A Self-Made Man Looks At How He Made It

To begin, my mother and father are responsible for me existing at all, so I suppose the first round of “How I made it to where I am” begins there.

I was born at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, CA, and as I understand it I was not the easiest of births, taking on the order of three days to be evicted from the womb. That couldn’t have been comfortable or safe either for my mother or for me, so thanks go to the medical team of doctors and nurses who helped with my birth. Likewise, the fact I was born at an Air Force base means that I owe a thanks to America’s military for offering medical care to my mother (based on her relationship to my father, who was in the military at the time), and indirectly to America’s taxpayers, whose dollars went to supporting the military, and thereby those doctors, nurses, my father’s paycheck and my mother’s medical care.

My parents’ marriage did not last particularly long and in the early seventies — and off and on for the next several years — my mother found herself in the position of having to rely on the social net of welfare and food stamps to make sure that when she couldn’t find work (or alternately, could find it but it didn’t pay enough), she was able to feed her children and herself. Once again, I owe thanks to America’s taxpayers for making sure I had enough to eat at various times when I was a child.

Not having to wonder how I was going to eat meant my attention could be given to other things, like reading wonderful books. As a child, many of the books I read and loved came from the local libraries where I lived. I can still remember going into a library for the first time and being amazed — utterly amazed — that I could read any book I wanted and that I could even take some of them home, as long as I promised to give each of them back in time. I learned my love of science and story in libraries. I know now that each of those libraries were paid for by the people who lived in the cities the libraries were in, and sometimes by the states they were in as well. I owe the taxpayers of each for the love of books and words.

From kindergarten through the eighth grade, I had a public school education, which at the time in California was very good, because the cuts that would come to education through the good graces of Proposition 13 had not yet trickled down to affect me. My schools in the cities of Covina, Azusa and Glendora all had “gifted and talented” programs that allowed me and my other classmates extra opportunities to expand our minds, aided by excellent teachers, most of whose names I can still rattle off after 30 years: Mrs. Chambers, Mrs. Fox, Mrs. Swirsky, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Kaufman, Ms. Morgan. Through much of this time I was fed through school lunch programs which allowed me a meal for free or reduced rates. In the sixth grade, when again my mother and I found ourselves poor and briefly homeless, and I began feeling depressed, the school’s counselor was there to do his best to keep me on an even keel. These schools and programs were funded locally, through the state and through the federal level. The taxpayers helped me learn, kept me fed, and prevented despair from clouding up my mind.

By the eighth grade it became clear public education in California was beginning to get stretched by shrinking budgets, and my mother went looking for a private high school for me to attend. She called up the Webb School of California, and found out it cost more to attend than she made in a year. But she was convinced it was the right place. I went and took the entrance test and had my interview with a teacher there, named Steve Patterson. I don’t remember what it was I said during the interview; I have almost no memory of that interview at all. But I was told years later by another teacher that Steve Patterson said that day to the Webb admissions people that if there were only one child who was admitted to Webb that year, it should be me. His argument must have been convincing, because Webb admitted me and gave me a scholarship, minus a small parental contribution and a token amount which I would be responsible for after I left college, because the idea was that I had to be in some way responsible for my own education. I don’t know if I would have made it into Webb without Steve Patterson. I owe that to him.

I received a fantastic education at Webb, although there were many times while I was there that I did not appreciate it in the moment. Regardless, the teachers there taught me well, whether I appreciated it or not. As with earlier teachers, the names of these teachers remain in my mind: John Heyes, Art House, Dave Fawcett, Laurence MacMillin, Chris Trussell, Joan Rohrback, Roy Bergeson among many others. I learned of the world beyond my own immediate life from them, and that my life would be better thinking about things beyond its own limited scope.

When it came time to choose college, I had my heart set on the University of Chicago but I was a borderline case: The tests and essays were there, but the grades? Meh (I was one of those people who did well in the things he liked, less so in the things he did not). University of Chicago Admissions dean Ted O’Neill called Marilyn Blum, Webb’s college counselor, and asked her for her opinion on whether I would be a good fit for Chicago. She told O’Neill that I was exactly the sort of student who would benefit from Chicago, and that he would never regret admitting me. O’Neill told me this years later, after I had been Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Maroon and the Ombudsman for the University, by way of letting me know in his opinion Blum had been correct. I owe Blum for being my advocate, and O’Neill for believing her.

The University of Chicago is one of the best universities in the world, and it is not cheap. I was able to attend through a combination of scholarships, government Pell Grants and work study jobs and bank loans. I owe the alumni of the University of Chicago who funded the scholarships, the taxpayers who paid for the grants and subsidized the work study jobs, and, yes, the banks who loaned me money. When one of my expected payment sources for school disappeared, my grandfather told me he would replace it — if I sent him a letter a month. I did. He did. This lasted until my senior year, when I was making enough from freelancing for local newspapers that I could pay for much of my college education myself.

Speaking of which, I owe Chicago Sun-Times editor Laura Emerick for reading the articles I wrote for the Chicago Maroon and during my internship at the San Diego Tribune and deciding I was good enough to write for an actual professional newspaper, and for giving me enough work (at a decent enough payment scale) that I could pay rent on an apartment and school fees. The San Diego Tribune internship I got not only through my clips from the Maroon but also because I mentioned to a friend that I was looking around for an internship and he said, well, my dad is a friend with the editor of the Trib, why don’t I ask him to make a call? This was my first but not last experience with the value of connections. I owe that friend, his father, and the editor.

My experience as a freelancer for the Sun-Times and the fact that I had a philosophy degree from Chicago were impressive to the Features Editor of the Fresno Bee, who gave me a plum job right out of college, for which I had almost no practical experience: Film critic. I owe Diane Webster, that editor, for having the faith that a kid right out of college would live up to the clips he sent. I owe Tom Becker, the Entertainment Editor, as well as a raft of copyeditors and fellow staff writers at the Bee, for helping me not make an ass of myself on a day-to-day basis, and to guide me through the process of becoming a pro journalist and newspaper writer.

Because of the Bee I did a story on a local DJ, Julie Logan, who did an event at a bar in Visalia. While I was there the most gorgeous woman I had ever seen in my life came up to me and asked me to dance. Reader, I married her (although not at that moment). This woman, as it turns out, had an incredibly good head on her shoulders for money management and had a work ethic that would shame John Calvin. Since Kristine Blauser Scalzi came into my life we have as a couple been financially secure, because she made it her business to make it so. This level of security has afforded me the ability to take advantage of opportunities I otherwise would not have been able.

Eventually I left the Bee to join America Online in the mid-90s, just as it was expanding and becoming the first Google (or Facebook, take your pick). My job there was to edit a humor area, and the practical experience of helping other writers with their writing made me such a better writer that it’s hard for me to overstate its importance in my development. I owe Katherine Borsecnik and Bill Youstra for hiring me and handing me that very odd job.

I lasted two years at AOL, at which point I was laid off and immediately rehired as a contractor, for more money for less work. By this time AOL was shedding talent to other startups, many of whom hired me as an editorial contractor because a) They had seen my work and knew I was good, b) I was the only writer they knew. I am indebted to America Online for hiring so many bright, smart people the same time I was there, and then shedding them to go elsewhere, and for all those bright, smart people for remembering me when it came time to look for writing work.

One of those contracts I had included writing a financial newsletter. In 1999, my non-fiction agent Robert Shepard was on the phone with the editor of Rough Guides, who mentioned to him that they were looking for someone to write a book on online finance. My agent said, hey, I have a guy who writes a financial newsletter for AOL. The Rough Guides people said, great, ask him if he wants to write this book. I did. It was my first published book, and it led to two more books by me for Rough Guides. I owe Robert for being proactive on my behalf when he could have let that opportunity swing past him, and I would have been none the wiser.

In 2001 I wrote a novel I intended to sell but then didn’t. I decided to put it online on Whatever in December of 2002. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, the senior editor of science fiction at Tor Books, read it and decided to make me an offer on it, which I accepted. If Patrick hadn’t read it (or alternately, had read it and did nothing about it because I hadn’t formally submitted it), then it’s deeply unlikely I would have the career I have now in science fiction.

When that book, Old Man’s War, came out in 2005, it was championed by Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit to his readers, and by Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing to his. Because of their enthusiasm, the first printing disappeared off the shelf so quickly that it became clear to Tor that this was a book to watch and promote. Glenn and Cory made a huge difference in the early fortunes of that book. In 2006, Neil Gaiman was informed that his book Anansi Boys had been nominated for a Hugo in the category of Best Novel and asked if he would like to accept the nomination. Neil, who won a Hugo a year for the previous three years, politely declined, believing (he told me later) that someone else might benefit from that nomination more than he. The nomination declined went to the next book in the nomination tally: Old Man’s War. And he was correct: I benefited immensely from the nomination.

The publicity Old Man’s War gained from the Hugo nomination, among other things, took the book far and wide and brought it to the attention of Scott Stuber and Wolfgang Petersen, who optioned the book to be made into a film, and to Joe Mallozzi, a producer on Stargate Atlantis, and who (with Brad Wright) eventually hired me to be the Creative Consultant to the Stargate: Universe series. The latter experience was huge in helping me learn the day-to-day practicalities of making television, and having the chance to intensively study scriptwriting; the former has helped me get my foot in the door in terms of having my work seen in film circles. Its success has also made it easier for my fiction agents Ethan Ellenberg and Evan Gregory to sell my work overseas; they’ve sold my work in nineteen languages now, none of which I would have been able to do on my own.

And so on. I am eliding here; there are numerous people to whom I owe a debt for the work that they have done on my behalf or who have done something that has benefited me, who I am not calling out by name. Some of them know who they are; many of them probably don’t, because most of them haven’t met me.

There is a flip side to this as well. I have helped others too. I am financially successful now; I pay a lot of taxes. I don’t mind because I know how taxes helped me to get to the fortunate position I am in today. I hope the taxes I pay will help some military wife give birth, a mother who needs help feed her child, help another child learn and fall in love with the written word, and help still another get through college. Likewise, I am in a socially advantageous position now, where I can help promote the work of others here and in other places. I do it because I can, because I think I should and because I remember those who helped me. It honors them and it sets the example for those I help to help those who follow them.

I know what I have been given and what I have taken. I know to whom I owe. I know that what work I have done and what I have achieved doesn’t exist in a vacuum or outside of a larger context, or without the work and investment of other people, both within the immediate scope of my life and outside of it. I like the idea that I pay it forward, both with the people I can help personally and with those who will never know that some small portion of their own hopefully good fortune is made possible by me.

So much of how their lives will be depends on them, of course, just as so much of how my life is has depended on my own actions. We all have to be the primary actors in our own lives. But so much of their lives will depend on others, too, people near and far. We all have to ask ourselves what role we play in the lives of others — in the lives of loved ones, in the lives of our community, in the life of our nation and in the life of our world. I know my own answer for this. It echoes the answer of those before me, who helped to get me where I am.

354 Comments on “A Self-Made Man Looks At How He Made It”

  1. But… wait. A person can be a lousy-no-good-parasite-like-Ayn-Rand-warned-us-about and a productive member of society? My BRAAAAAIIIINNS!!!1!

    seriously though. Great points. We’re all in this together, like it or not.

  2. Not to be that guy, but i also noticed:

    The taxpayers helped me learn, kept me fed, and prevented dispair from clouding up my mind.

    This was a really fabulous read. Thanks for posting!

  3. “I don’t remember what it was I said during the interview; I have almost no memory of that interview at all. But I was told years later by another teacher that Steve Patterson said that day to the Webb admissions people that if there were only one child who was admitted to Webb that year, it should be me.”

    Must be dusty in here, my eyes are watering up.

  4. Embarrassing typo, graf 6. (Not normally my thing, but it’s REALLY embarrassing.)

  5. You know, I saw the title in my RSS feed and I immediately knew what approach you were going to take, and you didn’t disappoint – nice essay! Minor typo – I suspect that you are missing a preposition before “Proposition 13”. Should there be an “of” there?

  6. You, sir, are a class act. This should go in “Your Hate Mail Will be Graded, Vol. 2”.

  7. I’m sorry, but how can we take this “self made man” testimonial seriously if you’ve not once use the terms “bootstraps”, “handouts” or “job creators”, hmm? Well??

    Also, in re: the Neil Gaiman/Anansi Boys/Hugo thing – are you f’cking kidding me??!? That is too awesome to be true.

  8. What a perfect piece. I was just thinking of what can I do to guide my son (who today is 3) to become a great man. My answer came to me through your words. Guide him through example, always always be thankful and ask ‘how can I be of service’ rather than ‘how are you going to help me’. It is always so inspiring to learn that a great writer you admire is also a wonderful human being.

  9. I wish more people would read Bellamy’s utopian novel, Looking Backward, which is boring (like almost all utopian novels that are mostly just travelogue intermixed with argument), but which contains an impassioned argument for the interconnectedness of humanity.

    Baring that, maybe they’ll read this.

  10. Great post and, frankly, one that will be totally ignored by the folks who really, really SHOULD be reading it and thinking about all the people who helped them get where they’ve gotten. Unfortunately, for every person like yourself who understands the debt they owe to others and to programs designed to help smooth out the rough edges of our societal existence, there’s about 20 others who think they don’t owe nobody nuttin’, nuttin’ at all and that they’ve done it all themselves with their own two hands.

  11. Thank you for this today.

    I was trying to explain why we pay taxes, donate to charities, and generally give back to society to my 10 and 8 year old daughters a few weeks back

    I think I’ll bookmark this page and have another go the next time they bring it up.

  12. I haven’t read very far but, other than it being a different AFB, in a different city and state, I could have written that second paragraph – 3 days of labor and all!

  13. Aaron Sorkin should take lessons from you, John.
    I’ll be sending this to (among others) my granddaughters, who are decent young people but lack that sense of connectedness you detail so well.
    Meanwhile, I doubt The Orange County Register will have the courage to carry your essay, but they really, really should! Thank you.

  14. My father and I were speaking, during the Reagan years, about taxes and what we owe. He said that he had gone to school and through truck driving training on the GI Bill, paid for a house with a VA Mortgage, put his two oldest children, and now was putting his two youngest, through college with a combination of Pell Grants and student loans, and was depending in part on Social Security to see him through his older years. Indeed, the very trucking industry in which he worked, having advanced from driver to dispatcher to security officer to Vice President, depended on the interstate highway system paid for by taxes. He thought it churlish, at best, to object to paying taxes now. (And yes, one of my father’s most endearing qualities has always been his willingness to use words like churlish.)

    Now, my father is on Social Security and Medicare, which means that I’m not worried about him starving. My wife and I have parlayed our publicly subsidized educations into well-paying jobs. I don’t depend on public roads for my livelihood as my father did, but I assuredly depend on the internet, which grew out of ARPANET and Bitnet, the two systems I used when going to college, and on the research that was driven in part by military and space programs that wanted to be on the cutting edge of innovation. My wife, at age 43, finished a medical residency paid for largely by Medicare and Medicaid, and in part by the NIH. She now works in an emergency room (her specialty) at a hospital in the inner city, where most of her patients can only get the life-giving care they need through public health programs.

    It would be churlish for me to object to paying those gifts forward. I routinely thank my father for teaching me that lesson when I was a callow youth observing the beginnings of a conservative revolution that told me that taxes were confiscatory predation.

    Some object to Hillary Rodham Clinton popularizing the saying that it takes a village to raise a child. (I, for one, note that it only takes one child to raze a village.) But in my case, it didn’t take a village. It took a nation. I am grateful to that nation, and more than willing to help the next generation of children in the same way I was helped.

  15. John,

    I thank a good number of the same teachers as you…

    Especially Larry McMillin for my first English class to I.H… And Steve Patterson for teaching me Econ and, more importantly, letting a non-athletic guy like myself think of himself as a swimmer… However, I think you missed Janet Macauley who also trained you in your “English” accent!

    Marilyn Blum was awesome. Got me off the wait list and into my choice college as well.


  16. Serious question time. What have you done that has held you back? More importantly, how did you bring yourself to pick yourself up off of the floor after you’ve made an ‘oops’ and figure out how to get going again?

  17. John,
    I shared this on my Facebook page. I have a few Objectivists in my family who need to think about it.

  18. So much of the early parts of your story reflect my own life. I know the feeling of having divorced parents, custody battles, and receiving food donations because your family doesn’t make nearly enough to feed themselves.

    I’ve always said I loved your attitude about life in general, and you always continue to impress. Thanks for writing this, Mr. Scalzi.

  19. No man is an island,
    Entire of itself.
    Each is a piece of the continent,
    A part of the main.
    If a clod be washed away by the sea,
    Europe is the less.
    As well as if a promontory were.
    As well as if a manor of thine own
    Or of thine friend’s were.
    Each man’s death diminishes me,
    For I am involved in mankind.
    Therefore, send not to know
    For whom the bell tolls,
    It tolls for thee.

    John Donne
    from here.

  20. What I love about this is that you recognize that in addition to your own hard work, you’ve also been fortunate and had the right opportunities at the right times. So many people act like anybody can just pick themselves up by their bootstraps, but that’s not the way it always works. Really fascinating to read this, and makes me thankful about all the opportunities that have bounced my way, despite a challenging upbringing and having some cards stacked against me growing up.

  21. This has been the summer I’ve discovered Scalzi, and it’s been a great one. Thanks for this excellent post with only one shortcoming in light of today’s conversation — surely at some time in your life you traveled on public highways.

  22. Wow. That’s amazing, sir. Absolutely amazing. And humbling. and a little daunting and depressing. At nearly 40, I don’t have nearly that kind of list, and I’m sad that I don’t. :-/

  23. Wonderful pieces like this are the main reason that I regularly read Whatever.

  24. Lovely. Thank you.
    I hope you don’t mind, I posted a link to this on my blog (www.ohyh,net) and will link to it from my facebook page as well.
    Well done.

  25. This.
    As another post noted, so many people assume that success stories somehow pop out of a singularity in deep space, owing nothing to anyone. You point out that it takes an entire interconnected support system, hard work, and a leavening of good luck. And I appreciate the nod to ‘paying it forward’; I hope that I can somehow have that effect as well.

  26. Yesterday I read your post from 2005: “Being Poor”. It took several hours!

    Today I read this, which instills the sentiment of the former that most of the time, (most), if you’re poor and not a lotto winner, it will take help from others to “not be poor”. Heck, even the lottery winners get their money from other people, don’t they?

    Even if you’re fairly well off, you still need other’s help.

    When a person thinks they can accomplish everything all by themselves, they’ve indeed become an island. All alone, all by themselves.

  27. John,

    Thank you for this post. I got to Neil Gaiman giving up his Hugo, and I definitely cried. In Starbucks. With people looking at me.


  28. I, personally, think it’s awesome that your readers illustrated this piece by publicly helping you with proofreading.

    My father actually had the nerve to forget how much the GI bill—and everything/one else—helped him, and it was refreshing to read about old people who had not. And yeah, the old bastard left me nothing when he died. Not even plane fare to get to the funeral.

    It was a healing experience to read this.

  29. I read this, then followed your link in your comment to the post about your downturn. It reminded me of something my wife says to me whenever I feel down due to money, employment, etc. She tells me, whatever energy we send out to the universe we get back. We get to choose whether its positive or negative. I tend to remind her at these times that depression can be a chemical reaction within our brain that as an individual we have no control over. She simply responds that how we react to that chemical unbalance is still our choice. As humans with free will, that is our right. And she has always been correct. I think you helped to prove that. Another thing I have noticed, truly successful people that I have met always have one thing in common. Audacity. They don’t know if something will succeed or fail, but they are audacious enough to try. Too many people (including myself) simply don’t try, or when they do and find things aren’t easy, they give up. Audacious individuals do not. Between these two posts (yes one of them was 4 years ago, but I just started reading your blog with the release of Redshirts) you have inspired me to try, to find some audacity in myself and send some positive energy out to the universe. Thank you.

