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The Problem with Being a Self-Made Billionaire

I read an article recently about the youngest self-made billionaire in the world. Yes, that's BILLION with a "B!" After dealing with a prolonged moment of envy, a few thoughts came to mind. On the one hand, I get it. It's inspiring to hear stories about people who become successful through a combination of talent and grit. We usually think of a "self-made" billionaire, millionaire, or anything else, as someone who has achieved remarkable success against exceptionally challenging circumstances or even outright opposition. Rising from humble beginnings with few resources and little, if any, assistance from others they climb to the top of their profession, serving as an example and an inspiration to the rest of us.

I think of people I have known who faced challenges, exceeded expectations, and achieved remarkable success. There is a God-given resilience in the human spirit that allows us to overcome obstacles and sometimes even crushing circumstances of personal loss. Sometimes it is those very circumstances that evoke greatness that otherwise might have gone undiscovered.

Which brings me back to that "youngest self-made billionaire." On the one hand, I get it. The only problem is it's just not true, at least not the "self-made" part. All of us owe a debt to some body. If we are honest, each of us owes a debt to a lot of people. Parents, friends, teachers, mentors, colleagues, and sometimes even those people who just rub us the wrong way, influence us in ways that may go unnoticed and unacknowledged but nevertheless contribute to the person we have become. My personal list includes all the above as well as my wife and two children. They are patient, insightful and wise in helping me learn to be a better person. (They are also persistent because they'll tell you that I'm still a work in progress)

I suspect most successful people give credit to someone who contributed to their success, except for a few prideful and arrogant individuals who believe that they alone are responsible for their achievements. The Chronicle of Evidence Based Mentoring cites a few examples of some of the more significant mentoring relationships of our time.

  • PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi looks for mentors in all aspects of her life: "If I hadn't had mentors, I wouldn't be here today. I'm a product of great mentoring, great coaching... Coaches or mentors are very important." She credits the mentoring she received from people around her for helping her break glass ceilings in business.

  • Physicist and astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983. Ride's graduate school professor, Dr. Arthur Walker was her life-long mentor and initially encouraged her to apply to NASA's astronaut corps. "He instilled confidence and made me believe that I could accomplish what I set out to accomplish," Ride said.

  • Baseball Hall of Fame legend Cal Ripken, Jr. looked to his father, Cal Ripken, Sr. as a powerful mentor. "He tried to give us the value of being a good person," Ripken, Jr. said. "The value of a mentor...I don't know what value you can place on it, but the right words spoken at the right time from a person that's been through it before...can make all the difference in that youth game," he added.

The list could go on with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, Aristotle and Alexander the Great, and of course Jesus and his disciples.

Tech entrepreneur, Jason Ford, offers some thoughts on busting the myth of being a self-made success. He reminds us that "the best astronaut in the world can't fly to the moon unless someone gives them a rocket." Author and motivational guru, John Maxwell says, "Always remember that you cannot get where you want to go on your own. You will need the help of others to guide you on your way."

I wrote something at the top of my daily journal a few years ago that I read each morning. It simply says, "Everyone needs a guide as well as companions along the way if we are to fully become the person God intended us to be." I have been blessed with both guides and companions in my life. I've also had the privilege of being a guide and companion to others. I suspect the same is true for you. Who could you thank today for the influence they have been in your life? Who has challenged you to be your best? Whose contribution has been essential to your success? And, while you're at it, where are you making similar contributions? Who might put you on their list of influencers? I'd love to hear from you.

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