Let's start off with some standard semantic checks. The self-made man is real, we all probably know a few, he / she might be our parent, a friend, even our boss. Rags to riches (or anything inbetween) cannot be described as a 'myth' as they exists as clearly as we can see with our own eyes.
Neither is the implication that they are not hard working individuals, or that that level of persistence is vital to their success. In the vast majority of cases success cannot be achieved without that hard work, and these people regularly have to endure immeasurable hardships to get to where they are today. By the same token, I do not wish to discourage people from working hard.
The 'myth', is that the self-made man can be anyone.
In a similar vein to the American Dream, we are recounted stories about those who made it out of their humble beginnings by working three jobs, by persevering beyond the limits which we thought they had. And they succeed, against all the odds. It is one of the most appealing stories (if not the most appealing story) that any society can retell. The simple criticism of this idea is that it advocates the idea that unfavourable circumstances should not be an obstacle. In real terms this implies that if you are born into an educated, well travelled and affluent family, your chance of success is equal to that of one born into a council estate, to parents (or usually a single parent) with no formal education, and a dependency to begin working as soon as you are of age to help your family pay the bills. It cannot be stressed enough that no matter how hard you are prepared to work, it is nothing more than a desire to accept the inequalities of our society to state that these two scenarios are at all similar.
However, a more critical view on the self-made man is to ask 'are they truly self-made?' To what extent was government support in the form of the Educational Maintenance Allowance significant to allowing those bright students from poorer backgrounds to attend a secondary school before fulfilling their potential? To what extent did the parents driving their child to football practise weekly (possibly sacrificing working hours) contribute to the child being recognised and making it as a professional? What level of luck determined that a scout got to see them at that point? Does it not take a good-willed employer to accept someone with an accent which in elitist circles could symbolise unintelligence to give the worker a chance?
By encouraging the story of the self-made man we discourage participation in the functions of a good society. We forget to praise those establishments which desperately try to give every individual an equal opportunity in life. When we achieve what was beyond our dreams why then do we so often then look down on high taxes, taxes aiming to give other people the same chances as ourselves? Why is it so easy to group the non-achievers as lazy, as scroungers?
It is reassuring to us. Not just that it enables us to claim that we made it on our own, supports the idea that only hard work is necessary, but it denies the public debate that we should support each other, we should feel empathy.
What truly is a meritocracy? Because it often sounds like the tune of the pied piper, making our feet dance towards an unknown destination, in full belief that we can get there, blissful in the knowledge that it is tangible, it is accessible, it's real.
Dancing along, past the gleeful faces of the villagepeople.