  30. Nicely done. A few months ago a man in his late 90s accepted a belated Distinguished Alumnus Award from Caltech, delayed because he was an Emeritus Board of Trustees member. Hi speech began: “First of all, I’d like to thank my parents for their genomes.”

    It is also meritorious to thank one’s teachers, and their teachers. One may click to see, but I’ll spare those not interested the text following this preface:

    Although I am something of an autodidact, I have had some significant teachers. When I began to trace whom the teachers were of my teachers, and who were their teachers before them, quite a number of prominent names emerge. Albert Einstein, Ezra Pound, Bertrand Russell…

    Going back to the 1600s in Mathematics, the coinventor of Calculus (simultaneously with Newton) Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz. In Astronomy, I can trace back to about 1600, with Christiaan Huygens, who discovered the Rings of Saturn, and his mentor, Descartes. Further back, to the 1400s, come the revolutionary anatomists: Vesalius and Fallopius. Then, more than 24 generations before me, the Islamic medicine faculty at the University of Montpellier. Quite a journey in time and imagination!

    Almost all the links shown are formal student-teacher connections in colleges, universities, or master classes/tutorials…

    Below, I give a very partial diagramming of my heritage in these domains: Music, Poetry, Science/Philosophy, Science/Physics, Computers and Mathematics, and Acting/Theatre. Coming soon: Fiction, Karate, Politics, Business.


  31. This is possibly one of the most depressing things I’ve read in a long time. My life has had so many of the same turning points as yours (including the incredibly protracted birth), but at many of the points where someone gave you a hand up, for me…nothing happened. There was a gifted and talented program at my school, but I wasn’t allowed to participate in it, even thought I had the highest standardized test scores in the school, because I was shy and it was a “leadership” program. I watched my less academically outstanding classmates get on the bus every week and go off to do mysterious and fascinating things while I read novels in the back of class every day, all day. I NEARLY got a full ride scholarship to college. I wrote an essay about the last book I read, which was Under the Wheel, by Herman Hesse. I found out later I got beat out by someone whose last book was Winnie the Pooh. No one sent me to private school at any point, or even considered it. In 2003 an editor for a major publishing house told me verbally he was going to buy my book…and then he didn’t. Ugh. I get the point your making, but now I really feel like crap. I did get some free lunches on the govt tab during my school years, so there’s that. Excuse me while I go kill myself. Sorry.

  32. I’ve met a lot of people over the years. Thanks to ConFusion, Penguicon and (especially) my sportswriting job, many of them have been famous. I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone – from mundanes like me to Hugo-award winning authors, Hall of Fame athletes and U.S. Senators – that has a better grasp of the realities of life than you do, and certainly no one with a better ability to put that into words.

    You have my sincerest admiration – not for the first time, and almost certainly not for the last.

  33. Thank you for this. A lot in my life reads like yours, and I have never forgotten to be grateful for what has been freely given to me…and have not forgotten to (try to) pay back.
    It seems you have remembered, as well.

  34. Mr. Scalzi, if you’re ever in Barcelona for some reason I would like to buy you a beer. Or other cold beverage of your choice. Thanks for writing pieces like this.

  35. Nicely written, and nicely done. I have emailed the link to this post to someone I think could benefit from it. It’s given me a lot to think about, and I’ll probably be back to read it again.

    Thank you.

  36. Now imagine what corporations could do if employees got out of their “it’s all about me” bubble and actually considered themselves in a corporate community. It’s possible to be directly and indirectly responsible for each other’s successes based on the way John thinks! I really enjoyed this story.

  37. Came away from this once again reaffirming my belief that, although I am an entrepeneur and unapologetic capitalist, it is abundantly clear that there are certain industries and economic problems that can not be left to free enterprise markets. They have to be tackled by the organizing power of government or left untackled. – Richard Boyd, “Old Man’s War” fan.

  38. This is heartwarming and full of gratitude. I have tears in my eyes, because I feel the same sense of appreciation for all the times that my mother and I could have fallen through the cracks.

  39. This is another one that should be (and will be) linked to other sources all over the world. This is why thousands of people read Whatever.

    There are people I know who will read this and condemn you as a “god-damned socialist!” But then the world needs its idiots to help us appreciate the wise ones.

  40. This is another amazing piece. Personally I think it’s as good as “Being Poor.” It makes the point gently, without hitting the reader over the head with anything. Bravo.

  41. I liked the piece very much, though it made me think of the old chestnut:
    A: “I’m a self-made man!
    B: “Well, I guess that takes the blame off of Nature!”

    And I finished REDSHIRTS on the plane ride home last week. A great, fun read. If it has not been optioned yet by Hollywood, someone is missing a bet! Kudos, good sir!

    (Also posted on Google+, so you only have to read it once!)

  42. I routinely state – and attempt to express through my actions – the understanding that my kudos are not merely the result of my talent and hard work, but also of those who set the examples and cut the breaks that led to the opportunities to do those things in the first place.

    It’s good to see someone stating the same.

  43. I really enjoyed reading this. There are very few of us who are truly “self made men”. It’s useful, in this age of narcissistic reality television, greed, and societal moral bankruptcy, to be reminded that we really only “make it” through the support of others. Bravo, sir.

  44. Now, about that hideous painting in the attic … I’m sure there isn’t one. You’ve done well by those who helped you, do well by helping others, and greatly deserve your success. (There isn’t a much better demonstration of his character than how he replies to reported typos — publicly acknowledging and thanking, and correcting.)

    I do have a question. University of Chicago. Where did you even hear of it? Is it just that I was looking at schools like MIT, SD School of Mines, Sanford, CIT, … engineering schools?

  45. Would it be fair to say that according to Obama you did not make yourself successful? I guess the Pell Grants is what he would be referring too here? Anyway, your success in my opinion is wonderful and as a result of many things like you mentioned.

  46. htom:

    Webb was very focused on getting students into colleges, so I had extensive information about all sorts of schools. Also, a recruiter came to Webb from U of C, and she was dynamite.

  47. John, reading your story brought such an ache to my heart. I’m about 3 years older than you. My situation was very different than yours, and as I read how you’ve come to be where you are today, I can’t help but think that I’m the person the GOP wanted you to be. (Aside from the fact that I’m a woman and you’re a man, but who knows maybe they have an opinion on that too.)

    My mother lived in deep and utter fear of poverty, and though we were solidly middle-class, the lack of financial resources was the number-one driving force behind decisions made in our household. When we moved to San Diego in my elementary school years (because of my dad’s work, we moved often because of his job), it soon became apparent that I was getting an education that was not serving me well. But there was nothing to be done about it. Private school was for “rich people.” No consideration was ever given to applying for scholarships or assistance, despite the fact that at the age of four I had tested into Kindergarten and was still at the top of my class. Because of our many moves I had few if any opportunities to develop relationships with teachers who would speak up on my behalf, offer guidance for my personal skills or interests, or suggest to my parents additional programs that might benefit me.

    At home my interests were met with responses like: “when you’re older,” “get an education first,” “there isn’t time right now,” or “nobody gets to do that,” as well as the occasional “you’re not smart enough for that.” They meant no harm, I know that. They thought they were doing the right thing.

    I did well enough in school to pass, but never engaged with the material that was presented to me. I went to good schools in great districts, and I went to terrible schools in mediocre districts. No matter how I liked or disliked my situation, it was always temporary, it was going to change.

    Like you, I got my undergraduate degree in philosophy. Unlike you, I got it from a second-tier state school. When I expressed an interest in University of Chicago for my graduate work I got a personal call from Bill Tait explaining to me in very apologetic tones that the degree I had just earned didn’t prepare me for the rigors of a school like UC. I would need more undergraduate work. He was absolutely right, but as no one had ever once expected me to step beyond my limits and stretch myself, I was caught off-guard. And because always staying inside the lines had been expected, safe, and satisfactory, I was unprepared to take on a task like financing the education I *actually* wanted and had been “waiting” for since I was ten.

    So, I left school and started working. I worked in retail. I worked in offices. I had no idea how to develop or cultivate professional relationships, so I left jobs often. Eventually I worked in Hollywood, which suited my background well — few jobs there last more than 6-9 months, so the constant changes felt like normal.

    A new experience for me was when I went to work for a huge tech company and found people who liked their work, had reasonable expectations of themselves and each other, and treated each other with dignity and respect. There were no permanent jobs for me there, but I worked several very satisfying temporary jobs, and I found a decent, respectful and respectable life partner there who has believed in me in ways and at times that I couldn’t.

    Several years ago I discovered a term for the environment I grew up in — it’s called “Learned Helplessness.” I’ve been un-learning helplessness since then, and it’s hard, good work. My own background motivates me to fight like hell for school funding, for government programs that might succeed where parents are unable to, and to advocate for mental health treatment programs. I can’t help but lament, sometimes, the lost opportunities for challenges, experience, growth, and innovation over the past decades, but I try to remember that the only value in looking back is informing my life and work going forward. I’m writing books for adults and kids, slowly and precariously, but with increasing confidence and hope. I’m using words to advocate for education not only for my own child but for all of the kids in the district, many of whom have far fewer resources available to them. And I’m telling my story, because I am in the vast middle. Because I think I’m not alone, that there are thousands of others out there like me who had more potential in their youth than they were able to demonstrate, and I think there are still kids out there like me, not causing trouble, not winning ribbons, just delivering what is asked and trying be invisible to keep from getting their asses kicked. There is no reason these kids can’t live in a society that says “look at what you can do! Awesome! Go do more of it!” I didn’t get that, but I’m working toward a time when more kids, maybe someday even all kids, can have that.

    I’m not the person the GOP/Tea Party wants me to be, I realize now as I re-read this. Because despite my lack of “success” (or maybe because of it), I constantly challenge the status quo, the thinking that gets so many of us to accept “good enough” or “okay for me.” I’m speaking up, saying we must not sacrifice our kids.

    I thank you for recognizing the necessary interplay of relationships, money, and effort in one person’s success. I thank you for expressing it so well. Keep on.

  48. You say that you are in control of your life but that is not entirely true.

    What would have happened had that Tor editor not looked favorably on your book?

    Your life would be completely different right now.

    You can influence the direction of your life but you are not the only one with a hand on it’s rudder.

  49. And a hug to Catherine Shaffer. You are not alone, sister. There are many of us.

  50. Mr. Scalzi, what, exactly, made you write such a thing?

    Is this an ironic compare-and-contrast-two-extremes exercise where you’ll write another essay tomorrow about how everything you’ve ever done is the product of your singular genius and hard work?

    One of the things “people like me” hate about this kind of rhetoric is that it tells us we’re chumps.

    Those of us who went to crummy public schools and watched the same kids that got the free lunch steal others’ lunch money, textbooks, school supplies and sometimes clothes; copy homework and test answers and do no work on “group projects” for which we all received the same grade? Managed to get into a crappy state college in spite of the crummy public schools? Chumps.

    Yeah, there were a couple of good teachers and a Scoutmaster or two along the way – somebody has to keep some of us believing in the system – but nary a food stamp, welfare check, or Pell grant.

    Manage to work your way through college, raise kids and hold down various jobs for thirty-odd years while the wife goes back to school and then leaves to ‘find herself’? All without collecting AFDC, WIC, EITC or a single unemployment or subsidy check?. Giving 10% of pretax income to charity (on top of Caesar’s pound of flesh) for a decade or more? Chumps.

    The current debate (not to mention this comment thread) has been very educational to those of us who’ve been chumps. Not only are we supposed to continue our chumpitude, we’re supposed to *enjoy* it. And be *grateful* for the connectedness.

    I feel warmer already.

  51. Popped this on Facebook, thanks for saying it so well.
    Yes, THIS!

    Yes, THIS!

    I have a great life myself, none of which would have been possible without great parents, the support of a close-knit community, and the fabulous good fortune to have grown up in a state that believed it was worth the investment of public funds to teach kids how not to make the mistakes that I had made when I was old enough to have known better.

    NOBODY makes it alone, there are always other people, other services, and other ideas that they build upon.

    What made this a great country in the past was the understanding that we're all in this together. That an investment in a public road, airport or other infrastructure benefits us all. That investments in people (when they have nothing but talent and hard work to invest themselves) benefits us all too.

    I hope my kids inherit a country that has gotten past our current fascination with "what's in it for me", and "I'd rather do nothing than do something REMOTELY your way".

    After all, NOBODY makes it alone.

  52. I read your essay and found it interesting. You seem like a nice guy with a great outlook on life.
    But I think you are missing the point when it comes to taxes and spending. What drives me nuts ( and most other people ) about paying taxes is the corruption, missapropriation, waste and ever growing scale of the government. Furthermore the ever growing power of the government over my life and the intrusion that represents, scares the crap out of me. Your justification for paying more in taxes ignores all the problems associated with the federal governments’ never ending obsession with taking my money ( and yours ) and wasting approx 40% of each dollar it brings in on administration, pensions, beuracracy etc…
    On every tax return you have the option of paying more. To all of you who want to pay more go ahead; we wont stop you!
    Clifton VA

  53. rocinante2:

    I’m not sure what you read into the piece I wrote, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t write it.


    “Your justification for paying more in taxes”

    I invite you, Brad, to point directly to the part of this entry where I talk about paying more in taxes. When you’re done with that, I would like for you to consider the idea that before you launch into an index card’s worth of talking points about your favorite taxation hobby horse, you pay attention to whether it’s at all relevant to the post at hand. Thank you.

  54. Great write up. It’s good to see someone who’s so successful give thanks to the many people who helped along the way, whether they did so intentionally or not.

    Also, Neil Gaiman? Class act.

  55. Great story and congrats on your success, but that’s only half the story for a large portion of others in your position, Mr. Scalzi.

    Since you were in gifted programs, that probably means you won the genetic lottery when you were born. Not everyone has the physical ability to be as intelligent as you, which bars them from even having access to these kinds of tax programs to help the poor with education. Assuming a standard bell curve, that’s a lot of people.

    There’s not much that can be done about that these days, but I just wanted to point out that if we continue to support science, then far in the future, maybe we’ll live in a world where people get not just help in paying for education but also help in leveling their intelligence with the rest of the world.

  56. Rocinante – from Wikipedia: Etymology

    Rocín in Spanish means work-horse or low-quality horse (“nag”), but also illiterate or rough man. There are similar words in French (roussin; rosse), Portuguese (rocim) and Italian (ronzino). The etymology is uncertain. The name is, however, a pun. On the first order, the Spanish ante means “before” or “previously”. On the second order, it also translates as ‘in front of’. On the third order, the suffix -ante in Spanish is adverbial; rocinante refers to functioning as, or being, a rocín reflexively. As such, Cervantes establishes a pattern of ambiguous interpretations present in many words in the novel. Another further explanation comes from the text itself: nombre a su parecer alto, sonoro y significativo de lo que había sido cuando fue rocín, antes de lo que ahora era, que era antes y primero de todos los rocines del mundo.[1] – “a name, to his thinking, lofty, sonorous, and significant of his condition as a hack before he became what he now was, the first and foremost of all the hacks in the world.”[2]

    As the narration describes in chapter 1 about the naming of Don Quixote’s steed, “Four days were spent in thinking what name to give him, because (as he said to himself) it was not right that a horse belonging to a knight so famous, and one with such merits of his own, should be without some distinctive name, and he strove to adapt it so as to indicate what he had been before belonging to a knight-errant, and what he then was.”[2]

  57. htom:

    The University of Chicago is famous for many things, and one of them is NOT having any Engineering Departments. (There is a classic joke about the U of C Economics program: “Your model works very well in the real world – but does it work in theory?”).

  58. Somebody once wrote that a person should be judged by deeds and not words. Rhetoric is cheap. When I look at your actions, John, I see strong consistency and alignment between words and deeds.

    Others wil pooh-pooh this, no doubt, but sometimes I hold you up as a role model–especially with respect to eelymosynary activities. (I had to throw in the big word!)

    So, basically, you’re kind of cool and write soem good stuff from time to time. Thanks for writing this piece.

  59. Tm_Z:

    “Since you were in gifted programs, that probably means you won the genetic lottery when you were born.”

    Not really. It’s equally possible that environment played a role, i.e., that my mother, despite her own economic disadvantages, saw the value in offering me educational opportunities and offered an environment in which learning and exploration were encouraged. Placed in such positions, any child of average intelligence or above would flourish and be seen as a candidate for a gifted program. There is more than one door into gifted programs. Likewise, as other commenters have noted, there are ways that a genuinely intelligent child might be excluded from such programs.

  60. htom, as Jim notes above, if you were specifically looking for engineering schools, you would never find the U of C.

    But- I went to a decent but not great public school, had almost no college selection guidance, and certainly didn’t have college recruiters on my school campus, and I still found it (and I’m glad I did, it was a great place for me). It isn’t exactly a secret. It shows up in rankings of top schools, and is covered in all the usual college guide books.

  61. It’s always interesting to note that the people coming here to refute John’s pieces never offer any actual scientific evidence of malfeasance, inefficiency, etc when it comes to the subject at hand. It’s either anecdotal, secondhand, or from oft-discredited sources like Reagan’s “welfare-queen” or men’s rights newsletter; or else it’s like pornography, they know it when they see it and therefore only their opinion matters. We’ve already seen it here, and it was there in plentiful numbers with the “Default Setting” piece, and no doubt we’ll continue to see it in future ones.

    Congrats on John dealing with it in a better manner than I.

  62. Nicely said.
    As it did for so many others, it made me think of many places where I got a hand, or a break – some of the places my husband got them as well. We also try to pay back, and for very similar reasons.

    Another reason that this resonated for me is that, regardless of how some may read it, it’s not a tribute to “welfare programs” – it’s a tribute to assistance. You mention various sorts of assistance – public, private, interpersonal – that have helped you on your way and don’t emphasize any one over the others. The current arguments over social policies have become very shrill and absolute (welfare programs are all good or all evil, full stop), and it’s nice to read something more rational. When I try to talk to most friends and family, things become very polarized very quickly (“You disagree with one of Obama’s policies? You must therefore be racist and right-wing!” “You have concerns about the Supreme Court’s decision on the health care act and it’s ramifications for future taxation policy? You must be an Obama-hater and want people to go die without health care.”) It’s nice to see someone taking the “shrill” out.

  63. My apologies, Mr. Scalzi. I haven’t come here as often as I might and lacked crucial context. I won’t trouble you again.

    Karen: Your Wikipedia-fu is strong. Your point, not so much.

  64. Great essay, John. (I’ve been posting here too long to call you “Mr. Scalzi”, I think.)

    I was wondering if you had seen Michael Lewis’ address to this year’s graduating class at Princeton? Here. He addresses the same issues you do, but from another angle: specifically, the influence of luck on his career, as well as the actions of other people. It’s a great talk.

  65. At 65 years of age, I am writing my first book, a tribute to Heinlein. Reading your Old Man’s War and The Last Colony as inspiration and guidance. I salute you, sir!

  66. Thank you Mr. Scalzi for the well written tribute. It reminded of Mrs. Burr; the English teacher, who taught me my love of reading and history in the 7th grade. It made me glad to remember the chance I had to personally thank Mr. Cooper; 25 years late, for the love he taught me of numbers and science in the eighth grade. But mostly it caused me to remember my mom for teaching me critical thinking. Or in today’s world thinking at all.. Thank you very much for my huge smile. Dave

  67. Thanks for this. My grandfather recently passed and it got me thinking about the countless selfless deeds he did in his lifetime for my benefit and the benefit of many many others. Your humility and appreciation of the gifts of others does you great credit. Thanks again.

