The Self Made Man
There is a myth that many small business owners like to propagate and believe. They know the truth or at
least they did once but somewhere along the line they were able to convince themselves that they really
are self made men. I knew of a man once. He was the owner of a small but productive roofing company.
He had a crew of laborers some skilled some not so much. He had leased half a small building and an
adjacent yard to store his supplies, trucks and equipment. He had a dirty little office above the warehouse
and a secretary in a room down below. She was one of those one woman offices. The only female
amongst a group of blue collar men. She had a thick skin and a just get it done manner about her that
allowed her to put up with the rough environment and even joke with the workers. In time the hardest part
of her job was dealing with the attitude and arrogance of the owner and his son in law who had married the
owner’s daughter a decade earlier when he had a job of his own before he had fallen on hard times. His
wife went to her father and now the son in law was the number two guy being groomed by the dad to take
over. He was pretty much bidding his time till the old man slipped on something so he could push him off
to a home. The son in law was ready to be free to take over. The relationship between the two was
actually pretty good as they where very much alike and it was only when the younger got that hungry look
in his eyes or he was less then humble and submitting to the big dog that there was a problem. You see
the son in law was given to the occasional period of self honesty that he had not made it in the world. He
had failed and now he lived by the leave of his father-in-law. A man who had employed him, put him in
charge in his absence and even bought (no not cosigned, or put a down on but bought) him a house. The
title of which of course was in his wife’s (the daughter’s) name. And all he had to do is keep his tail
between his legs for a few more years and play lap dog to the big dog.
It was an interesting environment and on occasion when I was in the area I would drop by and bring lunch
for the office girl. She was funny and told a good story for sure. Our conversations were mostly harsh and
would swing from old movies to politics and the weather but some of my favorite stories were just the
common happens and political intrigue within the fifteen or so people that made up the roofing company.
A laborer not showing up for work at 4:30 in the morning because they had been out all night drinking.
The fights between the lead roofer and the owner that would end with both of them pissed off and
occasionally the lead roofer getting fired only to be hired back a day later because he don’t know better to
find a new job and the owner depended on him to keep the rest of the workers most of which were his
cousins or brothers or friend’s in line. It was an interesting little soap opera and a fun way to divert an
hour at lunch as I continued to gain perspective on the various work places and the interactions between
people. Now and then I would see their company sign in a local yard advertising the work they just did or
were about to do. It was odd to me that I never saw them doing the work. The signs where there before or
after but in over four years I never saw a sign and a house with workers on the roof. I did see the owner
proudly driving through the various neighborhoods in his big white roofing truck with black metal racks over
the bed, a load of some sort of shingle or tile in the back, and big custom lettered signs on the doors of the
truck advertising his name and the company. It was always the same he had a look of arrogant pride and
busied irritation on his face as he was heading off in a hurry to the nearest fast food joint or to a park for a
nap before he would unexpectedly pull up to a job site to yell at his workers and tell them how they were
It was amazing to hear the office girl go on about the company as if they were all loonies or characters in
an old black and white cartoon. She would always have a tuff word about the owner.
I said, “Well at least he provides a job for you.”
She said, “Yeah a job. More like a punishment.”
I said, “At least you’re getting by.”
And she said, “Just … getting by. That’s how he does it. He gives you just enough to get by…. No enough
to get ahead… not enough to squeak a small saving to build on… just enough to live from paycheck to
paycheck. It’s called job security. He is secure that you won’t leave because you can’t afford to.”
I said, “That’s pretty harsh.” “Not harsh enough.”
She said, “The damn little Nazis keeps you under his boot because it makes him feel taller.”
Wow, I thought and then I thought well maybe she’s right. Not in the mean way but its common in world
history and he would not be the first to gain a bit of power and enjoy using it. The quickest way to feel big
is to make others feel small. I mean, if your only three feet tall. It would be easier to make others craw on
there knees then to grow two feet. Of course you cold just stand on a box but who needs a box when you
have employees near by to stand on. My mind does tend to ramble and when in a poor mood it has as a
dark sense of humor. Oh, come on… don’t act smug… everyone thinks it’s funny when someone else is
hurt or repressed just look at how well Americans funniest home videos did. Remember, it’s only funny if it’
s not you. But I digress…..
So I said, “OK, but should he not have a sense of pride a feeling of having done better then most? Maybe
even of being better then most or at least some. He has gotten here from the bottom and being a self man
is something, at least he’s a jerk who had to work his way up and might just be a product of that effort. He
might have a reason.”
To which she laughed, “Self made man? He’s not a self made man … that is unless you call a rebellious
son you failed in everything he tried and then come home to daddy with his tail between his legs a self
“Wow.” again I said, “Ok. What was the story?”
She told me how one day when he was in a particularly bad mood and angry at his good for nothing son in
law he relayed how he got into the roofing business. It seems that his father had been stationed out in
California during WWII and when he got out of the service he stayed. It was much smaller back then… of
course LA was bustling but most of Orange County was open and considered remote… the same with
most of the valley on the other side of LA. His dad had gotten a job working for a roofer and learned the
trade. In time with a decent wage and a little help from his GI benefits he bought a truck and some
equipment. He started out free lance and in a few years had a decent little business servicing the fringe
areas of the valley and Orange County. His father bought himself a house in Orange County got married
and had a couple, of kids. The owner grew up in a stable environment in the rapidly developing OC and
pretty much got whatever he wanted.
His old school dad encouraged him and tried to coax him into the business. Forcing him to work summers
with him. The owner reluctantly did it but hated it and looked down on the crews and probably didn’t think
much of his dad. His dad of course sent him to college in an attempt to develop the next generation.
Maybe give him the advantage needed to take over the business and grow it into something bigger. But
after going to college and getting a taste of a cleaner life the last thing the owner wanted was to go back
and work on a hot roof with a smelly kettle of tar and a group of lower class laborers. So to his father’s
disappointment the owner left to pursuer his own interests. A string of fly by night ventures and
harebrained schemes followed and his father was always there with the funds from the dirty business of
roofing to keep his son from failing and to set him back on his feet time and again. A number of years later
the owner was married and with a kid on the way and had failed again. This time the father getting on in
years pushed his son into the business one more time; this time with the excuse that he was getting ill and
just needed his son to help out until he was better. Reluctantly the owner did it. A couple of years later
the father didn’t get better he pasted away. The son was now the owner.
Fast forward two decades and the story turns into a stirring tell of how he begged his father to give him a
chance, how he would eagerly work the summer trying to learn all he could. How he had developed
several strong profitable businesses after college that would have made him a lot more money but when
his dad got sick he gave them all up to help out and take over the family business which of course he
made into what it was today. This is where reality gets lost over time and in self delusion as a way to wrap
your nut around it and allow you to reconcile the disjoined aspects of your life and behavior in order to
allow you to live with yourself (to get your nut around it). You don’t have to face your actions and behavior
truthfully. You don’t have to deal with it. You just make up a new reality.
The image of a self made man that most business owners have is more self delusion or revisionist history
then reality. It is possible still and hopefully always will be in America to start with little or nothing and make
it to the top but it is rare to do this without at least some and most likely lots of help from others.
Take the stories of heroic effort and determined self reliance against impossible odds to victory and
success with extreme skepticism. Those type of stories can generally demotivate and make you feel
inadequate. If you feel as if you are not as good, strong, or capable as the owner, your boss, or even the
next guy then you will be more likely to give up and that is the only way to loose and fail.
The Brutal Truth:
It is all a big act. The big guys are as insecure as you are and are looking for admiration and approval just
like you. Remember no one does it alone so if you need help take it.