While I was training as a therapist the idea of ‘self’ was front and centre. We discussed it constantly in the classroom, and throughout counselling placements. In fact, I’d guess, I’ve spent hundreds of hours reading, theorising and considering the concept of identity. But, it wasn’t until the birth of my son that I really understood what it meant. Sleep deprivation, low-level pain, and flatness in both my mood and unwashed hair, all united to temporarily destroy my sense of self. But in Self-Made, Burton isn’t looking at the losing of the self, but rather the creating of it.
Which I think, we can all agree, is a much more inspiring and uplifting subject. After all, who doesn’t love the story of a good self made man or woman? A person from humble beginnings who has a vision for exactly who they want to become. And through hard work, ingenuity and some social manoeuvring, achieves it. Like in the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself.”
What’s Self-Made about?
Self-Made takes us on a tour of the men and women (but mostly men) throughout history who’ve done just that. From the original dandy, Beau Brummel, in 18th century London, to the modern day mistress of self promotion, Kim Kardashian. Overall, it’s an interesting and worthwhile read. But I found Self-Made by Burton to be weighted more towards the men of history. Where are Nell Gwynn and Josephine Baker? Personally, I feel men have received adequate air time to tell their stories. So, I confess, I skim read some chapters in search of a woman’s account. I also found Burton’s style of writing unnecessarily academic. At points it felt less like an insightful exploration of identity, and more like reading an interesting dissertation.
Nevertheless, Self-Made did get me thinking. Nowadays, through social media, we can all decide how to present ourselves. We can curate our highlights reel, in the hope of directing how others see us. There’s no need for agents, publicists or even a photographer anymore. We are all influencers in our own little domain. And the star is us.
But, who really benefits from this obsession with branding the self? Is it the cosmetic giants pedalling their dubious products across the globe?
Or perhaps the plastic surgeons, always willing to slim down a nose or plump up a lip for the right price. We can create ourselves but at what cost?
The dangers of being self made
As I finished the book, I reflected on those women who are unparalleled in self creation. I considered Kim Kardashian’s multiple plastic surgeries, and three failed marriages. Anna Delvey’s desire to join Manhattan’s elite, which saw her convicted of fraud and incarcerated for four years. And the Cambridge grifter, Caroline Calloway, who’s currently laying low and binding her own books in a bid to raise funds. It’s quite the line up.
So I say go ahead and create yourself. No doubt, it’s an enlivening feeling when the outer you is a perfect manifestation of the inner you. And genuine congratulations if you’ve successfully styled yourself into the person you were always meant to be. But if Self-Made by Burton teaches us anything, it’s that the path to self-construction frequently segues into the road of self destruction. So maybe, occasionally, shift the mirror away from your own self, and see who or what in your life would flourish with the same level of loving attention.