  68. This is a quality article and expresses a sentiment I wish was more prevalent in our society. It has reminded me that there is more that I need to do to give back to the programs and organizations that have helped me become the man I am today. This is my first visit to your site (saw the Fark link) and I will certainly be coming back on a regular basis.

  69. So far Redshirts has been horrible.

    Brilliant display of a mature, reasoned, and relevant argument there.

  70. It’s important to remember that the reason societies exist is because uplift like John speaks of here is a net win for everyone in the long run

    It’s also important to remember that for reasons like this, societies which take care of one another out compete societies that don’t, in the long run.

    Helping one another is not antithetical to providing incentives for individual success either. We don’t have the mix right at least in the US, but where we fail we fail more on the side of not helping enough, then on the opposite.

  71. You sir are a mensch! Nobody got where they are completely on their own and too few people recognize the debt they own. You did this so well and hit so many of the points that many refuse to recognize. I’m move but can only say thank you so much.

    Its a shame about the negative comments, sad that they obviously didn’t read your excellent post before vomiting up their sewage. I bet a dime most if not all of them are big fans of one of your early proponents, the Instaputz.

  72. You’re a hell of a lot smarter than me, John…so I cannot believe that it has not occurred to you that your taxes have paid for the good you mention, but also the bad like (just to scratch the surface):

    – tens of billions a year in Medicare fraud
    – wars of at best debatable necessity, and the defense pork that comes with or without wars
    – public employees who game state retirement systems to scoop up more in pensions than they ever made in salary
    – tens of billions in subsidies for huge businesses that need financial help about as much as Derek Jeter needs help finding women
    – public nutrition assistance programs that don’t meet poor people’s needs while at the same time steering them to food choices that point them straight toward Type II diabetes (which is running us $45 billion a year just in Medicare costs)
    – public works projects that run massively late and massively over budget and are of at best debatable necessity

    I would positively LOVE paying taxes if I got great schools, affordable and competent health care, well-built roads, cost-effective law enforcement and a prudent national defense.

    But last I looked I got grown-ups who can’t tell “there” from “their” from “they’re”, a public health system that points us directly away from healthy choices, half-assed road design and construction, expensive militarized police forces and a bloatfest of a defense program.

    Your wife’s the one with the great mind for money. Ask her if any household or private concern could make a go if it by throwing gobs of present and future generations’ money down the toilet the way our elected officials do.

  73. I am self made too. but I did it DESPITE a crappy overpriced public school system full of wanna be thugs and liberal teachers. I did it without a free ride from an internet startup that overpaid me.

    I share every bit as much as you and help others every bit as much as you, but I am not goiing to give credit where credit is not due. There were 1000 people that were my classmates and most had more opportunity than myself, yet i rose to the top and they did not and that is the important point. I worked harder and deserve to keep the fruits of my labor. I am not going to bow down to a government that supposedly had a say in it for the simple reason that if there were no roads or schools people like me would rise to the top without them. We aways have and we always will. I may not have as much as I do now, but i would still have more than those who CHOOSE to coast and live off of others.

    Obama should be giving credit where credit is due instead of supporting the lazy who want a free ride.
    His speech was simply more overwhelming proof that he has no clue how to create a job.

  74. It’s such a rare thing for an American man to admit that he has needed and benefited from the help of others and from lucky turns of genetics or fate. We have so deified the lone wolf that we consider any man who admits such to be weak and even someone who should be eliminated from the gene pool for the sake of the strength of the species.

    Humans are not solo hunters. We are tribal creatures. We are clever little primates who have learned to work together for mutual benefit. This is how we became the dominant species on the planet. We did not get this way by arrogantly going off on our own and assuming we can find food and shelter, and avoid predators, without the support and protection of the rest of our band. A very rare few people may well be able to survive alone and off the grid, but even they need to acknowledge the benefits they had in childhood that enabled them to do so.

    Admitting that we need each other is not an admission of weakness. It’s an understanding of reality. And I’m really quite tired of men who apparently believe that their balls will fall off if anyone dares acknowledge that reality.

  75. Brian:

    “so I cannot believe that it has not occurred to you”


    You are under the impression that this article has to be about something other than what it’s about?


    Then stop reading it and read something else.

    Bill Marshall:

    “if there were no roads or schools people like me would rise to the top without them”

    It’s nice for you that you believe this. It’s easy to make such assertions when there is no way to test them.

  76. Ah. And there I was wondering where certain opinions had been.

    Kudos. Good post. For me, my parents; the formerly great British polytechnic system; Mr Heasman and others who taught me much; and the NHS for being there when my family needed it and I needed to get a rotten piece of my lower colon out as a teenager.

  77. @bill marshall

    I don’t know what you rose to, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the top.

    You probably ought to Go Galt now and leave the rest of use to get by with our collective misery.

  78. I worked harder and deserve to keep the fruits of my labor.

    While I’m sure most of us deserve to be recognized for our labor, I’m impressed that you are so psychically gifted that you can KNOW how hard everyone around you has worked for all of their lives. Really, that’s quite an impressive skill: perhaps you can patent it?

    (Sorry, John, I couldn’t resist.)

  79. Rochrist: Exactly.

    The funny thing about these Galts is that each of them sincerely believes that, were the nanny state eliminated, he would be king of the world, never realizing that he’d have a hell of a lot of competition for that spot.

    Truthfully, most of the misery spawned by our species has been self-obsessed, overgrown 13-year-old boys having pissing contests with each other, and spraying the rest of us in the process.

  80. An excellent piece, thank you very much.

    Although now I feel like a jerkass for not being able to remember the names of most of my teachers from my school days… Then again, there’s a lot I don’t remember from my childhood.

  81. It is amazing how much a community must give for an individual to pick himself up by his bootstraps.

    Thank you for excellently illustrating interdependence, a difficult topic that seems oddly forgotten by large segments of our society. Having also just read your being poor post a couple of days ago, I reflect upon my meager successes due to luck and others giving me a leg up. Your writing re-inspires me to give of my time, talent and treasure to help others who need a fighting chance. Thank you for the reminder.

  82. For every gentleman like you, there are forty that suck the nipple forever. I am pleased by your success, but I credit your work ethic and parenting rather than the taxes of those around you, and while you may be doing well, you can’t replace the endless thousands the moochers continue to suck out of the system.

  83. My husband, an immigrant, did the Pell Grant and National Merit route. He opted out of the Ivy League school because he wanted to save the debt for law school. He ended up graduating top of his class at University of Michigan and made a successful career on Wall Street. It’s amazing how much a small government investment can pay off.

    I think a self- made man has a passion for what he does and the dedication to see it through. My husband made it in a field with a notoriously high attrition rate. In the end, 5% survive. Mostly because unless you really love it you usually run off to Tibet or open up a cupcake shop in hopes of redemption. He remembered his first job, they hired 55 of the best and brightest and after 2 years there was only 3 of them still standing. Still, he was in love with it…and twenty years later still is. He had a wonderful mentor and that made all the difference.

  84. Tony Locke:

    “For every gentleman like you, there are forty that suck the nipple forever.”

    Citation, please. Otherwise I’m going to have to chalk this up to rhetoric flourish and disregard it as factual statement.

  85. Sorry, but this is overly sentimental claptrap. The government you think deserves these taxes has created a debt that’s the largest in human history, with unfunded liabilities that exceed the world’s money supply,. This is criminally negligent. Compound that with the continual erosion of services to our military and veterans (I am a veteran myself, USAF) and an attempt by the current administration to negate the benefits promised to us when we signed up for the service and then take a look at all the tax revenue wasted and mismanaged in a succession of wars and incompetently run government departments, services and programs where billions of dollars were misplaced with no accountability and you can easily conclude that throwing money at the state gets us nowhere. Feeding a monster with no concern for the citizens who feed it, other than to see us as property that generates income and looks for more ways to limit our freedoms, is not in the least bit logical. When we have a government so badly broken, mismanaged and corrupt, it has to be reformed and shrunk. Not given more money to continue to waste and steal.

    This government takes in more tax revenue than the GDP of most of the world’s nations. Only a handful of nations come close to ours, yet we have the highest debt in all of human history and we have poverty at the level of the 1960s. Taxes aren’t the solution. If taxes were a solution to anything there wouldn’t be any problems in the US.

  86. James Hudnall:

    “Sorry, but this is overly sentimental claptrap an opportunity for me to stand up on a soapbox on a topic only barely tangentially related to the actual topic at hand, and which entirely ignores a rather substantial chunk of the overall post.”

    Fixed that for you, James.

  87. I work in education in California, as an evaluator. Which is a sort of auditor-ish position for schools and education programs. And live in both San Diego and Fresno now, which are places you lived in your earlier life. =)

    Basically, I don’t think you’re characterizing the state of taxation and education here quite accurately. Wages for California teachers is the 3rd highest in the nation at $68k/year, versus $55k for the national average. They have risen 43% in the last decade, versus 32% growth nationwide. Our teacher wages are 23% higher than the national average, whereas our normal wage differential is only 10%.

    So yes, it’s nice our teachers make a lot, but it’s also the root of the budget crisis in K-12 education, and the reason our student to teacher ratios are so high. The California Teachers Union basically owns the state legislature, and basically dictate terms to our legislators. If they don’t like them, the union will get them fired. (There’s a great video of a union speaker saying exactly that in Sacramento – “We got you hired, we can get you fired.”)

    While Prop 13 does have some issues, especially in regards to corporate property taxes (which should absolutely be not included in the exemption, for a number of good reasons), it is inaccurate to say that it is the cause of our budget issues. California pays the national average percentage of taxes to our state government, which translates into a much higher absolute tax basis. We have a high state sales tax and one of the highest income taxes in the country. Also, even with Prop 13, Californians pay over the national average on property taxes.

    So tax revenues really aren’t the problem. We have plenty of money in absolute terms. It just comes down to a state legislature that is completely retarded in deciding how to spend it, and a teachers union that pushes up teachers wages at the cost of higher classroom sizes.

    Reference: http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/HE/NEA_Rankings_and_Estimates010711.pdf

    (Sorry if this comes off as wonkish, but I hate to let inaccuracies lie.)

  88. BillK, et al:

    Be aware that the last time I had an encounter with the public schools in California was in 1983, so I am first to suggest that there’s roughly 30 years of public school funding issues that supercede my experience.

  89. where will I find that connection, that helping hand,that true belief in myself?

  90. Mr. Scalzi I am 67 and have read all the really great, and some not so great, Science Fiction/Fantasy I could lay my hands on. Cut my teeth on Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Anderson, Bradbury, Simak, Farmer to name a few and then Aldiss, Chalker, Zelazney, Varley, Card, Tepper, Hambley…. Well you get the picture… Then low and behold I came across something called “Old Man’s War”! All I can say it what a find it was. I now own all the Science Fiction you have written and am impatiently patient for more. I plan to still be reading you at 97 – think big, not small.
    So I have to thank you for what you have written above. The entire narrative is something for our times to reflect on and somehow learn from. Lately things have gotten devisive (Mr. Hudnall above) but I got your point in all this. Pay it forward. Pay it forward. For if we don’t then who wll? If we back away who will come forward? If we cease caring who picks up that torch? ALL times try men’s (and woman’s) souls. Some just more than others.
    So again thanks for the time I “spent” in your universe and I have to do that since it helps keep me sane. I look forward to many, many more visits. John Scalzi you are one of the best.

  91. You can’t have it both ways, John.

    Your taxes and mine pay for the gold AND the dross…the great teachers who guided you and the hacks who mail it in. It paid to get bin Laden, but it also paid for Abu Ghraib. Our taxes pay to care for an old man’s diabetes, but it also subsidized the processed food that gave him diabetes in the first place.

    You don’t get to praise the results you like and stick your fingers in your ears muttering “tangentially related” when somebody brings up the failures. The EXPENSIVE failures – most important of all, the failure to plan beyond the next election.

    The gold-to-dross ratio hasn’t been looking so hot lately, and very little from the powers that be indicates an immediate change for the better. Willfully ignoring this only undermines your argument.

  92. John – I have enjoyed reading your work, and this post was no exception. I have been fortunate enough in my life to not have needed food stamps or unemployment, but I have family and friends who have been saved from dire straits by such programs. I worked my way through college, and graduated owing no money to anyone – although it took 9 years of taking what classes I could afford with the job I had. There is a critical point at which these programs cannot be expanded further upon the backs of a shrinking taxpayer base. I believe we are close to the point, since we have 50% of our population that contribute little or nothing to supporting the programs, and the programs are set to grow exponentially, with a very small minority of our nation providing 70% of the federal budget. Politics and politicians disgust me. Has there ever been an honest man in the Whitehouse? The older I get, the more I see that this is impossible.

  93. Brian:

    “You can’t have it both ways, John.”

    If by “having it both ways” you mean, as it appears you do, “writing a piece that doesn’t address the things I feel you should address because I think you should address them, even if it’s not the point of the article,” then in point of fact you’re entirely wrong, Brian. Because, look! That’s exactly what I did.

    You’re also incorrect that not addressing a point when you feel I should is equivalent to ignoring it in a general sense. It simply means that not every piece of writing needs to be about everything. It’s a little thing called “focus.”

    Beyond that, Brian, unless you’re paying me to write something, you don’t get a vote in how I write it. Please try to remember that going forward.

  94. John writes:
    Not really. It’s equally possible that environment played a role, i.e., that my mother, despite her own economic disadvantages, saw the value in offering me educational opportunities and offered an environment in which learning and exploration were encouraged. Placed in such positions, any child of average intelligence or above would flourish and be seen as a candidate for a gifted program.

    Yes, it seems quite probable that your mother actions did help you a great deal, and it’s also probable that you didn’t eat paint chips as a child, but I still think it likely that you are underplaying the role of nature in your success.

    To end up at the far end of the success bell curve you need all the breaks to go your way, nature, nurture, and outright good luck. That’s what a normal distribution models, properties that are the sum of a large number of randomly distributed elements.

    Without the benefit of some level of government many of the would-be Galt’s of 2012 would find themselves at the mercy of gangs of teenagers armed with sticks. The successful Galt of that world would need the genetic predisposition to be a good gang leader. Warren Buffet is fond of pointing out, that the odds of his being born in a country where his skills as an as allocator of assets proved to be of great value weren’t very high.

    On the other hand, it seems to me that in this thread I’m seeing a tendency to compare those who criticize the size, reach and growth of government as would-be anarchists. That is delivering a round-house kick to the straw man.

  95. [Escapee from Ayn Rand’s kindergarten deleted for low-grade stupidity indistinguishable from trolling — JS]

  96. I am at a movie right now so if anyone trolls by and says anything particularly stupid, ignore them and when I get home I will mallet them.

  97. Thank you for the wonderful post, Mr. Scalzi. Success doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it’s something we all need reminding of now and then.

  98. Love your stuff, but I have to dissent on Prop. 13. It wasn’t Prop. 13 that gutted education, it was California’s failure to cut other areas. Education was the only area not walled in by powerful special interests, so that’s where all the cuts went. As for BillK, 68K is not unrealistic for a teacher in a place like California.

    And as for James Hudnall and his “unfunded liabilities that exceed the world’s money supply,” I have two comments. First, they wouldn’t be unfunded if you hadn’t voted for politicians who refused to fund them. It’s like owing a debt, but you haven’t paid up because you needed a big TV, and the kids wanted to go to Disney World, and now you want to get out of paying because the economy is so bad and it’s so h-a-a-a-rd. Cry me a river. Pay now or pay later. Guess what. It’s later.

    Second is that all this talk about unfunded liabilities implies they all have to be paid RIGHT NOW. If you earn $100K and have a $200K mortgage, your debt is 200% of GDP. I don’t see too many people panicking over that. Yes, Social Security owes a huge amount – over the next 40 years. Per year it’s keeping afloat and with modest reforms it will keep afloat indefinitely.

  99. Was your wife living in Visalia at the time? Beause I’d so like to say to my friends that I’m famous cause I knew Scalzi’s wife’s neighbor’s gardner (or Whatever).

    On the off chance she went to high school there (and might recognize the name) I’ll mention that my altruistic-teach-that-changed-my-life was the computer teacher Dr. Kenneth L. Ray at Mt Whitney High in Visalia.

  100. John, a very interesting read. I certainly understand your frustration that many of those who criticize and applaud this article want to make it about, what they want it to be about. Thank you for sharing your story and your thoughts on your success and the humility to give others credit where due. It certainly makes me think about those who opened doors for me. However, this article is about you and your feelings and for readers to judge, correct or contradict the feelings you expressed is absurd.

  101. Good point. While you received much the same upbringing and education millions of others had, you had the vision, drive, and imagination to become exceptional. It’s not what we are given, it’s what we make of it. And you are a terrific author. Keep up the good work.

  102. Hi John. You had goals for yourself at a very early age and not only did I respect those goals but wanted them for you. As for Webb, it was the only school you wanted. When Steve Patterson spoke to me, he asked me if I knew how talented you were. I cried because I knew I could never afford that education for you. They gave the scholarship and asked from me the maximum amount I thought I could pay. The bank didn’t want to loan me that and asked what collateral I had. I showed them your acceptance letter. We got the money. From there on, with the help of teachers friends and guidance counselors you made your own way. I am so very proud of you. Love, Mom
    ps – Some of you people can sit on the pity pot forever if you like but my advice to you is this: Climb up outta that pot and shut the lid. Having less advantage doesn’t mean you have less opportunity.

  103. I could say more about systemic problems in California’s Public School system, for which I took a pay cut from professorship to earn a California State Secondary School Teaching Certificate. But that is not, as I see it, Mr. Scalzi’s point, except peripherally that society-wide infrastructure and individual teachers and mentors deserve to be acknowledged. Every successful person that I know can name a relative, a teacher, a librarian, a Scout Leader, an author, or some other source of inspiration. I have tried to “pay it forward” by inspiring students, in the worst schools, where I figured that inspiration and professionalism would have the greatest impact. Conversely, every self-confessed failure with whom I have spoken can name a specific ex-spouse, boss, lawyer, or other person to blame. This slightly undercuts that epigram: “success has many fathers while failure is an orphan.”

  104. Good post.

    There are a lot of big-L Libertarians who Take Great Offense at the idea that The People owe The Community something, and denigrate anything that The Community does. Several came here and said so.

    John gets it; you all don\’t. There\’s a difference between living in a free country and living by yourself in the woods. We all benefit from being in a modern, civilized, industrial country. That some of the government spending is wasted doesn\’t change the value of those benefits a whit.

    Further, John gets that people around you caring and helping you altruistically is a good chunk of what builds character and value in life.

    One can hope for a more freedom-enhancing country and simultaneously acknowledge those things. In rejecting them, you all failed.

  105. Fark, MeFi, I swear you’re stalking me Scalzi. Could be coincidental but there’s something vaguely sinister about you. It’s probably the facial hair.

  106. You left out the bit about taping bacon to the cat. If it weren’t for that and it’s eventual linking on every site out here I wouldn’t have known about “The Old Man’s War” and the subsequent purchases of the book and following up by buying the rest of the series along with a lot of your other books. If I hadn’t seen bacon cat, started reading Whatever and then read “Old Man’s War” I wouldn’t have recommended it to many of my friends who have now bought the entire series along with “Redshirts”.

