A whole industry of books, TV shows and media outlets continues to reinforce reverence for entrepreneurs and rockstar CEOs, creating the myth of the self-made American success. But these hero’s journey stories often elide the fact that many of these corporate leaders didn’t get to where they are without help.
A select few CEOs are honest about the slim chances of actualizing big plans to make it in business. For the most part, however, a culture of veneration remains lionizing the achievements of these titans of industry—and it pollutes society’s broader perception of success solely as a choice one makes, rather than at least partially the lucky outcome of a game of chance.
In reality, some of the most celebrated names in business wouldn’t have reached nearly the same heights without help from their parents, or if they hadn’t caught the capricious eyes of doting investors willing to take a gamble on their wild ambitions. In turn, these myths have inspired many successful people who aren’t household names to craft their own selective histories—but it’s time we start admitting that it’s OK to acknowledge when we received help before striking the goldmine. It paints a more accurate picture of what it means to find success, and it makes successful people seem a whole lot more honest.
Normalize the idea of failure
Nobody strives to fail. But at least on some level, failure is unavoidable. This is especially true in business: Despite rapturous praise for unicorn startups and their leaders, between 70 and 90 percent of startups go belly up. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a natural byproduct of venturing into the unknown, charting your own course shaped by your ambition.
But the idea of personal triumph tends to whitewash the reality of the multiple setbacks that mark any journey. Look no further than newly-crowned world’s richest man Elon Musk to see how closely failure stalks even the most exalted leaders.
Think of it this way: If you had a rough go starting your business until a wealthy relative cut you a check to bolster it, why wouldn’t you be forthcoming about that? If you are honest about how you get your start, it can help others shed the idea that they too must go it alone.
It will help others set more realistic expectations
Since most of our perceptions of entrepreneurs are shaped by mass media, the self-made narrative means we often don’t get a sense of the circuitous paths people take to get where they want to be. Being honest about help you’ve received can do a great service to those following behind you. People are generally too impatient when it comes to their careers, putting quick ladder-climbing ahead of savoring the true value of a job (if it’s a good job, that is).
Taking a more grounded approach can make your work more fulfilling. A recent Gallup survey found that college graduates who weren’t told to expect to set the world on fire upon entering the job market were able to find work that was more fulfilling.
Of more than 2,000 college graduates, those who received realistic expectations about their employment prospects were much more likely to achieve purposeful work — work that allows people to apply their strengths, is deeply interesting to them and contributes to their life’s meaning.
In a corporate environment in which platitudes about changing the world and affecting meaningful social change are commonplace, it’s understandable that regular worker-bees would set lofty expectations for themselves. But if the immensely successful were more forthcoming about the help they’ve received, younger generations would understand that they, too, are likely to face setbacks.
Honesty is endearing
Amazon founder and Executive Chairman Jeff Bezos launched his empire on the heels of a $250,000 investment from his parents. The fact that this investment has never really been part of Amazon’s origin story doesn’t really endear Bezos to anyone who knows about it. Being honest about the help you receive allows people to see that even the most successful among us can be gracious and vulnerable. Glorifying your own success, while simultaneously ignoring the immense assistance you received from a friend or family member, will only harm your reputation down the line.
Another key distinction: “Help”–broadly defined—can mean a number of different things. Do you have a spouse who supported your efforts by keeping the household running while you worked late? That’s as important as a monetary investment. Help doesn’t need to flow from the bank account of a venture capital firm to be qualified as such.
When we exalt business gurus and corporate leaders, we often fail to recognize the support system that helped lift them to those lofty heights. It’s time we acknowledge that the admission of receiving help isn’t a hindrance, it’s an asset.