The Problem with Self-Made Billionaires

by | Sep 15, 2018

Most people are unaware of the idea of God in the making of themselves. When we don’t know who we are – we spend our life’s work constructing our own brand and identity. The source of our recognition turns from the one that created us for Himself into searching for recognition from our achievements. As we will see, this striving can lead to restlessness and to a fragile sense of identity that can be destructive.

Kylie Jenner is set to become the youngest female ever to enter the Forbes “self-made” billionaire list. In 3 years, she’s built a 900 million dollar cosmetics company from selling her $29 lip kits.  But what is behind this 20 years old’s success? If we scratch the surface of the “Kylie’s Cosmetics” iceberg, we see a bigger and complex picture behind the tipping point of Jenner’s success and ask the question how “self-made” are our billionaires?

Today, we think of ourselves as products of our personal actions and ambitions. Successful people label themselves “self-made” as if to say it was their blend of talent and willpower that got them where they are. We read autobiographies about revolutionary innovators so we can find out what they are like, how they honed their innate gifts to become geniuses in their field. But too often we focus on their internal drive and intelligence in isolation. Is it personal qualities alone that is the driver? When we examine their background, we notice things “around them”, things they were not in control of, have played a major part in their success.

The Hidden Story Behind the Story

Kylie Jenner may look like she did it herself but her success stems from a convergence of external factors. The drive of her family, in particular, her successful “momager” Kris Jenner. She was born at the ripe time – in the golden era of family reality shows and Instagram. At the age of 10, she was the youngest family member of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” which featured in over 160 countries. Instagram started out 3 years later in 2010 and was rapidly outpacing Facebook in the number of teenage users. Jenner capitalised on her airtime and Instagram’s meteoric rise to amass 110 million followers. Like the Truman show, the nation grew up with Kylie that when she sold lip kits, she simply leverage on her publicity and tapped into the ready-made production and sales channels for her product. This set the trajectory of her career, is she truly self-made?

Author Malcolm Gladwell of the book “Outliers” examines the idea of being “self-made”. Gladwell asserts that “we have to look beyond the individual to see the completed picture”. Through his analysis, he discovers another story behind billionaire Bill Gates’s success:  When Gates started Microsoft in 1975, he already racked up 10,000 hours worth of programming experience because he was the benefactor to rare opportunities orchestrated by his mum, his mum’s friends and the local university. There were few teenagers in the world at that point that had the same level of exposure Gates had.

It is evident that we don’t arise from nothing, we are all products of the families, environments and societies who have invested their own time and resources into our growth. When all these factors collide, it culminates in the peak of someone’s life work.

The Dangers of Self-Creation

Kylie Jenner’s success, however, marks a significant shift from the previous generation of wealth generators. Previous billionaires like Gates have laboured to break technological boundaries to produce innovative, products that disrupt the market. Jenners “lip kits” are not particularly ground-breaking, the success of them have been carried by the emphases on Jenner herself.  Her wealth has been generated by commoditising herself and leveraging on her followers who have bought into Jenner.

Objects use to be marketed, now people are objectified for the markets. A pressure exists today, to create our personal style, tone and voice and thus curate our own brand. This redefinition gives us a glimpse into the future and our next generation of wealth earners. Not long ago, I spoke to a young girl around 11 years old and asked her what she wanted to be when she’s older. She said she wanted to be a vlogger for video games – such a job title would have been unheard of 10 years ago.  The rise of social media has created a whole new set of aspirations for our generation as we are summoned to carve out our unique identities in this world and become our own brands.

But there is a hidden sadness behind this western individualistic focus on identity formation. We’ve grown up in a world where our modern culture dictates that we can live our dream and become someone “extraordinary” in the world. 

The plethora of books and means available to achieving is endless and the increased exposure to others who have “made it” puts the crushing weight on the individual to determine their own success or failure. We’re a society that separates winners and losers and it’s producing in us a fear of being unknown. We’re caught up in the hustle of proving ourselves and the metric of our worth is given up to what others think and it’s leading to a fragile and dependable sense of identity that’s based on our accomplishments.

New York bag designer Kate Spade was a successful entrepreneur who tragically committed suicide back in June 2018. Although she had suffered from depression, her problems were made worse because she felt unable to seek professional help for fear that it might “hurt her brand”. Kate Spade had tied her identity to her success that she feared others knowing about her mental illness. The threat of her brand being ruin produced in her an anxiety she was unable to handle.

Discovery of a True and Sustainable Identity

The Christian narrative is different, the Bible says our identities are not something we can self-create. We don’t carry the burden of achieving a somebody status and thus do the job of “making a name for ourselves”. We give that power to an unchangeable God who gives us our identity and assigns us great dignity and worth by making us into his image and so making our names great. His affirmation of us is greater than our own or others as he holds our highest honour.

It’s admirable to see a young woman like Kylie use her passions in cosmetics to bring a make-up product to the market. As we’ve shown, Kylie Jenner is not  “self-made”. The completed picture is that she has been community-made. To understand our settings, our background and our heritage is crucial to understanding our identities and where we obtained our worth and meaning from. How humble are we? Or inflated are we?

To scale back further and gain a fuller picture of our life and heritage, the Christian says that we were birthed into a rich narrative about our lives.

“He has saved us and called us to a holy life- not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Timothy 1:9)

As Christians, “before the beginning of time” God had been orchestrating things. When we came into the world, we inherited a unique narrative about our lives. Before we were born, our history tells us that “grace was given to us in Christ Jesus”. This backdrop is not something we had control over or because of our moral performance or “anything we have done”. Modern culture will say biological life arose by accident and we’re the effect of random molecules colliding but as disciples, we say we’ve been deliberately made by God because of “His purpose and grace”.  Whether Kylie Jenner acknowledges she is not self-made is irrelevant. In the same way, whether we acknowledge we are made by a divine God or self -made through evolution is irrelevant.  

A New Identity and A New Creation

If Kylie believed that she is self-made then her self-regard will depend on herself. On the success of “Kylie Cosmetics” and on her looks. If any of these things were threatened, she would feel devastated. To gain our main source of identity from our groups would also lead to the same set of problems as we become enslaved to what others think which can lead to control or oppression.

As Christians, we can say that we affirm the value of our groups and our work but we no longer derive the source of our significance from them. Our ultimate identity is derived from the one that created us for him.  

We can only understand ourselves fully and how this identity shapes our future if we look at the completed picture. We do this by looking at ourselves in the context of our inherited past and in light of who we are as God’s son or daughter. To discover our identity in God means we understand we’ve been “called to a holy life”, we shed our old identity by “putting off our old self” and “put on the new self, created to be like God” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

And when we fully grasp the complete picture of who we are, we’re less likely to chase after other things to complete us. 

Written by Ann Ajet

Ann Ajet is a lead writer at Bread and is based in London.  She covers real-life issues in the Christian walk. When she’s not writing, she’s exploring street food markets with her husband and daughter.

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