  107. A very nice post, it says so much about what so many of us may have forgotten along the way. It’s what each of us should do, to affect the lives of other people we meet in life in a positive way. I understand that there are many that do not get helped along in life, to find out what it is that they could be successful at. There should be help for people that don’t get the chance to meet the right people that can see the potential in them. So many others live in areas that do not have anyone that could help them. For those, the only way to excel in life is to seek help from the government. To get help to get out of the poverty, to learn, to advance in life, then to teach and help others. For these people, taxes on those who are working is the only way to give them at chance.
    What takes my thoughts away from helping are the people that come out in force and demand what others have. They act as though someone owes them everything in life that usually only comes from people who have already struggled to get where they are and to have the life they are. They will do whatever it takes to get what they feel they are entitled to. They damage and break things, they gather in large numbers in small areas and create chaotic environment that does not do anything but create anger towards them. They destroy businesses that people have worked all of their lives for. They get in peoples faces and attempt to intimidate them, threaten them, on rare occasions worse happens. These are not the people I want to help.
    With all of that, our Government and some other entities know that since these people are usually young, out of work, and hungry, they can easily tempt them by promising them entitlements they feel they are owed. All they have to do is vote for them. They promise they will raise the taxes on the wealthy to pay for these entitlements. What they don’t say is what will happen when the taxes are raised. When the taxes are increased, the wealthy will only cut so much from wealth. The next thing will be higher prices on the goods and services these wealthy provide, as they do not get wealthy by sitting around doing nothing. When the prices of these goods and services rise, then everybody’s wealth is worth less. Most people do not get raises in direct relation to the economy, or tax increases, therefore the majority of people have to cut back on their expenses. In a bad economy, this has a domino effect and people get affected all they way down the line. This means that everyone makes less, some go bankrupt, some go out of business. With each person or company going bankrupt or closing down, less taxes are collected. Then government and the ones who demand the entitlements get less money. Then they feel the need to raise taxes higher and higher to keep the entitlements going. Eventually this will cause a complete collapse of the economic system (see Spain, Greece, Italy, etc). If everyone paid the exact same amount in taxes, which is not true at this time, then these kind of promises wouldn’t be made for votes. If the promises of more and more entitlements is stopped, the circle of spiraling debt and economic destruction could be broken. The only entitlements that should exist are the basic necessities of life, all else should be earned. The only exceptions to this would be for those who cannot help themselves, such as the physical and mental reasons.

  108. John,

    I find your words about your sense of wonder upon discovering the public library particularly poignant. My mother and I also struggled after my parents divorced (my father was in the picture after, but was laid off at about the same time and unable to help support us financially). She too, worked, for far too little, and times were lean. I remember very well making do with poverty food, having my free lunch card punched, patched pants, and often being told no, I could not have many of the things other kids had, as the money was not there.

    But the library was different. It was the one place this precocious and voracious reader was always told yes. Here was a place where I could get any book I wanted, and as many as I wanted, and my mother took me there as often as I wanted to go. The only rules were that I had to actually read what I borrowed, and care for them as if they were my own.

    Later, the library became a different sort of refuge, as an escape from my step-father. But it was always, always a building full of doors to other worlds and possibilities. Without it, I likely would not be the man I am today.

    Your whole article speaks to me. As a “self-made man” in the same vein as you are (though perhaps only in the krill league), I too am thankful for the opportunities my fellow humans provided me with through public education, libraries, social services, scholarships and now, my job as an educator.

    I appreciate your works of fiction and humor as a reader. I am thankful for Whatever posts such as this one as evidence of the better parts of humanity.

  109. Shorter glibertarian trolls: Civilization is too expensive. Education is a waste of money. I know this because so much money was spent on my education that I can’t read the original post.

    Even shorter glibertarian trolls: I hate taxes.

    Shortest glibertarian trolls: me! Me! ME!

  110. You echo many of my thoughts, sir. I, too, benefited from family members, teachers, and other benefactors who helped me along the way. I was drafted and used the GI bill to attend medical school after paying my own way through undergraduate education by working. Uncle Sam got a good return on his investment in the taxes I have paid.

    I have long felt that my taxes were bottom-basement repayments for the multitude of blessings from my country. As for the chronic argument about waste, we cannot stop the bucket brigade at the fire just because a lot of the water slops over the sides of the buckets. We have to meet the needs as we minimize the loss rather than quitting our contribution in order to save the contents of our own bucket.

  111. This is the most that I’ve read about your parents’ marriage, which is very little. From the bits that I’ve picked up in other posts, it sounds like a deeply unhappy time in your life, and understandably not something you would want to write about. It’s encouraging to see that your own marriage and family life is the complete opposite of unhappy.

    This post is a very important message, but unfortunately the people who need it the most will not believe it applies to them.

  112. What they don’t say is what will happen when the taxes are raised. When the taxes are increased, the wealthy will only cut so much from wealth.

    I wonder what historians will say about us that people actually believed this?

  113. This is the first article I have ever read from you (thank you fark!!) I wish more people had your attitude. The world would be a much nicer place.

    Being a sci-fi fan I am going to make it a point to find and read your novels. Thank you for a thought provoking article ( I especially liked the word eliding, I love words I need to look up!)

  114. Thank you very much for this, John. And thank you for paying it forward to another writer by composing your article about cover letters. Even if I don’t end up accepted by Tor, I’m sure the cover letter will be the one part of the proposal that goes over perfectly well with the editor.

  115. I’m reading this same sentiment in Einstein’s letters regarding society. The humanity of our collective endeavors and successes cannot be repeated or restated enough. Thank you for outlining it so clearly! Let us always remember that though our singular efforts be they courageous, prosaic, or heroic are only possible through the uplifting and nobilizing forces of the countless actions of others.

    This is to be human. (much like everyone got the typos ;-) )

  116. Your article, and all comments, should be emailed to a certain Mitt Romney, with cc to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Nothing would change, I feAR, BUT AT LEAST YOU WOULD KNOW THAT THEY HAD BEEN MADE AWARE OF THE TRUTH. Thanks for your honesty.

  117. I loved the article, it describes how I feel about government and society very eloquently. As John Donne put it in his famous Meditation 17 (yes, this comparison is a bit of a stretch and Donne’s work was written in a different world with a different message and goal) “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. ”

    I already owe a great deal to a great number of people and hope that someday I can look back as you have and at least feel like I have given back a substantial amount of what I have been given. Thanks for helping put my sentiment into words.

  118. Thank you for this post and for the fine novels you have let me read. We have, as a people, become too selfish and self-serving and need to be reminded of what you said, we are all connected and our society will not work if we don’t remember that.

  119. Self-Made. Having succeeded in life unaided… I didn’t get that impression from this, there are obviously a lot of people out there who helped/aided you along the way, you’re certainly cognizant of that. I do believe like many you took every opportunity (big or small) by the horns and made the most of it, and didn’t make excuses on the way when something went wrong. It’s an ethic that’s lacking today. Thanks for writing this, it ranks up there with “Being Poor”.

  120. On the probability that you’ll see it here, rather than on Facebook, this is what I prefaced my share with:

    John Scalzi does pay it forward. He is responsible for one of my two sole pieces of published paid work, being that he gave an interview on Old Man’s War to a nobody for publication on Strange Horizons. He remembers me when he comes to Bay Area and is a great man and a funny man and an intelligent man.

    He takes a moment to look back and pay forward.

    You are a class act John.

  121. Life without civilization is nasty, brutish, and short. Thanks for reminding us that there is purpose in being in a society with others and supporting each other. Also, I am just so pleased to see your mom writing in. How nice.

  122. And John’s Mom outclasses just about everybody in the comments as well as the original story. :)

    (Seriously. Way to go, (John’s) Mom.)

    John, I’m glad all those people had your back along the way. If you’d not gotten that far and become a science fiction writer, we never would have met, and that would have been a real shame.

    I find it particularly interesting how you found out about some of those hands-up activities after the fact — something similar happened to me. A former teacher pointed out to me just a few years ago that at the beginning of my senior year in high school, I no longer qualified for the Honors Society, because an incomplete independent study’s “I” had automatically changed into an “E” at the beginning of the year. According to her, a special meeting of the honors society committee decided they had faith that I would fix that grade, and voted to keep me in despite my technical disqualification. During my second semester of my senior year I replaced that “E” with an “A” and met their expectations without ever knowing that meeting had happened.

    By which time, of course, I had already applied for colleges and been accepted to several, of which I eventually chose Grinnell College. I have no way of knowing how much being an honors society student affected any of that, yet it still bowls me over that those teachers had such faith in me that they chose to bend the rules.

    We would not have been able to afford Grinnell without a (corporate-funded) national merit scholarship, sizable grants from the college itself, as well as both Pell and Stafford loans. Like you, I know I’m lucky to have had those types of assistance available. After college, I moved to northern Chicago and decided to visit an event hosted by the local chamber of commerce in order to get a sense of the web development scene in the area. There I met a fellow whose name I’m ashamed to say I’ve forgotten, but he connected me to a small business owner who’d been looking for a part-time web designer but decided to hire me full-time based on my wide range of skills and willingness to learn, of which his first impression was reinforced when he called my references. I’m lucky for all those connections, in that my first real job out of college paid pretty well. Between that and rooming with my boyfriend I was able to tackle my student debt right away. The day I paid off my college loans I felt a huge weight off my shoulders. I’m very concerned about the students I see today burdened by loans it may take them decades to eliminate.

  123. John, that was very well written. I tend to think that it’s written much better than most of us could write it because you’ve invested so much time on this blog and elsewhere writing, but maybe it is mostly because taxpayer money was spent on your education in your formative years to supplement the caring and instruction your mother provided. And even if such education was necessary, that doesn’t imply sufficiency. You still earned your mastery.

    (Ir)Regardless, I suspect that you’re glossing over a pretty fundamental truth here, if I understand your aim correctly. It’s unlikely controversial to say that you tend to support the D’s instead of the R’s, which probably explains your viewpoint and desire to come to the defense of POTUS, but Republicans don’t actually actively hate the poor, believe that education isn’t a public good, or that promoting the general welfare is an inappropriate aim of government.

    (I’m willing to admit the possibility I’m reading as a polemic what was merely intended as a bit of hallelujahing about “This Shining City on Hill” etc, but coming on the heels of the ‘you didn’t build that’ gaffe your post seems not at all coincidental to me.)

  124. So far, I have loved all the books from Mr. Scalzi that I have read, so I can be chalked up as a fan. I think the distinction that can be drawn from the taxation argument here is that there is a difference between people who feel an entitlement to other people’s money, and those that gain because they are self-starters. To put it out, I’m an evil conservative pagan military guy, with a civilian background in law enforcement and IT engineering. I qualify as old now too. :( As an evil conservative, I have yet to see anyone else from this branch of political philosophy that is not willing to help those that want to help themselves, and who continually strive to be better than they were the day before. Helping those sorts of folks out is a good and honorable thing to do. Seeing drive and passion in a talented person and doing what you can to help is truly one of the great gifts that one person can give to another. Conversely, demanding that you get a hand out or expecting someone else to pay for your life, and in some instances “poor life choices” is what we conservatives don’t agree with. It’s not born of hate, but rather a kind of tough love. No one, and I mean no one, wants to see people fail. The greatest tragedy of human life is someone that does not fulfill their potential. That is the greatest waste of any that can be found, as far as I’m concerned.

    Being a cop for ten years, I learned an important thing. No matter how right you are or how justified you are, no one likes to be told what to do. Even if it’s clearly in their best interest. Human nature resists mandates. Choosing to help someone because of a personal conviction give more weight and thought to the form of help offered, over blindly paying taxes to some faceless they that do god knows what with your hard earned money. Conservatives and many Christians are incredibly generous in their money, or their time or both. They like to give to causes that they feel may do the most good. Some faceless guy with a gun who demands 1/3 or more of my income does not make me feel happy with where my money goes.

    Further along this path, I find it repugnant that politicians feel that the more people that are on welfare, the more votes they get. This argument is valid and does cut both ways, since if one can say that “Corporate Welfare” is only designed to gain votes of evil corporate types, the same can be said for “Welfare Welfare” as well. This is where I have a problem with welfare as a practice; perhaps not as a concept. Mr. Scalzi speaks of instances of welfare and government assistance being there for him, and really, that’s what it’s for and that’s the spirit it should be used in. No one should be a welfare dependent. Those that are need a damn good reason for it. This isn’t to argue that those that need it should not get it, but welfare becomes a political tool to be exploited over a vulnerable population for political gain if it’s just handed out with a wink and a “Vote for me” nod. That is wrong. I feel that this is why it is so harshly condemned by conservatives and used as political leverage by liberals. In the end, it detracts from the actual real help it can bring and places those that really need it at risk. In the end, it’s my money, and I would rather spend it on what I feel is the best use of it, and not give it to someone that demands it, feels owed, or is not motivated to change their circumstances. I glady hand out money to people that work for it.

    Sorry for the long post, I like to write too.


  125. Scalzi is only rich and famous because MEN with GUNS stole my money to buy him government cheese when he was a boy. Also, earlier today, a seagull swooped down on me and stole my sandwich.

  126. This essay reminds me of a quote from Starship Troopers,

    “…I guess my “luck” has usually been people…”

  127. There was one glaring omission here. Thanks to the people who actually bought your books, many of whom (like me) may not agree with your politics but enjoy your writing. It is also good to note that many of those people you disagree with (e.g. supporters of Prop 13) also paid the taxes to make it all possible.

  128. For everyone kvetching about taxation … there’s nothing wrong with government forcing you to participate in the maintenance of the country. It’s called democracy. It’s called freedom. It’s called liberty.

    You’ve got a few choices, and no one is forcing you to a) participate, or b) stay.

    Here’s the problem – you’re not part of the majority. The founding fathers? Part of the majority (of people who lived in the country). The tea party? The majority of people rebelled. The war of 1776? Majority of the British living in the colonies rebelled … and the ones living in upper canada didn’t. Those colonies didn’t get to dictate what upper canada did. And you don’t get to dictate what the rest of the country does, simply because you disagree with taxation.

  129. Mr Scalzi, please continue to be wildly successful; you do it so gracefully.

    As for Brian et al: I am increasingly convinced that this is sort of argument is the collateral damage from a) letting people who hate Big Government so much that they want to be allowed to run one get real power, b) letting them convince people that it’s a shame and evidence that you’re no good for anything else to be a politician, especially if you’re a politician who tries to be good at it, c) letting them turn “civil servant” into an joke or and insult, and d) letting them get away with doing a global search-and-replace on the civic discourse so that every use of “citizen” becomes “taxpayer”:

    I mean, they’ll tell you that they want to limit government revenue because obviously that alone will tell/force Teh Government to “focus on the important stuff”, but honestly? All that argument does is identify the maker as a person who does not know very much at all about how governance or representative democracy actually work. I do not mean that as an insult.

    (OK, or because “it’s not fair for [us] to ‘punish the successful’ by asking them for money, but, seriously, that is the argument of a six-year-old. We’re not asking the rich to give some of their money into the public purse because we want to make them suffer, we’re asking them to do it because they’re, um, rich, an Anglo-Saxon[1] word meaning “having money in large enough quantities to be able to spare some to buy roads and hospitals and schools with[2]”.)

    I mean it honestly, seriously never seems to occur to a lot of people that you can influence or even actually change what your government pays to do by methods more targeted and effective than “well, if we let them have less money they’ll be able to do fewer stupid things, at least.” There is this whole thing called representative democracy. It’s not a sign of fundamentally poor character to study how it works, or even to get involved in it.


    If you did not need those things, then not having taken them while helping to provide them for others does not make you a chump; it makes you a fortunate person and an honest citizen.

    (It does make your post sound remarkably like me complaining about having done five [3] years of high school sports without a single jockstrap when all of the boys got them. I had to make do with a sports bra— or like someone with 20/20 vision complaining that I get myopia and astigmatism correction and don’t share it with them, on the entirely specious argument that if I gave them my glasses and they put them on they’d get a horrible headache and then fall down a flight of stairs. The Nanny State in person, that’s me…)

    If you needed them and could not get access to them, then I am extremely sorry that that happened to you, because that is awful, but that doesn’t mean that Mr Scalzi shold not have had them. It is in fact the precise reverse of an argument for getting rid of such programs: what that says is that they are good, needed things which aren’t reaching everyone who needs their help.

    If you needed them and had access to them and you decided or someone decided on your behalf that it was somehow wrong or weak to take them, then that doesn’t make you a chump, but it does make you or them someone who swallowed a great big chunk of rhetoric that was labeled “Principles Of Self-Reliance” but that turned out to be a large serving of “Avoidable Damage And Restrictions, Side Effects May Include Loss Of Irreplaceable Chances Lifelong, Do Not Swallow”.

    [1] Not really.
    [2] Also not really.
    [3] Ontario schools used to go to Grade 13.

  130. I appreciate that you tie both public investment in the common good and individual altruism to your experience- as well as the general improvement of society. I’ve used my father as an example of this. He was born into the life of a subsistence farmer, ploughing fields behind a mule in western Kentucky. Almost nothing in his life would have seemed strange to a farmer of four thousand years earlier. When he was drafted into the Army in WWII he had never seen a doctor or dentist, and had suffered from rickets.

    But, even as poor as his family was, he got to go to public schools where he had some teachers who cared. And because of the GI bill, he got to go to college. So instead of scratching out a living as a dirt poor farmer, or perhaps aspiring to work in a local factory, my father became an engineer, helped develop the first space based mapping systems, eventually became a lead designer on the Space Shuttle, and ended his career helping put up the GPS satellites. Quite an evolution in one lifetime. We made a public and social investment in him and many others of his generation, and it paid off in the development of thousands of technologies, medical advances, and a much better, safer, and healthier world. I and everyone else in my generation had even greater opportunities as a result. Like you, I feel it’s an obligation to pay this forward. Too bad so many miss the point.


  131. Reblogged this on Friendly Signal and commented:
    A great post from Scalzi talking about and thanking the many people who helped him become a successful “self-made” man.

    I’m always amazed by the people I know who, while not nearly as successful as John, insist that whatever they’ve achieved, they’ve done it on their own, when I know for a fact that it simply isn’t true.

  132. Cory Doctorow clearly likes this, John, he has a post about this essay on Boingboing, and is quite complimentary about it!

  133. Love. Wisdom. Service.

    Also, go Neil Gaiman!

    @ Jeremy

    Wow. That’s amazing, sir. Absolutely amazing. And humbling. and a little daunting and depressing. At nearly 40, I don’t have nearly that kind of list, and I’m sad that I don’t. :-/

    Everyone’s story is unique. There was a time at age twenty when I’d just finished college. I wanted to continue to grad school, but I didn’t have the money. Some college friends asked me to co-found a start-up with them, and I almost turned them down. I figured that if I couldn’t do what I wanted to with my life right away, I would find a job coding and pay off my student loans until I could find a way back to school or, given that the dot-com bubble had just burst, work retail or wait tables or some other odd but relatively unrisky job. Then it occurred to me, here was a great opportunity to work with friends doing something that was at least interesting, and I was about to throw it away because it was big and scary and a financial risk which a barely lower-middle-class childhood had taught me to avoid like the plague. So I decided my education could wait while I stated living my life. Within a year I went from being able to count on two hands (without using thumbs) the number of people in the world who would even notice if I lived or died, almost all of them relatives, to forming life-long friendships and learning that it was a great feeling to be wanted and needed.

    Very few success stories don’t owe a great debt of gratitude to others and no one succeeds in a vacuum. But rest absolutely assured that all the opportunities in the world will profit you nothing if you don’t take the initiative and go do something with them.

