On the Shoulders of Giants

The father of one of my husband's 6th grade students was elected to our county Board of Supervisors last November.  He's a very successful businessman and also active with several community and philanthropic groups in our area.  I've met him – he seems intelligent and friendly.  I've heard him referred to as "a self-made man."

"Self-made."  What do we mean by that?

Usually the implication is that whatever success the man (or woman) has achieved is entirely due to his or her own efforts.  We believe that they "started with nothing" and have accomplished great things because of their own intelligence, talent, and hard work.

I applaud successful people, but no one is self-made.  Not even the multi-millionaire from a poor working class background who started his business in his parents' garage.

First of all, that person had parents, or at least one parent, who provided shelter, food, and basic medical care.  Even if that person was raised in foster care, he had those things.

But maybe she was a bit luckier and actually received loving care, a listening ear, and sympathetic understanding, if not from a parent or parents, then maybe from a grandparent, aunt, uncle, teacher, or coach.  If she has an education, she was given that wonderful benefit, which so many others around the world would love to have and do not.  She had free libraries and librarians too.  And if her parents or other adults in her life had learning and life experience, she had the benefit of those as well.

This person did not create his intelligence or his talent.  He may have studied, practiced, and developed it (with the support and input of others), but he didn't pick from some cosmic menu and design himself.

More than likely, this highly successful person can see, hear, talk, and has the use of her limbs.  But if that's not the case, then someone, somewhere paid for and supplied assistive technologies and education to help relieve the impact of her disability.

If the successful person is part of the dominant ethnic or religious group in his country, then he probably had preferential treatment and opportunities starting at birth.  For example, at the time my husband, his brothers, and my brother were born, they had a head start simply because they were white, male, Protestant, and their parents were native English-speakers.  It might be a bit uncomfortable to point it out, but that doesn't make it less true.  My father-in-law, a veteran of World War II, went to college with benefits from the GI Bill, although female and African American veterans were often denied the same opportunity.

If someone with power and money noticed her when she was just starting out, gave her a job, an opportunity, introduced her to other people with means and connections, or invested in her ideas, then that person definitely had a hand in "making" her.  Her great ideas or her work ethic might have gotten her noticed, but others paved the way for her continued growth and success.  And by the way, her ideas are undoubtedly derived from the work of others who came before her – from the centuries of human creation and innovation to which we all have access.

No one is self-made.

We all have many, many reasons to be humble, grateful, and generous.  Perhaps you or I might not become "world shakers," but others may do great things with the kindness, knowledge, talents, or resources we can provide.  And when we share with those who have missed out on the opportunities we too often take for granted, we help release even more potential.

If I accomplish anything, it is because (as Isaac Newton said) I "stand on the shoulders of giants."  I'm so thankful for the giants in my life, and I won't forget their gifts to me.

  • my parents
  • my husband Jon
  • Grandma and Grandpa
  • Mrs. Cottle
  • Mrs. Woods
  • Mrs. Morgan
  • Mrs. Comer
  • Mr. May
  • Mr. Jukes
  • Mark Sartori
  • Garo Mirigian
  • Rob and Teri Watson
  • Howard and Chris Redman
  • Simpson College
  • Joaquina Johnson
  • John Holt
  • Mrs. Heckman
  • Cinda Shaver
  • Katie Moller
  • Fiona DeDominick

I invite you to take a minute or two to remember those who have loved and supported you!

P.S.  My newest book/journal, Maximum Gratitude: Find Happiness and Contentment through the Habit of Giving Thanks (paid link) is available now on Amazon!  Use it to help you acknowledge and remember all of the good people, experiences, insights, and benefits that have made you who you are today.

Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash.  Thank you.


  1. This is said beautifully. I came from a poor, abusive family, and earned three degrees and a solid career. It took about a decade of my adulthood to fully appreciate the privileges that also got me here and realize I had "enough" to stop climbing the corporate ladder. One of the descriptions I like to use when I hear "bootstraps" is that I climbed out of the situation I was born into, but the ladder was there (and, why I never complain about my tax dollars funding social programming).

    1. Yes, we need to be supplying that ladder to others -- so well said! Thanks for reading and for your comment.


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