The Myth of Being 'Self-made'

Having examined 160,000 resumes, "found that nearly half of all job seekers (49.6 percent) used at least one or more vague or inexplicit phrase to describe their workplace skills and experience."

According to Brad Fredericks of, "Many job seekers fail to realize that phrases like 'team player' and 'problem solver' have become vague cliches. On your resume, you actually need to state what team you played for and which problems you solved."

The top "vague phrases" found in the survey were: communication skills, team player, organizational skills, and results oriented, to name a few. Chris Shoulet of Top Dog Recruiting Inc. says, "These phrases are 'fluff' in a resume. What a hiring manager wants to see is quantitative information. What does this candidate bring to the table? What is his or her track record? ... 'Show don't tell' what you've accomplished. Rather than saying, 'Results-oriented professional,' why not say, 'No. 1 sales rep for 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003."

Maybe I should start a business called – a public discourse firm that surveys pundit and political speak, pointing out "vague or inexplicit phrases" that have become "vague cliches" and only serve to generate more heat than light.

And seeing as how we're talking business, the first phrase I might explore is "self-made millionaire," which is a vague reference to the Horatio Alger myth of wealth accumulation that sees material success as an isolated, solitary effort.

According to United for a Fair Economy, recent reports indicate that "more millionaires are being made now in America than ever before and fewer of them are inheriting their wealth."

The Wall Street Journal had a Page One story on this two weeks ago, in which the millionaires in the story were described as "self-made." But you might want to balance out that misleading factoid by reading a new report called "I Didn't Do It Alone: Society's Contribution to Individual Wealth and Success." (For the full report, go here).

The report profiles prosperous people honest enough to acknowledge that their wealth, in large part, is owed to things beyond their individual control, which is obvious to any objective observer but studiously ignored by those with a cut-social-spending political agenda.

I like how Jim Sherblom, former chief financial officer for Genzyme Corp., puts it: "We are all standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. The opportunities to create wealth are all taking advantage of public goods – like roads, transportation, markets – and public investments. None of us can claim it was all personal initiative. A piece of it was built upon this infrastructure that we all have this inherent moral obligation to keep intact."

How we think about wealth creation is crucial, the report argues, because pro-business tax policies rely on the "self-made" myth to create the appearance of legitimacy.

Report co-author Chuck Collins adds: "Taxes are portrayed as onerous, unfair redistribution of privately created wealth – not as reinvestment or giving back to society. Yet, where would many wealthy entrepreneurs be today without taxpayer investment in the Internet, transportation, public education, the legal system, the human genome and so on?"

Among those profiled in the report are Martin Rothenberg, the son of a house painter and sales clerk, who grew up to become a multimillionaire software entrepreneur; investor Warren Buffett, currently the world's second-wealthiest person; and Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's ice cream – a man with no business background who walked away with $40 million when the company was sold years later.

A few years ago, I was a guest on the Michael Medved show and I essentially regurgitated Buffet's (and Bill Gates Sr.) observations, arguing that the estate tax (referred to as "the death tax" by opponents) ought to be re-tooled and not completely rescinded as the Bush administration has proposed.

And instead of having a rational discussion, I had to spend my limited airtime answering callers who were asking me: "Sean, are you a Marxist?"

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