    @ Farley

    When a person thinks they can accomplish everything all by themselves, they’ve indeed become an island. All alone, all by themselves.

    There are those for whom it’s hard to accept that they deserve the help of others. They are categorically wrong, but overcoming self-worthlessness is more than an intellectual exercise. I guarantee it.

    @ Aaron

    I tend to remind her at these times that depression can be a chemical reaction within our brain that as an individual we have no control over. She simply responds that how we react to that chemical unbalance is still our choice.

    Wise woman.

    @ Mel Rodrigues

    Now imagine what corporations could do if employees got out of their “it’s all about me” bubble and actually considered themselves in a corporate community.

    Try giving them a stake in the company. We did, and it worked wonders.

    @ Xopher Halftongue

    This is another amazing piece. Personally I think it’s as good as “Being Poor.” It makes the point gently, without hitting the reader over the head with anything. Bravo.

    I concur. The most effective stories don’t preach, they exemplify.

    @ rocinante2

    One of the things “people like me” hate about this kind of rhetoric is that it tells us we’re chumps.

    So when someone writes, in effect, all these people and more helped me get where I am and that’s why it’s so important for me and others to do whatever we can to pay it forward and make sure more children grow up with the same opportunities, your take away is fuck you, chumps, eat ship and like it?!!

    Either you have some of the most creative reading comprehension skills I’ve ever come across, or you see what you want to see instead of what John wrote.

    @ Tm_Z

    Since you were in gifted programs, that probably means you won the genetic lottery when you were born. Not everyone has the physical ability to be as intelligent as you, which bars them from even having access to these kinds of tax programs to help the poor with education. Assuming a standard bell curve, that’s a lot of people.

    As someone who sucks royally at math and is earning a graduate degree in quantum computation, let me say that intelligence (of which there are many non-discreet measures) is much more than mere genetic predisposition. You’re absolutely correct that we each get the genetic cards we’re dealt. And as someone who has wrestled with diagnosed clinical depression and high-functioning autism, I know intimately that we don’t get to choose our brains any more than we get to choose natural athletic talent or classical beauty. We do get to play the cards our way, provided there are hands to hold us up and we are willing to accept their help. The Bell Curve isn’t just a measure of natural ability; it’s a measure of the combined outcomes of natural ability, environment and personal choice.

    @ A Meditated Live

    It’s such a rare thing for an American man to admit that he has needed and benefited from the help of others and from lucky turns of genetics or fate.

    Is it? I must gravitate toward a different sort of man than you, as I have found most of the people I consider friendship material to acknowledge those that have been there for them. In my personal experience, I’ve found the Bill Marshals of the world to be the minority.

    We have so deified the lone wolf that we consider any man who admits such to be weak and even someone who should be eliminated from the gene pool for the sake of the strength of the species.

    This idea certainly exists in many minds, though I have my doubts that it is an exclusively male conceit. But I never understood why people use the pronoun we to describe a belief they themselves adamantly don’t share. Don’t you mean they?

    Will back off the snarkapult.

    I think the weekend news left everyone’s nerves a bit raw. But it’s worth noting that blame, while appropriate, won’t fix the things that need fixing in a society that leaves young men and women alone with their despair until they come undone, and where admitting mental disabilities can lead to ostracization and unemployment.

    And that’s all I’ll say about that because it is rather off-topic.

    Finally, I’m noticing two poles emerging in some of the arguments here over government assistance. There seems to be a throw the baby out with the bathwater because you there’s no chance of ever weeding out government corruption camp and an anyone who advocates budget reform is a Randian Objectivist juvenile who hates babies and public highways camp. Happily, most commenters seem not to be sinking to the food fight level, but I thought the food fighters might benefit from knowing how some nonpartisans (or at least this one) see their arguments.

    @ Harold Combs

    It’s not what we are given, it’s what we make of it.

    Actually, it’s both.

    @ centavita

    Every one of us who has been moved, enlightened or inspired by John owes you a debt of gratitude. Thank you, Mrs. Scalzi.

    @ Jonathan Vos Post

    Conversely, every self-confessed failure with whom I have spoken can name a specific ex-spouse, boss, lawyer, or other person to blame.

    Interestingly, in the course of my life, I’ve met some people who have really a truly been screwed over and under by someone or several others, but they’re usually the most reluctant to pass the buck.

    @ Nick Mamatas & John Scalzi

    The seagull has landed.

  134. John Scalzi, thank you so, so much for finally putting a face to The Life of Julia.

  135. Wonderful piece. Like others have written here, it ranks up there with “Being Poor” and “Lowest Difficulty Setting”.

  136. Seems like this hit a bit of a sore spot in the anti-government crowd.

    Thanks for this thoughtful and insightful post.

  137. This post is so true, and it reminds me of an article written by Peter Singer in the NYT I read years ago:

    “The Nobel Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert Simon estimated that “social capital” is responsible for at least 90 percent of what people earn in wealthy societies like those of the United States or northwestern Europe. By social capital Simon meant not only natural resources but, more important, the technology and organizational skills in the community, and the presence of good government. These are the foundation on which the rich can begin their work.“On moral grounds,” Simon added, “we could argue for a flat income tax of 90 percent.””

    That being said, all the stuff you mention was just the foundation. And while you don’t need skills or intelligence to be successful (think George W. Bush),it definitely helps.

  138. Mr Scalzi, superb article, thank you.
    Gulliver: some excellent points there.
    I’m writing from over the other side of the pond, and I see a huge difference in the almost 30 years since I graduated: back then, university entrance was probably less than 20% of the leaving-school population, especially where many had left at 16 to work. The state at that time provided a safety net for those of us from poorer backgrounds (like me), paying tuition and a maintenance grant which covered my accomodation, heousekeeping, books and (some) entertainment. This was possible because university then was ‘elitist’ inasmuch as only the highest academic achievers made the grade.
    I know the system had flaws, and some very smart poor kids never got the opportunities they deserved, but it *did* get people into university who would never have had the chance.
    Cut to today, with the devalued certification culture (commented on *very* well by Charlie Stross*), where pretty much every uk kid is expected to go to university, a progressive dumbing down of secondary level examinations, the state not surprisingly cannot support maintenance schemes for the huge numbers now entering university.

    Subsequently, since graduating, I have made some poor (ok, very poor) life choices, and some superb ones, and I can *guarantee* that I did not get to the place I am now without the whole network of kind, generous people, a reasonably efficient state mechanism (education, health, employment law, etc etc etc), and sometimes a strong kick up the backside from people who gave a damn.
    Sorry, I appear to be rambling, just wanted to throw in my two ‘pennorth

  139. Thank you for this. I generally read without commenting, mostly because you don’t need my accolades. This though, well this requires both thanks and accolades. We are all in this together aren’t we. We are though failing the generations that come behind us.

  140. For a long time California spent a lot on schools, and relatively little on prisons. (The prison budget was about 1/4 of the schools budget.) After Prop 13 spending on schools declined and spending on prisons rose, so that the prison budget is now about 1.5 times the school budget.

    It’s the peoples’ choice, but I’m not sure it’s a wise one.

  141. @ WaveyDavey

    There was a wonderful Intelligence Squared US (modeled on the original UK format) debate last year about the future of education and particularly whether college was still a good investment. Both sides made a number of excellent points, but one of the things they seem to agree on was that our society would benefit from moving away from the one-size-fits-all four-year diplomas and toward more individually tailored programs. It’s well worth a watch, but be set aside a couple hours. I always start these things thinking I’ll watch just a bit and then get roped in.


  142. Thanks for this John. A much needed exposition of the issue that certainly makes its point and will just as certainly not be read by those who it would most benefit (as others have already pointed out). Point of elaboration – it may be read by that audience and it will then most assuredly be dismissed, denounced, belittled and forgotten.

    But not by me and not by most of the folks posting here.

  143. This is a great piece. As always, Mr. Scalzi, your point is well-made and it’s hard for me to find fault with simple acknowledgement of the people and circumstances which led you to where you are now. I’m sure those mentioned by name are thrilled to be so well-thanked.

    One of the things that the anti-tax crowd (of which I am a de facto part, being a libertarian) often gets wrong is in the belief that tax-supported services always have bad results. This is sometimes true, but of course it’s not always true. We can argue about most or seldom or half-and-half, but the fact is that at least some of the time, government programs do work for some people. I happen to believe things would work better for more people if there were fewer government programs, but that’s a debate for another day. This post is about what did happen, not what might have happened or what could happen.

    The one quibble I have is the (implicit in your post, but explicit by some commenters) idea that individualists believe being “self-made” requires no assistance from others. I don’t know any libertarians who actually believe this, although I readily admit that individualist rhetoric does frequently tend in that direction. As with any issue, it’s overstated on both sides. Most individualists understand that free markets require cooperative action between more than one person. Crusoe economics just isn’t all that interesting until Friday shows up.


  144. interesting ABC news article that has some small connection to this piece: the
    actor” in the Romney campaign ad “if you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that” who states incredulously “My father’s hands didn’t build this company? My hands didn’t build this company? My son’s hands aren’t building this company?” while wandering around his plant is Jack Gilchrist, owner of Gilchrist Metals in New Hampshire. The company received hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans from the US Small Business Administration and matching funds from a NH state program in the 1980s and more funding from other “non-personal”, taxpayer funded and managed programs. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/07/star-of-romney-my-hands-didnt-build-this-ad-received-millions-in-government-loans-and-contracts/

  145. John, I came from a much more financially comfortable background than you did, and, if anything, I got even more government handouts on the way to the fairly successful private-sector life I’ve got now.

    Many of those were “merit-based” awards of some sort, but one of the things that helped me the most was that I had parents, teachers and one very energetic high-school guidance counselor who were willing to sniff out those opportunities and help me navigate the bureaucracy to apply for them. If it hadn’t been for them, I guarantee I never would have jumped on my own.

    I’d like to see a world in which more kids get some of these breaks. I know so many who didn’t.

  146. John,
    Thanks for the very inspirational story. I feel, in some senses, that we’re a lot alike. I come from a poor white family in Ohio. We never actually got welfare, but only because my parents were still married. Like you, I owe most of my success (if you want to call it that) to other people. For the most part though, I owe almost everything to my decision to join the Army. The military is a bit of a microcosm society in general, so I got to experience everything in a closed environment that is closely controlled.

    Because of the Army, I have marketable skills. I am not active duty anymore, but my military career progressed into a government one. I’m currently in college. Compared to managing an intelligence section in a foreign country full of people wanting to kill you, working and going to school full time is a breeze. I maintain a 4.0.

    I am responsible for my own success. But so are many other people. I clawed my way out of poverty, but I was helped a long the way. The message I get from your piece is that success is driven by your own commitment and skill, but you can’t do anything alone.

  147. First I really enjoy the books you have written and find that you were able to get ahead despite your life is admirable. However, I think people miss the point that you got ahead despite all the popular belief that people who grow up like you shouldn’t be able to get ahead. I grew up with a very similar childhood of being poor but we did it without government assistance, i.e welfare. Yes, I went to public schools and received my education for which I now pay overly high taxes to support. My mother managed to encourage 4 children to not endure the same poverty and all of this was done without the help of a social worker, counselor, etc. We made the decision to do better for ourselves and that is what is great about the U.S. is that we could.
    My parents after working for others decided it was time to start their own business and my mom went down and got a business license. They then worked hard to build that business putting in many long hours. Not once did the government step in and say let me help you. Not once did someone else offer to help them build that business. They did it with their own hard work. The government only became involved once a year to take away some of the money they had worked so hard for all year long. Why, when they worked for the money, should they be made to feel guilty for trying to pay lower taxes?
    Too many people today sit back and wait for someone to knock on their door and give them opportunity rather than seeking it out. I sat in public school with many kids who wasted the years they had there and their parents allowed it because it was easier. The idea that one should earn something has become out dated. Growing up one earned a first, second, or third place ribbon, now everyone gets one. Where is the incentive to work harder to get the golden ring?
    The argument I make is more of disagreeing with what my taxes go to support today. I would say the majority of people feel the same way. Some people don’t want to support the military, arts, etc.
    What I take away from your story is despite everything you were provided YOU worked hard to take advantage of it. That is one thing you can not instill in people no matter how much money the government throws at programs.

  148. ZEB: re-read your quote. The bit about “the presence of good government”.

    Now look back at the United States Congress. Look at our state legislatures. Look at the balance sheets.

    We fall massively short of good. On just the financials we fall short of good by tens of trillions of dollars.

    And it’s not a matter of “hating” government, but rather realizing the nature of power – that it corrupts, that concentrating that power corrupts even more, and that the politicians you or I may support are not granted any magical exception to that principle. Left to their own devices, they go native.

    John: your site, your writing, your rules. I get that. But I don’t think I was going that far off-topic; instead I tried to focus (your word) on the “larger context” you brought up. So I have to ask – wouldn’t you be a lot happier about paying it forward to various governments if you were more sure it was having the effect that persuades you of the rightness of paying in the first place?

    It isn’t enough to hope that the taxes you pay are doing all those good things you mentioned. By way of example: sure, I -hope- that when I pay my state gas taxes that the money comes back and keeps my roads in good shape – but I also know from experience that my state gas taxes go straight into the general fund to be controlled by political bosses, and if my local legislators don’t toe the party line they are not getting so much as a spoonful of asphalt in their districts.

    Maybe you live someplace with a far stronger tradition of honest, competent and prudent government than I do, and thus are more willing to trust. Me, I’m in New York where you can’t swing a cat without hitting an indicted state legislator.

  149. Why are so many people offended by John’s essay? He obviously has worked hard to get where he is and he obviously shows great gratitude to all the people that helped him along the way. He does his part now more than any other author I can think of (The Big Idea for one example) to help others around him. If what he writes is so offensive, why read it? Probably because it makes people feel good to bring others down to their level.
    Guess i answered my own questions.
    oh well. anyway, well done John

  150. Wow. Amazing to see how many people came to this piece with their own agendas. Thanks for sharing all these details, though, John.

    My journey is far different than yours, but I count myself quite lucky. I am happily married, have two children, a successful career and great friends. Looking back over my life, I see how many people contributed to make me the person I am now and I’m thankful. Thankful to people like Mr. Frantz, the middle-school teacher who taught us more about US and world history than every other teacher I had after him combined.

    It’s always good to remind ourselves that we are part of a greater social structure, though apparently some folks think this is a bad thing.

  151. An excellent post John. My family was not poor like yours John, but we were not well-to-do. I was lucky to have great teachers throughout school, teachers who encouraged me all the way. Even as a National Merit Scholar, affording college would be difficult. I joined the Army, served in Viet Nam, and went to school at U.C. Davis on the GI Bill (although had to work part-time to make ends meet). Life has had its up and downs since – struggles with PTSD and other things – but many people have helped me on my journey through life. While not wealthy, I consider myself to be a success, as I have many friends and am able to help those who need a hand from time to time.
    Pay it forward – what a great sentiment indeed. Thanks for expressing my thoughts so well.

    By the way, public schools in the 60s in California were generally excellent.

  152. Thank you for this. It is a nice change of pace from most of what I read.

  153. Such a shame that what would otherwise have been a cool story is marred by politics from both sides (although certainly heavier from the left)

  154. OK. As long as we are giving out thanks here, I would like to thank Fark for linking me to this post. I wasn’t aware that you even had a blog and I have been voraciously consuming your work for the last month or so.

    I came across it by way of my regular “What has Will Wheaton narrated” check on audible and that led me from Earnest Cline’s unbelievably awesome book to your equally awesome work. All in all its been an exceptionally expensive but completely fantastic month of listening.

    And that leads me to my most important thank you today…thank YOU Mr. Scalzi for being there for me when I was having a rough time and needed someone to cheer me up with wonderful new stories, great big thoughts, and most of all, a lot of worthwhile laughs when I needed them most.

    I think I’ve been wanting to thank an author for the gift of their story for my entire life, but I never really considered that there would be a venue to do it before this and well, lets face it, a lot of them are too busy being dead to care much. So I’m glad I got to thank you for what you’ve written while you (and me) are still on this mortal coil.

  155. I’v purchased and read most of your novels.
    My own mentors have always been in my thoughts, I know that they made a positive difference in my life. I am going to appreciate your work even more in the future.

  156. Wonderful post which I will be sharing. In fact, it’s made me start up an essay of my own, listing all the people and all the help who got me where I am. I think it’s a good exercise for us all to go through, not only to gain a sense of who helped us, but where, exactly, we are.

    I once saw a response to, “I’m a self-made man” that summed it up very nicely in my opinion.
    –“Don’t let your mother hear you say that.” ;)

  157. Beautifully written post!

    I too feel so lucky for the support and encouragement of a public education along with the generosity of scholarships that made going to college affordable. It makes me sad to see so many of these structural supports of society eroded by a mentality where rather than try to improve systems that may have problems, there is a desire to get rid of them entirely.

    It is funny how blind many are to the public systems that support and improve their lives. Roads, water, schools, fire departments, waste disposal, sewage management, social security, medicare…

    It reminds me of a situation that happened locally a couple years ago near where I live. A fire levy did not pass in a local township and the firehouse was closed. On the local news one evening they asked one woman why she had not voted for the levy. Her answer was “The last time we passed a levy, they totally wasted the money on new trucks and a firehouse…” My guess is she thought they should just keep duck taping their old broken down trucks and show up at burning buildings with a couple buckets rather than using the money to get the proper/updated equipment.

    It is this thinking that I see in some of the odd anti-tax rants in response…

  158. John, I read this piece with rapt attention and connected on so many levels. While not experiencing the same levels of financial instability your family did, nor raised by a single Mom determined to do her best, life was certainly no picnic.
    The number of people who touch our lives, both directly and indirectly, are often hard to quantify as you have done here so eloquently. When I was getting ready to exit high school, I was working as a supermarket cashier, without college prospects because we couldn’t afford it, I was too full of idiocy to find other means to get there and my guidance counselor was more interested in the kids who were no the Ivy League track than help someone like me. Somehow I came to the attention of the Assistant Principal (most likely for creating a major ruckus about my journalism class teacher not teaching class in favor of liquid lunches and using the class as a holding pen for his football team) and he called me down to his office a few days before graduation. There was a local company looking to hire a graduating non-college bound senior to train and learn the ropes. He thought of me and presented the opportunity to interview.
    Long story short, I got the job and learned a hell of a lot about work, about myself and opportunities. Over time I used those skills to make my way to an industry I love, mentored through the years by people who have helped me learn more and grow, some active mentors and others as passive examples of behaviors to emulate or to decry.
    I’m comfortably lodged in the mid to upper levels of the middle class now and when I really think on touch points in my life I go back to that day in Tim Dey’s office. I only wish I’d gotten the chance to thank him for helping me find the beginning of a path to my future.
    What you wrote about tax dollars helping individuals through food stamps, free/reduced lunches, scholarships/grants and public education is spot on and I’m going to send this post to everyone I know in my town to read and share.
    These days I try to give back in and am a member of the local school board because education is one of the best tools I can think of to arm a child with as they move into the world today. During budget time or when new programs are introduced, the number of people that come to meetings and complain that they shouldn’t have to be burdened with paying school taxes just absolutely baffle me. The fact that these same people were educated by the public school system they resent is a testament of either a bad education in civic responsibility or just ignorance, I’m never sure which. But that refrain is echoed time and again by any number of people. What I find even more baffling is the number of senior citizens comfortably ensconced in gated communities telling the school district that since they no longer have children in school their portion of school taxes should be lowered. When I remind them of their benefit through someone else’s tax share, all I hear is that it’s still too much.
    I don’t know the answer, but oh how I wish more people understood the point you made here and I just want to thank you for making me feel just better about what I do as a board member, tax payer and human being.

