I Am Not a Self-Made Man

A lot of people use New Years as a benchmark to look back on events gone by or an opportunity to set out and accomplish a new goal. I typically just view it as another day on the calendar. I am in constant reflection on events that have taken place, and I never understood why January 1st had more significance that October 10th. If there is something that you want to accomplish or change, why let the calendar dictate when you start?

Yet, as 2022 winds down, I do keep coming back to one significant event that took place this year. I was doing some genuine soul searching as I was contemplating a career change. In fact, I had accepted a teaching position that would have allowed me to get back to doing what I really love, along with some coaching and other potential leadership opportunities. I was torn up inside because I didn’t necessarily want to leave where I was, running an adult school for people who want to earn their high school diploma, but this was my chance to get back to doing what really made me feel alive.

I had my farewell speech typed up to deliver to my staff at school. I sensed that my departure would be devastating, and I knew if I didn’t have things written down that I would likely become emotional and get off topic. I wanted the focus to be about their futures, not mine. However, as I was mentally preparing to drop this unsuspected bomb on my staff in less than 24 hours, my bosses at Goodwill abruptly decided that they couldn’t let me leave the organization. We had some quick, direct but intense conversations about what it would take to get me to stay, and just like that I found myself stuck between two great opportunities.

This was the first time that I had been in this position. I had to stop and think whether it was best to follow my head or my heart. I didn’t want to make this decision on my own, like I do almost always, so I called my wife on the phone to let her know what was going on. Typically she is a person of very few words. She is such a great partner because she has undying faith in me and supports whatever I feel is best. She laid out good arguments on both sides, but she ultimately said that the choice was mine to make and that she would support me either way. However, she also added one other thing that has profoundly changed my self identity. Somewhere in the conversation she told me that she was extremely proud of me because I was a self-made man. She said that she was proud because I had done all of this on my own, that I had become a great leader, and that either place would be lucky to have me. The opportunities coming my way were because of my hard work, and that whatever I did she knew I would do it well and with her blessing.

Coming from my wife, those words resonated with me more than anyone else in this world. She’s not one to say much about anything, so what she said boosted my confidence more than she could ever know. She isn’t one to dish out compliments, so this was unexpected, and the impact was likely unintended. Ultimately, I ended up staying where I am now. The resignation speech I had all typed up went into the shredder, and the next day at the office was business as usual without anyone suspecting anything. However, I couldn’t and can’t shake what my wife said to me. Was I really self-made? What does that even mean? And how did I get there?

At first, I took her words as an indication that I had made all of this happen through my own actions and will. That’s the obvious way to look at things, and that is probably the way she intended it to be. A simple compliment to tell me that I had her support and that she trusted whatever decision that I made because I would work hard to make the best out of whatever I chose. However, as I have continued to dwell on the connotation of ‘self-made’, I started to feel like that wasn’t true at all. To me, ‘self-made’ implies that I didn’t have support along the way, or that I somehow reversed a trend from others around me. Nothing could be further from the truth; so while I know the intention of her words, I feel obligated to share how I am not really self-made but more of a product from a line of self-made people.

I recently wrote about my grandpa and the importance of family on Christmas. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately because that is where the self-made journey began. All of my grandparents were born in the United States as first generation Americans from Italian immigrants. They saw first-hand what it meant to be self-made, living under the same roof as parents who didn’t speak the language and worked hours and hours to have a better life than the one they had left behind. On my father’s side, I never got to meet my grandmother as she died when my dad was just seven years old. His father was a Navy man, and his hard work and dedication saw him lead missions to the South Pole as an officer. When he left the Navy, he became postmaster for a large post office. He died when I was fifteen years old, but he was the one who taught me the importance of connecting with people and family. Without his family and friends, he would have had nobody to raise his two young children who had just lost their mother. He also showed that there was no excuse for not working hard. My favorite story was when he once drove an hour through the snow to get to work, only to have employees call of because they were ‘snowed in.’ His simple response was, give me your address and I be there in a little while to pick you up.

My dad was raised mainly by his Italian speaking grandparents in a coal mining community that has less than 1,500 people. Today, the town has only a few small businesses and a flashing light. The stories he shares are often hilarious to those that didn’t live through them, but objectively sad when you take them in. Yet, being raised under those circumstances without a mother didn’t stop him from becoming highly successful. My dad worked his butt off without much complaint in life. He moved an hour away to be closer to the city where there were more opportunities. Whether he did it for himself or his family, most people will never know, but he didn’t have anyone hand him a job or career in computer systems. He went out and earned it. That career had him uproot his life a couple of times with twists and turns he could not have anticipated, but he did it. He went from having a very simple and difficult childhood, to modeling work and living modestly, to now living comfortably as a reward for all of his hard work. His own father passed away when he was 39 years old, months after my dad made the difficult decision to relocate his entire family because of his career. My dad is the true self-made man, not me.

My mom’s side of the family isn’t much different. My maternal grandparents are where I learned countless lessons in humility. I really don’t know what my grandpa did for a living, but I know he worked at Shell his entire career. He was able to retire young, and he invested his money wisely. I don’t know how much money he was worth, but nobody would ever be able to guess from the outside looking in. The house they lived in had two bedrooms and one bathroom, without a shower. The shower was a waterline in the cold basement. The house itself wasn’t much bigger than a two car garage. There were no special thrills. The carpet was completely matted, the furniture was old and outdated, the air conditioning barely turned on in the scorching, humid summers, but all he would say is how grateful he was for those things. He made sure that I understood how grateful I should be for those things. He had new clothes, but he took more pride in explaining how old the clothes he was wearing were.

