from our hiring committee. As an interviewer, I only write down the facts and data I extracted from my interview. When the hiring committee reads my interview feedback, they have no information about the candidate’s gender, sexual orientation, skin color, height, looks, religion, wealth, accent, etc. They just have the data. Google has similar processes to remove biases in calibration and promotion meetings. I appreciate that.
I had a manager that believed in me even when I didn’t. I had a lot of terrible managers, particularly at Microsoft. But when I got to Amazon, I had a string of managers that genuinely invested in my career (thanks Siamak, Claire, Llew, Dan and Joe — you all made a huge difference in my life!). I had spent a solid decade stuck as a mid-level engineer, trying time and time again to crack that elusive Senior Engineer promotion to no avail. Claire sat down with me and explained in very blunt and crisp terms the behaviors and accomplishments I needed. I got promoted to Senior within six months. Just as I was getting over the shock of finally reaching a milestone I had been chasing for ten years, she sat down with me again and told me I could become a Principal Engineer in 2 to 3 years. I was in shock. Nah. I did not believe her. But she was stubborn and insisted, and I trusted her. She put so much trust in me I didn’t want to let her down. Eventually, I started trusting myself and really thrived. I needed, so badly, to have a human being that I trusted and respected, tell me that I was good enough. Her constant faith in me was the wind beneath my wings for years. She was spot on: 2.5 years later I was promoted to Principal Engineer at Amazon. She had seen gold others hadn’t.
I rode an exponential growth wave. When you surf, which wave you jump on and at what time you do makes all the difference. Pick the perfect wave and join it at the perfect time and it’ll be an amazing ride. I was too late to ride the Microsoft wave. But I joined Amazon when it was a 3000-engineer company and saw it grow to 60k. I focused on developer productivity tools company-wide, which put me smack in the middle of the dizzying growth as it expanded from just ecommerce into cloud and devices. The stock went from $40 to almost $4000. I went from a mid-level engineer to a Principal Engineer. Joining a company at the inflection point where exponential growth starts was pure luck (although to my credit I did recognize that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity).
And like those, there were many more that I unfortunately don’t have the time to cover or highlight. As you see, I didn’t grow in a vacuum. I think it’s arrogant to consider yourself “self-made.” We need to understand that most of us have a “web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some plain lucky.” I’m extremely aware that I had advantages that others didn’t. Having amazing role models despite growing up poor. Getting a lucky break and an early start on programming when I was 8. Having the built in advantages of being a Caucasian heterosexual male. Somehow making it to the United States, and being able to stay here. Encountering kind souls that saw something there and decided to give me opportunities, both in college and at Microsoft, Amazon and Google. I worked hard, but I was also extremely lucky. My best achievement is that I am very good at recognizing when an opportunity shows up, and not letting it go to waste.
I hope that, regardless of your current situation, you always, always, keep your eyes open. There will be advantages and opportunities. You just need to have “the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”