  159. [Deleted because it’s responding to a deleted post. Don’t worry, Brunsworks, you didn’t do anything wrong, I just clean up threads this way. Please feel free to comment otherwise — JS]

  160. [Also deleted because a follow on to a deleted post. Folks, don’t feed the trolls — JS]

  161. Mr. Scalzi, Thank you for this post. This is one of the most heart-warming stories I’ve read in many years. May the God of your choice smile upon you and your family…

  162. And anyone, just anyone, thrust into these circumstances will experience the same success. It has absolutely nothing to do with the character and perseverence of the person. The infrastructure dictates the success. obama says so.


  164. Ron Mitchell:

    No worries.

    Dawn Voyles:

    When you comment, you should at least make an attempt to have read the entry into whose comment thread you are writing. Otherwise you run the risk of seeming tiresome.

  165. Really, really reached the mark, Mr. Scalzi, a truly great and enjoyable read. We are all a product of our environment, and the environment is very important. Thank you for writing this.

  166. A sports star who will not acknowledge the impact of and support by rest of the team on their personal success is universally (and accurately, IMO) viewed as selfish and childish. Somehow that seemed appropriate to mention.

  167. @ Dawn Voyles,
    Without the infrastructure, the success would not have been possible. That is the point. The choices made are always up to the individual. There are others out there who have wealthy families and are given everything. Theoretically should find it easy to be successful, but chose to instead waste what is given to them.

  168. This piece is timely, in view of the epidemic of myopic selfishness besetting us in the United States. Thanks for posting it. It would be wonderful if this became a trend, with a multitude of conspicuously successful people doing likewise, something like the “It gets better” project.

  169. Deb: It is irresponsible to simply accept at face value what the government says it’s going to spend on this infrastructure. The classic pattern is for officials to come to the public with a grand and wonderful “infrastructure” plan, pinky-promising us it’s going to cost X and be done in year Y.

    Once they get your buy-in and the bulldozers start rolling, you’re trapped.

    Come year Y, the project’s not even half done, the cost has ballooned to 5X or more, and several officials, legislators and contractors involved with the project are on their way to prison.

    But…it’s infrastructure and therefore so what?

    Government is not a class of high priests to be unquestioningly venerated. They’re just as capable of good and evil as any other organization – beyond a certain point (where that point is is the key point of this argument) giving them increasing power only tilts the scales away from good no matter how noble your intentions may be.

  170. This is a great story. You have proven that “self-made” shouldn’t be taken literally, and that everyone who succeeds has help. BUT…you also had many opportunities to fail, and you chose not to. You could have painted yourself as a victim, not gone on to college, not pursued your dreams, and it probably would have been considered acceptable — most kids who go to U of Chicago were probably never on welfare, never homeless. The willpower to overcome your obstacles was yours. Many folks with your background would not have had the will to succeed, help or no help. Conversely, many folks that had much more financial help — i.e. money for college and grad school, connections for a job after school, down payment on a house, etc. — and perhaps less willpower, were able to ‘succeed’ along a much easier path than you were. To me, that’s a critical point.

  171. It is irresponsible to simply accept at face value what the government says it’s going to spend on this infrastructure.

    No, but I get to vote for my government (well, actually I don’t but that’s a separate case) – I don’t get to vote for private companies who get granted monopoly power over infrastructure issues which alone makes me unhappy about it.

    Anyhoo – whether or not people think that they can trust government. It doesn’t matter. The roads, water, power grid, rail lines and all the other stuff are there to use and make us all richer, generally speaking for longer than than most people will live, which kinda puts temporary cost over runs into perspective.

    How many trillion did they estimate is now in offshore tax havens worldwide? 33 wasn’t it?

  172. To paraphrase, it’s not what happens to you but how you respond. John, and many other ‘self made’ successes have taken what has been given and ran with it. I am sure there were times where things didn’t work out too, but he didn’t let that stop him. He sounds like he opened himself to be available to the opportunities. It takes hard work to be lucky. I can tell he understands both the help he got and the work he did to get where he is today. I would hope to emulate such a man and succeed in life, not complaining about the missteps, and not being too boastful, while acknowledging those who helped.

  173. Bah. never would have happened if you weren’t playing on such an easy difficulty setting. Try again on “black gay female” and then i’ll be impressed.

  174. Of course there is government intervention. This is from the conservative Mancheseter union leader.
    In the Mitt Romney campaign web and television ads that received national attention last week, a blunt Jack Gilchrist of Gilchrist Metal Fabricating in Hudson tells President Barack Obama that he, his father and his son _ and not the government _ built his company.

    But as it turns out, Gilchrist did receive some government help for his business, albeit a long time ago.

    In 1999, Gilchrist Metal received $800,000 in tax-exempt revenue bonds issued by the New Hampshire Business Finance Authority “to set up a second manufacturing plant and purchase equipment to produce high definition television broadcasting equipment,” according to a New Hampshire Union Leader report at the time.

    The federal government allocates to each state a certain amount of tax-exempt bonding capacity each year for business and housing loans.

    Because the bond buyers do not pay federal taxes on the interest, the interest rate for the borrower is typically lower than that of standard bank financing.

    Last year, Gilchrist Metal also received two U.S. Navy sub-contracts totaling about $83,000 and a smaller, $5,600 Coast Guard contract in 2008, according to a government web site that tracks spending.

    The Romney camp released a web ad featuring Jack Gilchrist last Thursday after Obama had said a week earlier that “if you were successful, you didn’t get there on your own” and added, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.”

    “If you’ve got a business,” Obama said, “you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

    Romney called the comments insulting to private business people and Gilchrist, in the initial web ad, said, “My father’s hands didn’t build this company? My hands didn’t build this company? My son’s hands aren’t building this company? Did somebody else take out the loan on my father’s house to finance the equipment? Did somebody else make payroll every week or figure out where it’s coming from? President Obama, you’re killing us out here. Through hard work and a little bit of luck, we built this business. Why are you demonizing us for it?”

    The ad, and Jack Gilchrist, received national political media attention. On Friday, the Romney campaign turned the 1:40 web ad into a 30-second television ad.

    Jack Gilchrist said today his message is not “compromised” by the fact that he received the proceeds of tax-exempt bonds made possible by the federal government. He said the legal fees totaled about $12,000, wiping out any financial advantage he gained as a result of the lower interest rate.

    “It was a loser and I wish I had never done it,” he said. “I bought some equipment with it.”

    But he did not shy away from the fact that he has utilized government programs.

    He also said his company received a U.S. Small Business Administration loan totaling “somewhere south of” $500,000 in the late 1980s.

    He said his business has also received matching funds from the New England Trade Adjustment Assistance Center (NETAAC), which is federally-funded.

    Gilchrist said about 10 percent of his company’s contracts are defense-related.

  175. Great story John & thank you. I can’t say that I am surprised at how many people focused on the initial paragraphs while glossing over the first two sentences of the last paragraph.

    Success is like running a marathon. Nearly impossible to finish without help from others directing traffic, handing out water, shouting encouragement, etc but you still have to run it.

  176. In my youth I was exposed to a great deal of conservative Christian thought. I remember being so completely miffed when, at least to my mind, a person’s accomplishments were dismissed as being the workings of God in their life.

    I would get straight A’s for once and everyone went around blathering how thankful I should be to God for his assistance. Kinda ticked me off. I was the one who had busted his arse and earned the grades and thanking God for it was kind of beside the point.

    When I see Christians profess this gratitude to God today (after winning a sporting event, or an election, or whatever), I always think back to my own youthful streak of self-centered refusal to give credit to God for what I did. It was pretty horrible of me to think that I alone was responsible for what I had accomplished. This post defines why.

    Mr. Scalzi has given credit to the people and institutions who helped him when he needed helping.

    Contemporary conservative thought will probably (and judging from some of the comments, this is already the case) condemn such thinking as being antithetical to the rugged bootstrapping individualism that “really” made him what he is.

    I’m curious though how the same people that can profess this credo of rugged individualism can simultaneously evoke the name of God in assigning a purpose and reason for their success.

    Perhaps now, as it was when I was a kid, the path to our achievements are paved with the bricks of opportunity given, initiative taken, determination applied, and maybe, if you believe in such a thing, a touch of divine will gracing it all.

    I am not sure this kind of reconciliation of ideological extremity is possible in today’s political climate, but even as a person who’s mind cannot validate the existence of a god, I am willing to allow the rhetoric to shape the discourse it if will bring us all closer to accord. e.g. If you can give God the credit for what you do, perhaps there is also room for the instruments of his will here on earth?

    Sorry John, this isn’t a response to a specific troll, its more just a record of what your post made me think and the implications of some of those thoughts in what passes today as civil, but is actually polemic, debate.

  177. One of the arguments I’m hearing here in the comments is that spending money on social programs is bad because not everybody who receives federal or state assistance succeeds at the same level as Scalzi does, which makes spending money on those people a ‘waste.’ I have two thoughts about this.

    1. I strongly believe that it is the responsilbility of society to make sure the children in this country get the basic necessities of life, ie food, shelter, education, health care, no matter how those children turn out as adults.

    2. Even if you don’t believe that society owes something to its children, as I do, it seems that helping all children in poverty and making it possible for some percentage to become productive tax-paying adult citizens is better for society overall than not providing assistance and ensuring almost nobody is able to break out of poverty. You can’t just focus on the failures of programs. You needs to see the successes as well. Society depends upon its successful adults to function and I would like there to be as many of those as possible. It’s one reason I am happy to pay taxes.

    Thank you, Scalzi, for writing this and giving an example of one of the successes.

  178. A great read. Truly enjoyed it. It’s nice to humbly see oneself as part of a larger fabric of generosity and fortune.

  179. “Every man on that transport died! Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry. You see, George, you really had a wonderful life.” — Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life”

  180. Back in the bygone days of July 23, 2012 at 7:07 pm,
    John Scalzi said:

    Bill Marshall: “if there were no roads or schools people like me would rise to the top without them”

    It’s nice for you that you believe this. It’s easy to make such assertions when there is no way to test them.

    On the other hand, I’d like to see what Mr. Marshall’s skills are, and pick a different country for him to live in, starting with a small amount of cash. He might be surprised to find out how worthless his skills are in a country which doesn’t value them, and how difficult it is to rise to the top when his skills aren’t relevant to the situation.

  181. Thank you for reminding us all how many people we owe for our successes. I grew up in a pretty stable middle class household, but that just means my list is different than yours. I know I can never pay many of those people back. Many of them have already passed away. Even more of them were people whose names I never knew.

    I especially want to acknowledge one group of people – the many librarians who worked at the High Bridge branch of the New York City Public Library while I lived there. They fostered my love of reading much more than my teachers at school did. It is that group of wonderful people I have to thank for my discovery of science fiction in… it must have been third or fourth grade.

  182. Outstanding commentary. We all have traveled those same roads, but not enough of us admit it. The only thing missing from this account is the role of organized labor, which even at this late date is a valuable support for a decent life.

  183. Well-said.

    I It does seem a bit odd to claim that people who are connecting this to the ongoing political debate over taxation & government spending are reading things into the piece that aren’t there. This piece fits perfectly into that debate, whether you intended it or not.

    And if it’s used as pushback against the tide of Randian nonsense in this country, so much the better.

    Glaucon: there is a Christian saying “There but for the grace of God, go I.” I’m not a Christian, but I figure that’s the truth (substitute “circumstance” for grace of God if you will). It’s not the WHOLE truth (individual choices matter), but it’s an important part.

  184. Seeing the stuff about how getting the Hugo Nomination for Old Man’s War made a significant impact makes me feel better about having cost John his first Hugo win by not spending the money for the supporting membership to vote in the 2007 Hugos He lost to Dave Langford by one vote for best fan writer that year (for which he won in 2008).

  185. Thanks so much for putting this up here Mr. Scalzi, I myself am hoping to be a writer and am pushing through college with a degree in History. Seeing how you made it yourself is an inspiration for me to keep going.
    Again, thank you.

  186. What can I say but thanks John as well as thanks to John’s mom, whose comment made me tear up at least as quickly as John’s essay.

  187. Fantastic! Thank you for sharing!
    I too am a product of a california public education prior to Prop 13 gutting it. If only my kids were so fortunate. It’s likely that I will work until I am past 70 in order to send my kids to decent colleges.
    Thanks again for sharing your story with us.

  188. I would like to nominate John’s mom to be National Mom. Maybe World Mom.

    She encompasses the love, determination, and sacrifice that I think we all could use.

  189. Even though hard work is important to anyone’s success , luck is always an ingredient .The luck may be in the people you know, the situations in which you find yourself, or whether or not you read a situation correctly and then take advantage of it at the appropriate time. Having people who care and invest in you, be it emotionally, financially or in any other way is a bonus. My father was a clever young man with nothing but his intelligence, charm , good looks and his massive need to win, to succeed , to be a success. He succeeded. He did not ever fail to be thankful to those who had helped him in any way. He helped those he could help. He was always proud of the income tax he paid because to him it was a measure of his own success.

  190. Thank you for wielding the mallet; you’ve had some moozies on this one.

    I have to say that the nanny state screamers clearly have no comprehension of what is like to live at the sharp end. My father spent some years as a slave on the Deathrailway; not what could be regarded as fun. Taken with the tortures applied to wireless Operators to try to make them surrender the codes as an added bonus it, was not most definitely not fun.

    He lived, covered in physical and mental scars. Frankly, people posting here claiming they would get to the top without social capital and support are straightforwardly delusional…

  191. There is, perhaps, a valuable parable here, about a lesson many people could stand to learn.

    If it is true that we are each the primary actors in our own lives, that our lives go nowhere unless we choose to do things… then it is equally true that as the actors, we did not build the stage upon which we play. While we are our own actors, our full capabilities in our role are greatly boosted by others. Without them, we would be executing our play in the dark, in the dirt, without lighting, or shelter from the rain.

    But people take their world for granted. It’s just human nature. We take for granted that all the things provided to us by others are there ‘just because’ and if we’re not educated to know better, we assume that we are islands, becoming quite the little solipsists.

  192. Thanks for this. That any sensible society pays some of its funds into a communal pot and then disburses from that pot according to need rather than some bullshit measure of “deserving” is such obvious commonsense, I can’t believe we’re still arguing about it in 2012. But we are. So thank you for arguing. We mustn’t stop.

  193. “What is this talk of deserving? For we all deserve everything, all the treasures that were ever piled on the graves of dead kings; and we all deserve nothing, not one mouthful of bread in hunger.” -Odo (no, not the shapeshifter)

  194. Mr. Scalzi, thanks for writing this. In your opinion, do you believe that you have contributed anything productive to society in return for the consideration shown (and earned by your efforts)?

  195. Random thought: I really think a lot of the sticking point in the “lazy moochers” thing is that people don’t understand how poverty and childhood trauma contribute to mental illness, including depression. Of course these things don’t affect everyone exactly the same, because every situation is different, but many of those “lazy” people on assistance are instead dealing with untreated depression and other mental health issues that get in the way of them getting ahead.

    John seems to be lucky in that the childhood trauma he experienced was mitigated by having a dedicated, loving parent who kept encouraging him. Not everyone who starts out with the other disadvantages he had is so fortunate. Add in a genetic predisposition, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are generations of families who can’t seem to get themselves together and end up dependent on outside help (whether charity or taxpayer-funded services.)

    This is why it’s so critical that we at least fund services designed to help children–education, health care, food programs, etc. Yes, it would be great if their parents were able to provide for them, but that’s simply not the case for millions of kids. If we want them to become productive adults, we have to step in and play the role of that parent to try to head off the downward spiral. Basically: we can take care of them now, while their brains are still capable of healing from trauma, or we can take care of them when they’re adults, and indigent and/or committing crimes because they’re wracked with mental illness or have been self-medicating with drugs or booze.

    I can pretty much guarantee that if we insist that public services include mental health care along with other hand-up things like education and job training, that we’ll see the assistance rolls shrink over time. The number of people who genuinely want to be dependent is downright miniscule. Don’t mistake people with mental illnesses for the genuinely lazy.

  196. For those who would prefer to be part of a society where few taxes are paid, and every man (or woman) is pretty much on his own as far as infrastructure needs (roads and bridges, for example) or educational opportunities (as in libraries and schools): May I suggest Somalia, or any other equivalent third or fourth world country. Then you can really test your rugged individualism and inner strength, all on your own!

  197. I second the motion made above that this post, John, be featured in “Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, Volume 2.” Please, let there be a volume two! Throw the “difficulty setting of easy” post in as well. Whenever my attention starts to wander away from Whatever, you go and write a brilliant, solidly truthful post and rope me again into checking-in here daily. Amen to this blog post.
    Glaucon@2:31pm. I lean to the idea that our social behaviors are learned, rather than hardwired in our DNA. Most of them anyway. One of the greatest social lessons we Christians are taught (no matter whether we lean conservative, moderate, or liberal in our theology) is grattitude, thankfulness, paying it forward. I am thankful that those who surrounded me as I matured kept pounding that lesson into my heart, mind, and soul. Otherwise, likely today I would be consumed with self to the exclusion of any real concern for others. Whether a person of faith, or not as is the case with our host, we all of us are interconnected and live fuller lives in community than we would in isolation. I think John nails it on the head in this blog post. No matter our unique, life stories to date, we all should feel and express thanks to a lot of other people on this journey we call “real life.”
    My shout out of thanks today goes to my seventh-grade English Language Arts teacher, Mrs. Pennington (never knew her first name). She birthed that year (1964-1965) in me a lifelong, deep love of poetry. And I am revelling this July in again preparing to teach sophmore college British Literature. 23 of the 37 weeks in the year to come I will be teaching the great, major works of poetry written in the English language since Ango-Saxon times to the present day. Great prose works make up 12 of the remaining 14 weeks. Ya gotta save back two weeks for exams. Thank you, Mrs. Pennington. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  198. “I really think a lot of the sticking point in the “lazy moochers” thing is that people don’t understand how poverty and childhood trauma contribute to mental illness, including depression. Of course these things don’t affect everyone exactly the same, because every situation is different, but many of those “lazy” people on assistance are instead dealing with untreated depression and other mental health issues that get in the way of them getting ahead.”

    Thank you for saying what I was thinking. You can’t just outsmart depression by thinking positively any more than someone with cancer can will those rogue cells to stop dividing. Lots of those “moochers” are very, very broken. They are the ones we need to help *most*. Seems like common sense up here in Soviet Canuckistan.

  199. I am not American, so this is not an American politics comment, but I think, although John seems keen to avoid getting into the subject, that the question of taxes is relevant to the piece. Because let us assume that we agree that we want to contribute either directly or indirectly to the success of others, acknowledging what others have done for us. And let us suppose that we are not in a position where we are likely to be able to help somebody to get a job or get into college. So then, money and taxes are a way that we can do this. So with that in mind, two observations:

    1. A lot of people do actually choose to pay extra “tax”. They call it giving to charity.

    2. If your reason for not paying taxes is that you believe the government system to be corrupt rather than that you don’t believe people deserve it, then presumably you would give the same percentage to charity as they currently take in taxes if your tax rate were to go to zero? Of course doing due diligence on those charities, looking through their published accounts etc to see where the money goes and how much is spent on admin?

    Or maybe the trick is not to not pay taxes, but instead to try to address government corruption and waste. Coming slightly back to the point of the piece- this being something we can’t do on our own through hard work and slog, but it is something that only all of us together may be able to achieve. I wish we had more people in politics with less political agenda and more justice agenda, and that we could vote for individuals we believed in rather than their parties.

