From humble beginnings, you say? The myth of the self-made millionaire


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This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of the “self-made” millionaire. I feel like recently I’ve been swamped by headlines such as, “I became a self-made millionaire by 40,” or “The surprisingly simple things I sacrificed to get rich”.

Yes, that digital dissonance which makes it sound like if you’re not minting millions by midlife, you’re somehow behind. There’s a palpable zeitgeist in our times, one that leans heavily into putting pressure on us to always strive for more, to constantly be better than we were the day before. It’s as if the sum of your life’s worth is based on the number of zeros in your bank account (spoiler: it’s not).

The spotlight on the few success stories often obscures the fact that most people face financial struggles at some point in their lives.Credit: Perter Riches

The concept of the “self-made” millionaire – or billionaire even – is one that has been popularised by media and society. We often hear stories of individuals who supposedly came from humble beginnings, worked tirelessly, and then amassed incredible wealth.

While their dedication, hard work, and ingenuity are undoubtedly commendable, the term “self-made” is misleading, and frankly incorrect. The truth is, no one becomes successful in isolation; every single person who has any level of success has benefited from some form of support, be it direct or indirect, along their journey to success.

Tim Gurner’s name has popped up in the media a few times this week, and he often touts himself as a “self-made” millionaire (who’s almost a billionaire), but the reality of his situation is that he had a leg up in his journey to wealth. He benefitted from a plethora of privileges that many of us will never have access to.

Where’d it start for him? With a $34,000 loan from his grandfather, Gurner was able to enter the property market and amplify his wealth – a stepping stone that many young Australians can’t easily access.

Beyond this initial monetary advantage, Gurner also enjoyed (and still enjoys) other systemic benefits such as being part of a well-connected family who already operate in the property sector, having access to a private education, and the inherent advantages of being part of a demographic that has historically dominated the business world in Australia.

This head start showcases how external factors and inherited advantages, more than just personal grit and hustle, often shape the pathways to immense wealth. That’s why when people like Gurner make comment on topics such as unemployment, we find those comments very hard pills to swallow. Because the reality is, he’s never experienced the reality of those circumstances.

These reflections on the journey to affluence shed light on a wider issue: the undue emphasis we place on financial success and the lengths we go to achieve it. In our digitally driven society, the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” has morphed into a perpetual race against time, where a measure of one’s success is not just their wealth but how quickly they achieve it.

Consider the relentless storm of “success” stories we encounter on social media, where young entrepreneurs flaunt their six-figure incomes, cars that cost the same as large house deposits, and their Amalfi coast holidays. It’s easy to forget about those who work tirelessly day in and day out, not for the allure of millions but for the sheer passion of their craft or the difference they make in their communities.

Artists, teachers, community workers, caregivers – their contributions may not make headlines, but their impact resonates deeply within the fabric of our society. Their narratives deserve as much respect and acknowledgment.

The spotlight on the few success stories often obscures the fact that the majority face financial struggles at some point in their lives. Unforeseen circumstances, rising interest rates, health issues, or a mere stroke of bad luck can disrupt the best-laid plans. It’s essential to remember that wealth is not the only measure of success. Personal growth, nurturing relationships, and contentment in one’s achievements – no matter how small – are equally important indicators.

This brings us to the poignant irony of our times: while it’s essential to aspire and push our boundaries, we should also be aware of not letting societal pressures define our worth. You, my friend, are so much more than what’s in your bank account.

The “self-made” millionaire narrative, while inspirational for some, can be jarring for many others. It inadvertently sets a benchmark, pushing people to compare their life’s journey with another’s, a practice that’s not just unfair but also detrimental to one’s mental wellbeing.

As a society, it’s time we shift our focus. The burden of financial expectations we place upon ourselves, driven by a skewed narrative of success, can be exhausting and alienating. We need to be kinder to ourselves and embrace a holistic view of achievement, one that celebrates diversity in success stories.

Every individual’s journey is unique, marked by their own set of challenges and triumphs. By recognising and appreciating these diverse narratives, we can create a society that is not just affluent in wealth but rich in empathy, understanding, and collective contentment. Let’s redefine success on our terms, understanding that the true measure of a life well-lived lies not in the wealth amassed but in the memories created, relationships nurtured, and lives touched.

Victoria Devine is an award-winning retired financial adviser, best-selling author, and host of Australia’s number one finance podcast, She’s on the Money. Victoria is also the founder and co-director of Zella Money.

  • Advice given in this article is general in nature and is not intended to influence readers’ decisions about investing or financial products. They should always seek their own professional advice that takes into account their own personal circumstances before making any financial decisions.

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