From the outside looking in, most people would have assumed he was poor. The town they lived in currently has 523 residents and is 697 acres. My sub-division is probably bigger and has more people. There is not even a stop light, gas station, or postal delivery. The police officer is shared between a ‘neighboring’ village. There is no school, and the only businesses are a tavern and a small grocery store. Everything else from years gone by has closed. Yet, this tiny town about an hour north of St. Louis is where I spent my happiest moments of my childhood, and learned some of my most valuable lessons.

The weekends and summers I spent with my maternal grandparents taught me to not want the frivilous things in life. I learned that the best moments in life are the ones spent with the ones you love. My grandparents would often take us out to eat or to new places miles from where they lived, but we always came back to the simple things. We laughed together, and because their house was smaller than a two car garage, there were no secrets. I learned the joy of the simple life. Growing up off a main road in the shadows of the St. Louis skyline, going to my grandparents was refreshing because I literally could ride my all over town for hours without seeing a car. My imagination was free to run wild there, and it’s where I learned there are places where the stars are truly countless in the sky. I am so appreciative of that perspective.

My mom grew up there. She shared a room with her sister her entire life. My grandpa wouldn’t settle for people not working hard for the things they wanted in life, but he made sure to instill that material objects were not the goal in life. In a town without a school, there were no opportunities for young kids trying to make it in the world. When my mom and aunt wanted to go into nursing school, that meant going out on their own to the city. The emotional and financial support was there, but they had to make it on their own. And they did make it! My mom worked countless hours and jobs to make sure that we had what we needed. Most people think my mom is the nicest woman ever because of her constantly pleasant bedside manner, smile on her face, and happy-go-lucky attitude towards most things in life. However, I have not met a tougher person that can give it to you straight when needed. She learned all that through her self-made process.

My mom and dad lived together north of St. Louis for a while in an apartment before moving just east into their first house. That house had three bedrooms and one bathroom. Eventually there were five of us that lived there, but I don’t ever remember complaining or asking to move to a bigger house. I don’t remember my mom’s work schedule, but as a nurse I know it changed from time to time. My brothers and I had after-school babysitters when we were little, and spent time alone when we got older. Meals were often served from a crockpot because my mom was either at work or going to work.

They sent us to Catholic schools, so it may have seemed like we were privileged, but not based on where my parents had come from. However, we grew up with more luxuries than they did. As a parent, that is your goal for your children. You want them to have a better life than you did. You want them to benefit from your hard work, but you want them to understand the value of that work. I don’t know how they did it, but my family managed to strike that balance perfectly.

So, now that I am approaching my 46th birthday and reflecting on my wife’s comments about being self-made, I realize that I am anything but self-made. Getting to where I am now in life was something that has been in the works over the last couple of generations. I am just following the examples of my family before me. I am honoring them by working hard without complaint. I went and visited them at the cemetary to thank them. They have instilled in me the value of seeking more without wanting more.

I shake my head when I see people flying all over on family vacations, complaining about this or that. Pictures depicting the weather to make others back home jealous, or scenery not found outside your window. I can almost hear both my grandpas’ comments about those people and modern society. They would both likely scoff at the money spent and the entitlement that the kids were learning, while suggesting that family time was valuable regardless of where you spent it. Learning to live without made you tougher, and somehow better.

I know what my wife meant when she said I am self-made. It is the greatest compliment she has ever given me in the 27 years we have known each other. I am the first person in my immediate family to go into the field of education. I didn’t have any family or close friends that helped my advancement or ‘hooked me up’ with a job in a school or district that I desired. I have spent the last twenty years living hours away from my parents, thirty years from my childhood friends, and ten without any family at all around me.

I do get lonely quite a bit. I wish I had family around to lean on or hang out with. However, those things just bring me closer to my own wife and kids. They make me dig in even deeper to show my kids how to do things and get ahead on your own in life. You have to constantly stretch your comfort zone if you’re going to get ahead in life. My parents moved away from home to live the life they wanted. Nobody in their families worked in the fields they got into. Hard work was modeled for them, and they have passed that down to me.

I am not a ‘self-made’ man. Rather, I am made from the example set forth to me by those that came before me. I couldn’t be where I am today without the constant support of my family, along with the examples that you never get where you want in life by sitting still. I value hard work without complaint, and when called upon I will rise up and step out of my comfort zone when needed. I want more in life, without wanting more things. I am content to let others have the fancy items and vacations because I am richer within and seek the family time that comes without perks. I am forever grateful for their example, and I will spend the rest of my life honoring and passing down the lessons they have taught me.

Published by mikegallo314

I have been in education for over 20 years, and it has been an amazing and rewarding career. I grew up on the east side of St. Louis, and I'm an avid sports fan. My three biggest addictions in life are the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Blues, and University of Illinois athletics. I love listening to rock blues, and americana styled music. Throughout the years I have coached boys and girls basketball from the youth levels to the varsity level, and the last 10 years I have coached travel baseball. I have a passion for writing, and a long list of experiences and topics that I like to share my thoughts on. The best part about writing, are the conversations and thoughts that are shared as a result.

One thought on “I Am Not a Self-Made Man

  1. Mike – what beautiful piece! You brought me to tears as I read it. And I can tell you without a doubt that Aunt Margaret and Uncle Henry would be sooooo proud of you and all you have accomplished! Thank you for sharing such a wonderful reflection on the simplicity of life. May dad (Henry’s brother) had a favorite adage: “Keep it simple!” Some family lessons are definitely worth passing down through the generations.

    Liked by 1 person

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