  200. @ ramblingminstrel

    Excellent points, and, appropriately, economically stated.

    One thing to add is that it isn’t only deliberate corruption that results in government waste. It’s also bureaucracy, the complexity of which is self-feeding unless society makes streamlining it a priority. Unfortunately for us, the political rhetoric between minarchists and maxarchists sidelines that actual need for reform.

    One of the counter-intuitive realities of the open market, known to economists, game theorists and evolutionary biologists for generations (and, more recently, evolutionary computation researchers), is that competition can optimize problem solving. This is why charities that incentivize groups to solve the problems which the charities are established to tackle can have greater long-term impact than direct aid. Direct aid serves a purpose in the hierarchy of needs, but it’s only a short-term solution. If you want to make society more equitable for more people in the long run, you’ve got to find better ways of shoring up its foundations. This is why education is probably the single biggest factor in how well a society does economically, both domestically in terms of quality of life and internationally in terms of its competitiveness abroad.

    Or, in order of efficacy:
    1) Give a man a fish.
    2) Teach a man to fish.
    3) Encourage innovative people to design better ways to fish; and teach a man that.

    There’s no fundamental reason why governments can’t leverage competition. In fact, they’re in a unique position to foster it. But doing so requires lowering the barriers to market participation to a point where it isn’t suffocating to small businesses. And it demands greater public transparency in the financial operation of government departments, and their bidding and procurement practices. I can tell you from personal experience that those processes are a black box to the public. Closed doors hide cronies.

  201. The various people who have complained about what the government spends do have a point. We pay taxes, and somebody else decides how it is spent. Sometimes the benefits are obvious, sometimes not, and sometimes we hardly realise we’re getting a benefit, we just drive along a road.

    But some things, we ought to be asking questions about. We ought to be challenging the politicians. It’;s as if we pay our child a generous allowance, and don’t care that we’re paying an alcoholic’s bar-bills, as well as keeping a roof over his head..

  202. As a long-time teacher of English in public schools, I looked at Mr. Scalzi’s essay from the viewpoint of the teacher in one of his classrooms, because I know what it is like to face bright, capable young people who are literally hungry for places to hang their passions. At the beginning of each school year, when I encounter highly-motivated and inquisitive students in my classroom, I hope to God I can be the teacher they need. I hope I introduce them to great writers and great stories. I hope they will find ways to explore the world and their own minds. If they find the keys to their own genius through the literature of the ages, then I’ll feel properly compensated.

  203. The various people who have complained about what the government spends do have a point.

    No, they really don’t. Because the piece was not ‘taxes are just right and the government spends exactly what it should’; it was a very trenchant observation about just how many other people contribute to the rise of the so-called ‘self-made man’.

    @Gulliver, the main point of the piece was how much cooperation, rather than competition, is a good thing – that people gave Scalzi fish so he could eat while they were encouraging him to learn how to fish, not that they were fighting each other in the marketplace (properly incentivized for small businesses etc etc etc) to make sure he purchased the correct How To Catch Fish methodology and discount fishing-pole package.

  204. Thank you for a great article. We must not forget the role good luck (or God’s blessings for the religious) that plays a large part in our success. That homeless person may be just an illness or accident or bad parent away from being as successful as we. “There but for the grace of God go I.” And the greatest piece of good fortune is being born in a country which is developed and rich compared to most other countries. Of the 6 billion people in the world most are born into much poorer situations that those in the developed world. And our place of birth is not something we have a lot of input into.
    True, there is waste in governement. But that is miniscule compared to most countries. That is why immigrants from poor countries complain so much less about paying taxes than us born-with-a-spoon-in-our-mouth (maybe not a silver spoon) natives.
    It has been said that Liberals want to make the U.S. more like Canada and Conservatives want to make it more like Mexico.

  205. Like other commenters, “No man is an island” floated in my head when I finished your piece. We are all ripples on a pond. I actually wish I hadn’t read the comments because it depressed me to see the experience of being human reduced to an angry conversation about taxes and government. Oh well.

  206. Thank you for reminding me of the people who’ve helped me along the way. I’m even secure enough in my alt-right politics to acknowledge and appreciate the help I received from some government programs.

    But, I have to push back against the “evil Republicans are cutting our school budgets” meme. In 1970, California’s per pupil education spending (in 1999 dollars) was $3510. By 1980, it climbed over one-third, to $4806. (FWIW, by 2000, it was $6338. Also, the rest of the country had comparable trends. Again, that’s per pupil in inflation-adjusted dollars). Source here: https://student-3k.tepper.cmu.edu/GSIADOC/WP/2009-E2.pdf. If US public education got worse from 1970-2000, lack of money is *not* the reason.

  207. John, thanks for writing this. I’m so happy that one of my favorite authors shares a similar life view.

    Has our country changed since the time you were on food stamps ? Was the US more compassionate in the past? What has changed? Why is it now always us vs them? For every encouraging story of people lifted up by the system, we hear more of lazy people exploiting the system.
    Maybe things have always been the same, and politicians/media have always exploited the issues/prejudices of them moment.

    It seems we have 2 sides:

    them (us)
    Patriots/Tea baggers
    Virtuous People/Bigots
    1% / People who made it
    (99-x)% / Wannabes who think they still have a chance to make it to the 1%
    Religious / Benighted, Selfish (compassion in their religion missing in these pple)
    Righteous Voters / voters manipulated by evil corporations
    US Corporations / Greedy,evil corps (defence, oil corps. exploiting people’s baser instincts)
    Teabagger Republicans / dumb or machiavellian?
    Moderate Republicans / dying breed?
    older, tough waspy white/ less brown / some yellow / grey / few black people,
    Engineers/Accountants/CEOs/wannabe CEOs/People with regular jobs
    People who don’t pay their share of taxes / People who hope to one day not having to pay their fair share
    People who views taxes as a waste / People viewing taxes as waste to justify not paying taxes
    Trim, small government or services / more unemployed people
    Less waste / less people being helped

    Us (them)
    x% / Regular people who don’t care about making it to the 1%
    Atheists / Religious, atheists, who cares?
    Green corporations / greedy tax-money-sapping-friend-of-the-president corporations.
    Liberals / unrealistic head in the sand people
    Liberal Democrats / either corrupted or ineffectual
    Moderate Democrats / Republicans in sheep clothing.
    younger wispy white people / more brown / some yellow / grey / mainly black people
    People with 2 or more jobs/People without jobs/People with regular or irregular jobs
    Wasteful big government / more lazy government workers
    More waste / more people being helped

    Which ‘side’ do we want to be on?

  208. @ mythago

    Gulliver, the main point of the piece was how much cooperation, rather than competition, is a good thing – that people gave Scalzi fish so he could eat while they were encouraging him to learn how to fish, not that they were fighting each other in the marketplace (properly incentivized for small businesses etc etc etc) to make sure he purchased the correct How To Catch Fish methodology and discount fishing-pole package.

    I am aware of that. The discussion had, however, developed along several tangents after 270+ comments and John had not indicated any opposition to their continuing civilly. I was replying to one of those tangents. I’m sorry if you felt my suggestions were off-topic or detracted from the original post. For my more main-topic comments, see my first reply in this thread. I consider it pertinent to promoting the general welfare to discuss ways in which society, through charity, social safety nets and personal and public service can make sure there is plenty of fish to go around, now and in the future. Government interacting symbiotically with the private sector is one of those ways, and that is why I brought it up.

    And there is a difference between fighting each other and competition. A person can compete with themselves, but few would suggest she is fighting with herself.

  209. [Another “Taxes is theft” poster deleted. For those who don’t get it yet, a “taxes is theft” argument is a sign you don’t understand taxation to any serious depth, and I’d rather not have you clutter up my site.

    Also from an esthetic point of view this particular post should have had been broken up into more than a single paragraph — JS]

  210. I can’t just up and leave this country to escape the taxes.

    The blunt libertarian: I want all the benefits that civil society gives me (roads, schools, police, fire, national defense), but I don’t want to pay for any of it. If any of you sheeple want public roads, feel free to donate to a road-building charity, just don’t make me pay for it. Oh, sure, I’ll drive on your superhighways, but deep down I know I’d walk everywhere if I had to.

    For the sociopaths who don’t want to live in civil society, there are options out there for you. Somolia is one of the closest places on earth to Libertarian/Anarchist paradise. No government to speak of. Just individuals exercising their will-to-power to take care of themselves and their own. We call them “warlords” in America, but really, what are they but John-Galt-meets-the-real-world?

    No one is forcing you to stay here. But if you do stay, you gotta pay taxes.

  211. for all the naysayers and still unconvinced Tea Party folk, please, please, please read the finely juxtoposed post by @AnonymousToday — It is dated July 23. Wow.

  212. John:

    As a father and grandfather, I, too, am here because I was born in a U.S. Army hospital. Unlike you, I decided to arrive early, at whopping 2 lbs 15 1/2 oz. !

    In 1951, being a premature baby at that weight was almost a death sentence, so the doctor told my parents that I probably wouldn’t live 3 days. However, the Doctor, some nurses and my folks decided they’d just see about that! So, with their help and a double dose of Scots-Irish stubbornness on both sides, I am still here almost 61 years later.!

    I was blessed with parents who had been through the depression and knew the hardships it imposed on them and their families. My Dad’s family moved 5 times between 1929 and 1932. They lost their home, built by my grandfather, to a neighbor who bought it out from under them in foreclosure sale.

    I have had some good times, am blessed with three wonderful children and three fantastic granddaughters, but also know that what you have can disappear in the blink of an eye, a product of experiencing two layoffs and a near foreclosure.

    Lately i have been accused of being “angry and hostile” by some because I insist on pointing out that we are all part of this situation and that we have always, as a nation, seen things as being “in this together” until now. After reading some of the posts like a few above and on other sites, several weeks ago I decided I will not be silent any longer.

    Now we have a group that reminds me of a two year old, screaming “MINE! MINE! MINE!” any time they are asked to share, especially those who have plenty. We “liberals” too often think we must be quiet and nice to make our points. It doesn’t work. So, I have insisted on pointing out the falsehoods and other things that they would just as soon not hear.

    Truly, we are all in this together, and if those who have more than enough do not realize it now, they just might realize as they run ahead of an angry mob of starving, desperate citizens. I pray this does not happen.

    Thanks for laying out, in detail, the many people in your life who saw something in you, believed in it and gave you opportunities to prove them right. WE cannot make it alone, no matter what Ayn Rand and others proposed.

    Now, maybe I can get enough OOOMPH! going to finish a novel I have played with for years! Thanks for the boost!

    Many thanks and God bless!


  213. wide: for all the naysayers and still unconvinced Tea Party folk, please, please, please read the finely juxtoposed post

    You seem to expect Tea Party folks to be reasonable or logical or some such thing they’re not. Gov Scott Walker wiped out collective bargaining for most goverment workers, but excluded police and firefighters saying he did not want to jeopardize public safety. That’s arbitrary hypocricy. Either collective bargaining is good, or it’s bad. It can’t be OK under one job title, but the world’s worst evil under another job title.

    The tea party, quite a few libertarians, and most right wingers, can be best understood not from a “what is fair for all” but rather from a “what is best for me” point of view. Which can also be summed up as “Now that I”ve gotten this far, the rest of you should get by on your own”. The other motivator consistent in most of these characters is even more simple: anything to stop Obama. As has been pointed out before, Republicans have supported various ideas and proposals and laws, right up until the point that Obama supported them. At which point, the Republicans suddenly oppose them at all costs.

    Emploring these hypocrites and obstructionists to read something and suddenly find compassion for others or discover their hypocricy and repent is quite an optimistic outlook.

  214. As a recent inductee into the ranks of John Scalzi fans, your books transmit the values you reflect in your posts very well. Proud to be in the ranks of Scalzi fans. Nice endorsement of Liz’s sentiments and thanks for serving as an exemplar.

  215. Jim: However, the Doctor, some nurses and my folks decided they’d just see about that!

    Wow, you got Gallifreyan healthcare! That’s what I call lucky!

  216. htom: stop projecting their demons onto the Tea Party

    Scalzi’s “Self Made Man” points out all the ways that he got to where he is through the help of other people, through government assistance, government welfare, government schools, government grants for college, and how that has lifted him higher than he could have gotten on his own. John Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” fairly perfectly captures the interconnectedness that we enjoy as part of a civil society.

    The Tea Party is nothing more than a political front for the Koch brothers, advocating laissez faire capitalism, and enlists scared civilians who are paranoid enough that they feel the need to carry assault rifles to political rallies. They say they want strict adherence to the constitution, but they themselves interpret the constitution the way Christians often interpret the bible, pointing to bits taken out of context trying to make the Founding Fathers sound like they agree with them but then they conveniently ignore anything and everything else in the constitution and the Founder’s own words that would disagree with them.

    Tea Party folks would try to exorcise their demons, but actual, real, live, tea party candidates include Michele Bachmann who founded the Tea Party caucus in the House. She is also a homophobe, global warming skeptic, repealed Dodd-Frank financial reform, opposed health care reform, wants to phase out social security and medicare, thinks a nuclear strike against Iran might be a good idea, is an Islamophobe, and opposes abortion even in the case of rape or incest.

    There are no demons being “projected” here. The Tea Party is being driven by Koch brother-like money to elect Michele Bachmann-like candidates into political office, and that’s all the demons one needs to see what the Tea Party is really about. The Tea Party sits at the crossroads between theocracy and plutocracy.

  217. I think we are a story telling species … We fit events to a narrative. People like John (whose work I love) fit a positive story. Some others may fit a different story to the same events. The type of story that they fit falls into a broad spectrum … Some will be thank a supernatural deity, others society, others their parent, yet others themselves

    Further, there are people who are competent, and will be successful , and others who are incompetent, and failures, and all types in etween. And all these folks will have some story to explain their lives.

    However, objectively looking at the data I don’t think necessarily the story one fits to the data is necessarily the correct story always.

  218. While I was participating in a local production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, I bought a T-shirt that says: “Tech” is what keeps the cast from performing pale and naked, on a dark, empty stage.
    I find it a useful reminder.

  219. John, do the comments here ever leave you teared up and proud of the folks who “get it”, the people who believe it’s possible to live in a better world if we could just put aside the politics and nonsense and just work together to make things better? I know that’s how I feel right now, and it ain’t gonna change. I’ve been crying a river for the past couple of hours.

    Thank you for writing this – and to the folks who understand the underlying and heartfelt message that’s directed at all the people who contributed to a life-well-lived. Thanks to them

    If anyone reading this recalls an individual who made a difference in their lives, please take a few moments and track them down – those teachers or people who made a difference to you. Spend a few moments writing them an e-mail and let them know how important they were in pointing you in the right direction and helping you succeed. Trust me – it means a lot to them. I’ve reached out to the “important” teachers in my life and they were so happy to know that they’d made a difference – teachers are so often forgotten the moment the student leaves their class. A simple message of gratitude can give meaning to a lifetime of effort on their part.

    Go. Do it, Now.


  220. Now that I know you’re nothing more than a product of other people and institutions, I don’t have to waste any of my precious free time reading the book of yours I’d purchased. Have the collective or hive that you come from written any interesting books?

  221. Greg — have you ever been to a Tea Party gathering? Not the big ones hyped in the national media, I mean the one down the street two or three blocks that’s a half-dozen of your neighbors? Seen any sign there of the Koch Brothers, their money, or interest in getting Michelle re-elected? Maybe your Tea Party is different than ours.

    This is far off topic, and I apologize for both poking up a response, and then replying. I’m out of this thread.

  222. @htom

    I have, because I used to work with a fellow who was very enthusiastic about it. They were largely stone cold rascists, and not at all concerned about hiding it. And this is in the allegedly progressive state of Massachusetts. Maybe your Tea Party is different.

  223. John:

    “Now that I know you’re nothing more than a product of other people and institutions, I don’t have to waste any of my precious free time reading the book of yours I’d purchased.”

    If your reading comprehension is so poor that this is what you got out of the entry, then it’s just as well you don’t attempt reading that book, as it would be lost on you. Pass it on to someone else.

  224. No, no, no, John is a product of the lowest difficulty setting. Read Dean Koontz if you want to read a book by a writer whose life was set at the highest difficulty setting. However, I still think you will be missing out because John is a very talented writer.

  225. @ Xopher Halftongue

    Wow, you got Gallifreyan healthcare! That’s what I call lucky!

    Am I the only one who wonders if Timelords convened a death panel after the twelfth regeneration? Maybe that’s the real reason the Doctor didn’t want them getting back into the universe. He is getting on in regenerations after all…

    @ Greg

    …opposed health care reform…

    Actually, Bachmann only explicitly opposes Obamacare. As you yourself pointed out, Republicans only became allergic to many of the President’s policy initiatives after he endorsed them. Personally, I Michele Bachmann is the sort of politician who would sell her grandmother to Voldemort if she thought it would get her votes, so I doubt anyone can really know what she actually believes in.

    @ Nick

    I’ve reached out to the “important” teachers in my life and they were so happy to know that they’d made a difference – teachers are so often forgotten the moment the student leaves their class.

    It actually kind of amazes me how easily I can recall those teachers who were mentors to me, all the way back to elementary school.

  226. I have to say that threatening to not read an author’s books AFTER you’ve purchased them rates pretty low on the Ellison Threat Scale.

    Personally, I’d put it slightly above threatening to put bacon on my cheeseburger and not charge me for it.

  227. htom: Seen any sign there of the Koch Brothers, their money

    Well, thanks to Citizen’s United, we will never see any trace of any Koch brothers money anywhere. It’s all secret transactions now.

    There are no endearing principles that are unique to the Tea Party.

    Respect the constitution? Republicans and Democrats both have some version of that principle.

    Don’t spend more than you have to? Every party will have that principle as well.

    Maximize freedom? Yep. Same thing.

    Peace? Justice? The American Way? Yep, yep, and yep again. Pretty much every party subscribes to these principles.

    There is nothing special about the Tea Party’s principles. What differentiates one party from another is how they translate those principles into specific actions. i.e. what people do, what specific policies they oppose and support, and what specific politicians they oppose and support.

    It’s where the rubber meets the road that defines where you land on the political compass. That’s why Obama’s position on the political compass has shifted dramatically from 2008 to 20012, because of his actions. His party affiliation hasn’t changed, but what he supported then and what he supports now has gone through a major shift towards authoritarian and towards the right.



  228. Reading this made me want to thank you, so I went to Amazon & bought Old Man’s War.

  229. This is easily the most beautiful essay that I have read in a long time. We are not islands, we are all in this together. Of late I find myself having to explain my liberalism/willingness to help others who cannot return the favor to an increasingly hostile audience (but not apologetically so). Why we as a nation have to put so much energy into putting others down rather than helping them up is something that I cannot fathom. Thank you for sharing your journey and for expressing your sense of gratitude toward those who have helped you along the way. Best wishes for you and those who you mentor in the future.

  230. I was a member of Mr. Steve Patterson’s final freshmen world history course… He was a smart and kind man, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciated seeing his name appear in a random article that a friend had linked me to.

  231. I guess Fairfield isn’t exactly the Bay Area, but as a near contemporary (I’m just a little younger) and a native of the same region, I was struck by the glowing review of CA public education in this and the blanket attribution of all the system’s subsequent woes to that boogey-man, Prop. 13. I also attended CA public schools from elementary school through Junior High, and I must say, my own opinion, drawn from my experience, is rather different.

    I had many teachers who were very talented and really worked wonders (especially when I recall what a difficult student I was), and a few who were less excellent, but what I think the biggest weakness of the CA public schools in the 70s and 80s was not lack of funding, but the trend of CA school districts simply wholesale buying into *whatever* current educational fad was popular at the time. I recall the terrible, terrible “whole-language” curricula that my slightly younger siblings had to use to learn to read and some of the more obtuse math curricula – calculated to defeat, rather than aid understanding.

    I’ve since been a classroom teacher in a private school with a shoe-string budget and I was grateful that the school did sway with the curricular trends, but adhered to the (excellent) CA state standards – with measurable results for the students.

  232. Err, I meant the school that I taught in did *not* sway with the curricular trends… darn gimpy typing fingers!

  233. Thank you for acknowledging those who came before that made it possible for you to achieve. It was kind of you. One point of contention; Only your name is listed as author on the books you wrote. There is a significant difference between acknowledging those who came before and giving them ownership for what you have accomplished.

  234. That was a lovely piece!
    I never knew you had Azusa, CA among your early schooling!
    That’s where I grew up! I ended up in Austin, TX by way of USAF.
    (btw, Armadillo Con started today!)
    Loved Redshirts! My book group will be meeting, soon to discuss it.
    Post by one of them: “Oh, ‘Redshirts’, you had me at the prologue!”
    -Barb Slough (aka Merbrat)

  235. Nicely done….we all owe a debt to people and should pay it forward. Whether a bridge, a school, or welfare of all kinds they were all paid for by people. Government & corporations are not people nor are they Gods to which we owe worship….nor are they the answer to many problems. Rather we are beholden to generations of people who paid their taxes and worked their tails off to allow us even the time to write. To those who believe in free speech, thankfulness & love of their fellow man then spew vile hatred toward the Tea Party, Obama, Bachmann, Walker, Spanos, Koch et al, please look in the mirror….you’ll see the essence of our countries problems.

  236. bill marshall:

    “I am self made too. but I did it DESPITE a crappy overpriced public school system full of wanna be thugs and liberal teachers. I did it without a free ride….I share every bit as much as you and help others every bit as much as you, but I am not goiing to give credit where credit is not due. There were 1000 people that were my classmates and most had more opportunity than myself, yet i rose to the top…..”

    Blegh. Bill Marshall, listen to yourself. How unpleasant! I can’t imagine how you “help others” with an attitude like that. I kind of doubt you actually do.

    Anyway, thank you, Mr. Scalzi. This is a terrific post. I’m sending it to everyone I know.

  237. Mr. Scalzi, Please don’t get me wrong here. I most certainly grok the crucial point of your essay, which is very much like what Bill Gates’ own father co-wrote years ago – a piece called “I didn’t do it myself”, if i remember correctly. I’m in perfect agreement with the long-ago acknowledged ‘we all stand on the backs of (all the accomplishments/discoveries of) all those who came before us’. I fully appreciate that loving parents (or caregivers in their absence) is the real-est real-politik. And of course the libertarian train of thought ‘i got mine now you get yours’ is just people in denial of reality sticking luck and help in their pocket and calling it their own work, of course markets work courtesy of the society via government having created the necessary infrastructure they work within, and of course the far right cannot point to a single one of these minimalist-government paradises they are always going on about, because they simply don’t exist. I get all that perfectly, ok? (Your failure to include forthright acknowledgement that you have unquestionably benefitted from enormous, ubiquitous white privilege, however, is no minor flaw deserving to be given the back of your hand, it is a grave injustice. Your essay is about what it’s about, it isn’t about everything, i get that, too, but, Sir, omiting all mention of white privelege, when the very thing one is writing about is giving conscious recognition to all the ‘invisibles’ one is helped by, does indeed speak volumes.)

    What I’m having the biggest problem with is that – and i don’t think you see this – your essay works to promote the mistaken idea that we are in bed with goodness, ethics, moral and just behavior if we are charitable or altruistic about “giving back”. People can (obviously have) come away from your essay thinking it highly ethical to acknowledge one had help getting ahead, therefore all is well if they “give back” or pay forward – there, I’ve done my righteous duty, what a good boy am I.

    But wait – isn’t it good to do justice, and bad to do injustice? Can a person who is subjecting others to injustice call himself good without lying to himself?

    Have you ever heard the line “Woe to the society that relies on charity to do the work of social justice”? Do you yourself agree that evil is quite capable of hiding itself under a cloak of goodness? Will you agree that doing a small part of justice is not doing justice – it is doing not-justice?

    Mr. Scalzi, I am not accusing you of doing the below, I’ve never heard of you before today and I’ve no idea how much you get to take from the total pool of wealth for the work you do, but IF you are taking more out of the finite pool of wealth than you are putting into it by virtue of the sacrifice of your own time and energies to doing what produces goods and provides services (nothing else but this sacrifice creates wealth), then any money you give back/pay forward was not yours by right (by justice) in the first place and you’re only returning the portion of what was always other-earned wealth – as opposed to self-earned wealth – that you choose to. This is injustice, hiding under the cloak of altruism. This is a legal thief, returning part of the other-earned loot they got hold of, and calling themselves a philanthropist. If a person gets to take more from the finite pool of wealth than his own labor contributed to it, then somebody else HAS to have got out less than their labor contributed – because the overpay has nowhere to come from but from underpay. In short, if a person is not giving back the entire amount over and above what he self-earned, he is not in bed with goodness, he is stealing – stealing another working person’s labor off them.

    A challenge (which you are, of course, perfectly free to accept or refuse): Convince me you are truly good, ethical, virtuous and just, and not a legal thief. Show me the simple math you have done that informs you you are not taking more from the finite pool of wealth than you put in by your own sacrifice to working, please.

  238. I don’t wish to be rude by posting back to back comments, but I do want to make it clear that it isn’t the case that I think you are not absolutely on the right track with your essay, Mr. Scalzi – it’s that I see great error, danger, and injustice in our species’ not driving our thinking far enough down this correct track. We’re talking about raising our own and our society’s active consciousness, or maybe better to say conscious awareness of the truly myriad ways we’ve been aided by others, about how far from their brains some people are keeping that reality, about properly balancing what we get from others with what we give, correct?

    I am the most self-ish person you’ll ever meet – in this way: I want nothing less than the happiest possible planet I can get for myself to live on, I am perfectly convinced I deserve to have that maximally happy planet. So, I work to get it – I pursue my own maximum happiness with my every nerve and every second, with all mindfire I can muster. It’s quite beyond obvious to me that the billions of people who are not me – are my environment. Every unhappy face I see is a diminishment of my own happiness, so I, 100% self-ish person that I am, actively seek to eradicate having unhappy, worried, stressed out, deprived, mistreated, hard-done-by, caught-in-crises faces on my planet. I know what everybody knows: injustice drives violence. I do not want my world being roiled and boiled and spoiled by violence pollution – so I attack the cause of it: injustice.

    Our human failure to grok and acknowledge the true depth of our interconnectedness has led us to having giga-extreme unjustness in the distribution of material wealth – which ought to tell us we have the greatest-ever chance to create the greatest-ever escalation of human happiness that has ever existed.

    That’s why I believe it is incumbent upon us to drive our thinking down this track all the way to its logical conclusion, before we can call ourselves good – or even say we are pursuing happiness instead of unhappiness – with confidence. I was trying to drive us much farther down your correct track with my Socratic-method challenge, which I should have addressed to everyone, not just you, Sir, mea culpa, apologies for my own omission.

    What I want us all to challenge ourselves to do is really this: become game to have a big ol’ fight with our own brains. I have rational proofs that some of our species’ most cherished and most ubiquitous ideas are actually egregiously self-harming, and I believe it’s well past time for us – if we humans love ourselves at all anymore – to submit before a tribunal of our own wits, the ideas in our heads that are traditional and customary, and re-examine them, re-testing them for logic and soundness of reasoning or lack thereof. I see no other way to discover whether our ideas are doing us good or serving us poorly. We take our every breath on a planet we have wired to blow to smithereenies with a keyturn, we are surely in a race between education and catastrophe. The possibility is growing that the sum total of human intelligence is going to turn out to have been as useful to us as stupidity would have been in its place.

    To this end, pursuit of maximum global happiness not kablooey goes us, I offer you and your readers more detailed exploration down this track of getting really, really real like we’ve never got before, here:



    Please note: While my explorations at those links are posted under the name Xavier Onassis (pronounced Save yer own – uh – keesters), I am not the same person who commented earlier here using that name. I only recently became aware there is another XO out there, and I imagine he will be surprised to learn of me as well. (Hopefully, very pleasantly surprised!)

    I close with my great and sincere gratitude to you, Mr. Scalzi, for the kindness of allowing me to say all this in your house.


  239. Wow. It is so rare these days for successful people to acknowledge what they owe to others. This, together with your earlier “being poor” piece, is a very moving take at “making it in America” and I wish more people had your kind of views on life and achievement. Thanks, and keep sharing these comforting messages. You totally rock.

  240. Yup, stuff like this is why I live in the “socialist” nation of Australia (we have free public healthcare! Ish). The whole thing also reminds me of the Ancient Greek concept of kharis (Latinised as charis), from which we get the English word charisma. It meant “favour”, and both included the gifts you got from the gods as well as the prayers/cultis/sacrifices you gave in return.
    I’m also reminded that “philanthropy” comes from the words “philia” (friendly love) and “anthropos” (man, where “man” was assumed to mean “person”).
    (Although I feel moved to footnote that I do agree with Stephen King that philanthropy doesn’t replace a government in the ability to provide services and infrastructure: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/04/30/stephen-king-tax-me-for-f-s-sake.html)

  241. You forgot to thank the previous generation that sacrificed so much during the war to improve our lives through their sacrifice and the future unborn generations that will have to pay the bill for all those social benefits you enjoyed during your life. Also, thank the Chinese for lending us the money and the current taxpayers for accruing the interest on the debt.

  242. From a person grown up in the fortunate (and small) region of the world:
    I live in a county with a huge tax. I’m not rich! I teach music for a living. Thou art can be describe as the human heart spilling over no matter the content, the work has never been valued much…..

    Never mind where you grow up, you owe it to your society!

    No human is standing up alone. Any hermitage is possible only thru seclusion AND visitation…..

    Anything you pay back to society is realizing your true potential! Do you value yourself, and would you pay for yourself? Then do so!

    An old statement goes: Live your life like tomorrrow is the end of the world. My addition is: if you don’t, tomorrow IS the end. If you believe in something above yourself, then judge only yourself TODAY. I you belive in nothing, reconsile yourself with nothing. This is what you belive in, in respect to yourself’; believe in that.

  243. [Deleted for “Public programs administered at the point of a gun” silliness. It’s nice for you that you have such an unsophisticated view of the world, Evin, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to spend time walking you out of the Ayn Rand corral – JS]

  244. [Deleted for bog-standard “Taxes are theft” stupidity, and the sneering unearned contempt that usually accompanies that position. Take your cue cards elsewhere, Michelle – – JS]

  245. John, nice to see that you have a depth of perception and a sense of personal history many people ::cough 2 above:: lack.

  246. This article appears now to be traveling in the sort of circles where any hint of appreciation of public services or taxes is treated like a holy water hot tub at a vampire swinger’s club, so let me save everyone time by noting that if you try to blather that sort of kindergarten-level nonsense here, I’m going to mallet it, one because the discussion will inevitably go off point to the actual discussion, and two, because none off the rest of us need to entertain the notion that you are in any way a serious thinker about these things.

    Here’s something I wrote a while back on the subject of people who equate taxes with theft:

    “I really don’t know what you do about the ‘taxes are theft’ crowd, except possibly enter a gambling pool regarding just how long after their no-tax utopia comes true that their generally white, generally entitled, generally soft and pudgy asses are turned into thin strips of Objectivist Jerky by the sort of pitiless sociopath who is actually prepped and ready to live in the world that logically follows these people’s fondest desires. Sorry, guys. I know you all thought you were going to be one of those paying a nickel for your cigarettes in Galt Gulch. That’ll be a fine last thought for you as the starving remnants of the society of takers closes in with their flensing tools.”

    That’s about all I think your position rates, guys. Don’t think I’m going to let you soapbox such inanity on the subject here. Stick with the actual discussion at hand, namely, how there is not a single ‘self-made man’ (or woman) who is in fact self made.

  247. Excellent piece, and I’m glad I started reading here a few weeks ago. I had somewhat of a similar conversation with my father a few years ago, at the peak of his conservative-and-damn-cranky-about-it period. I pointed out that:

    – At least part of his childhood family income was coming from the taxpayers of the US, as there was a World War on and his father was handling distribution of military aircraft parts for GM.

    – His education, from public grade school to public high school to university (UCLA) was paid or subsidized by the taxpayers. (Ditto my mother’s high school and UCLA. And this is the Eisenhower era we’re talking about, when the UC system was almost free to the qualified student aside from one’s living expenses and books.)

    – My mother probably never would have made it to UCLA (where they met) had the State of California and Los Angeles County not borne most of the costs of her year-long treatment and rehab for polio in her junior-senior years of high school.

    My childhood family income came entirely from his (and in earlier years, Mom’s) work in the US space program, for direct government contractors, and this was his source of income for his entire working life.

    – When I took California’s option to bail out of high school after tenth grade and begin attending the local community college, the direct school costs to my parents went from several thousand dollars per year (private school and not worth what they paid) to $100 a year, plus books. The State picked up the rest.

    – My own university education (many years later, after a stint in the Air Force and almost a decade of other work) was partially paid for by the Montgomery GI Bill. (Wasn’t much, but it helped – and I’m damned glad we’ve given the modern veterans a far better deal.)

    None of this, in my case, his or Mom’s, was theft or waste of the taxpayers’ money. Nor was it dependency. And I think he got the message.

    Someone (I think it might have been John’s pal Josh Marshall) noted recently the odd rise in polls showing a high approval for socialism among younger voters – and speculating that the primary reason was two decades of the Right redefining the sorts of things I enumerated above, the things that were commonplace in their fondly-recalled 1950s, as “socialism.”

  248. I just HAD to read another one of your offerings…and now here I am once again in a quandary.

    Perhaps to avoid any chance of improper conduct the best thing to do is to simply quote you.

    “Stick with the actual discussion at hand, namely, how there is not a single ‘self-made man’ (or woman) who is in fact self made.”

    I’m assuming we agree on the meaning?

    That being said, I’ll go with “No man is an island”.

  249. John, I liked your original piece, and agree people should be grateful for the help they’ve received in life. I also agree that no one is self made, or at least I haven’t met anyone like that yet. For my part, I’ve definitely needed help in life — without my mom in particular I’d probably be in a ditch somewhere, and I don’t just mean because she raised me, I mean I’ve needed her depressingly long into adulthood.

    However, just because one agrees that it’s important to help others when they need it doesn’t mean that one also has to agree that government is the best way to do it. In other words, not all people who are skeptical of government meet your “Objectivist Jerky” stereotype. You might say people like us are dreamers, but that doesn’t mean we deserve to be tarred with the same brush as those who happily crow that they don’t care.

  250. “However, just because one agrees that it’s important to help others when they need it doesn’t mean that one also has to agree that government is the best way to do it.”

    Who said it always was, or that you had to?

  251. Explicitly? No one. But I thought it was strongly implied in your original post, and especially in your later remarks about those who think that taxation is theft. Maybe I misjudged that, and if I was going off the deep end then I apologize. It’s entirely possible that I’m too accustomed to ideological discussions where each side thinks that the other isn’t just misguided, or even wrong, but must actually be eeeeeeevil. There’s actually a great book called “Us and Them” by David Berreby that explains why people are driven to approach disagreements this way rather than trying to come together to explore differences of opinion from a position of mutual respect.

  252. Steve Foerester:

    “But I thought it was strongly implied in your original post, and especially in your later remarks about those who think that taxation is theft. Maybe I misjudged that, and if I was going off the deep end then I apologize.”

    No worries. I think government has a role to play and people are free to disagree with that (or with what the appropriate role is for government) and frequently do. What I dislike are people who evince neither thought nor any evidence of sophistication about their understanding of politics. They often self-identify by spouting tired, obnoxious concepts and phrases, followed by the commenting equivalent of dropping the mic. One of the ones for the lazy libertarians is “taxes are theft!” (Other political ideologies have their own set of obnoxious cue cards.) We have a fair number of thoughtful libertarians who comment here, thankfully.

  253. Great piece by all accounts. It’s fitting that I stumbled upon this blog today after I only finished reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell yesterday where he made the similar points. This made me reflect back to my own opportunities, having emigrated here from a poor Caribbean nation, I got scholarships and federal Stafford loans to get a bachelor’s degree from a land grant university ( a HBCU), then got a full grant from NSF to pursue my Masters at another, you guessed it, land grant university. Today I gladly pay my taxes, knowing someone else paid theirs affording me the opportunity to become a contributing member of the great American experiment. God knows I didn’t have a father with enough resources from whom to borrow money in order to finance my education.

  254. Great article, John.

    I find it funny that those railing against the inefficiencies of taxes, do not raise the inheriant inefficiency in elections and democracy. In an ideal world, we’ve all live in a beneign dictatorship, doing away with considerations for personal, short-sighted and self-centred mass appeals along with misapprioprations, war, poverty, and all other inefficiencies. However, we do not live in an ideal world, and democracy gives us the chance to correct for the worst of these failings. I would still happily contribute to the ascent of civilization even if for every sucess story, such as yours, there were 99 stories of neglect or abuse.

    Even the worst public education teaches you to read and write, so you can expand your horizons and foresee a life beyond the here and now. I would suggest those that don’t approve of the pilliars of our civilization to move to, or at least visit, a third-world country, where a sizable chunk of humanity still live literally in huts of sticks or cow paddies without any rungs available on the ladder to self-fulfillment.

  255. I think that what you said made a bunch of sense.
    However, consider this, suppose you composed a catchier title?
    I mean, I don’t wish to tell you how to run your blog, however what if you added
    a post title that makes people desire more?
    I mean A Self-Made Man Looks At How He Made It |
    Whatever is kinda plain. You might peek at Yahoo’s front page and watch how they create
    article headlines to get viewers interested. You might add a related
    video or a related pic or two to grab readers excited about what you’ve written.
    In my opinion, it would make your posts a little livelier.

  256. As a former philosophy student, believer in John Rawl’s “A Theory of Justice” and the Social Contract, thank you for this. I wish more people would fully understand that many influences in their lives are random and to benefit from this without paying back into the system is not only unethical, it undermines the very system that helped them be who they are.

  257. Youtube, he’s a best selling author, I’m sure he has an idea of how to make a piece “pop.”

    This post reminded me of the “You didn’t build that” line Obama said during his last campaign. Of course it was parroted out of context over and over, but I always agreed with that point.

    I am also “self made,” I never went to college, yet managed to become a successful programmer using mostly Google. Using tutorials others took their time to make and put out there for people like me, for free, just because they were nice enough to share their knowledge.

    We’re all interdependent. If you think you never have to rely on anyone else, you’ve benefited from humankind enough to become blind to its presence. It has become background noise. In that way, I guess society succeeded for you pretty well.

    In short, fantastic as always, Mr Scalzi. I wish being born in the same place guaranteed me the same success :)

  258. Kudos to you. It is refreshing to hear from someone who has used the social safety net of welfare in the manner for which it was intended.

  259. Kudos to you. It is refreshing to hear from someone who has used the social safety net of welfare in the manner for which it was intended.

    Well, actually, I think there are a lot of recent studies showing that MOST users of the social safety net use it this way (though maybe not bouncing as high as the outliers).