Dr. Gary North: The Lure of Fame
Guest post by Dr. Gary North.
A recent article reports that most Americans don’t want to be famous. This should come as no surprise.
The article has this headline: “Americans embrace the wisdom of being ‘nobody.'” I don’t believe it. Can you imagine a parent telling his child this? “You’re a nobody, and you will always be a nobody. You should not aspire to be a somebody. You don’t have what it takes to become a somebody, so you might as well not try.” This would be a form of psychological child abuse.
Here is what the study found.
The think tank Populace has published an important new study that uses data collected by Gallup about what Americans believe constitutes “success.” The authors found that most of us believe that other people see fame as central to personal success. Among a nationally representative sample of 5,242 Americans, 92 percent said fame is part of how they think other people define success: “A person is successful if they are rich, have a high-profile career, or are well-known.”But here’s the report’s really interesting finding: Only 3 percent said that fame is how they themselves define their own personal success. Instead, 97 percent picked this definition: “A person is successful if they have followed their own interests and talents to become the best they can be at what they care about most.”
The article went on to say this: “This is not to say people don’t seek recognition for their accomplishments.”
However, as most of us come to realize as we grow up, recognition by peers for a job well done transforms into a pathology – and a source of unhappiness – when it becomes a need to be admired by thousands or millions of strangers. Most of us know intuitively what a 1996 study in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed: that “intrinsic goals” such as self-acceptance and friendship bring happiness. Meanwhile, “extrinsic goals,” such as fame, which rely on the approval of others, lead to “lower vitality and self-actualization and more physical symptoms.”
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
I want to get to the heart of the matter. Fame is a matter of imputation. Imputation is crucial for the correct understanding of economic theory — the imputation of subjective value — and it is also crucial to the understanding of history: the imputation of meaning to facts. Everyone has to impute value to the world around us. We all do this. We make value judgments. We apply (impute) a set of standards to what is going on around us. We make judgments about whether something or someone is good or bad. This is basic to human life.
This doctrine of imputation is crucial to Calvinism. The doctrine of God’s imputation of guilt or innocence is central to Calvinistic theology.
What people want is this: when they achieve something they regard as valuable, they want others to make the same assessment. It annoys them when they achieve something that they think is remarkable, yet nobody notices. I think this annoyance is legitimate. But it can become obsessive.
It is always possible that you overestimate your own talents or performance. It is also possible that people around you accurately assess your talents and performance, especially your performance, and they do not applaud, let alone give you a standing ovation.
Here is what I think everybody should strive for in his own field, whether it’s his job or his calling. His performance on the job or on the calling improves the lives of people around him. These people recognize that they are better off because of the work that a productive person has performed. In the case of a business transaction, the satisfied customer may come back again and again. This is basic to success in business. The customers have to impute high value to the performance of a supplier. That’s what competition is all about: persuading customers that your performance is better for them than the performance of your competitors. The free market does this better than any other economic system ever adopted.
If you have achieved something of value, those whose judgment you respect ought to acknowledge this. It is disappointing when those people don’t acknowledge this. But annoyance should be the limit of your displeasure. If it becomes more than annoyance, it may hamper you in continuing to perform whatever work it is that you are doing well. You should not let it get to you.
I have known two self-made men who accumulated considerable wealth. One of them I don’t know well at all. I had one discussion with him about 30 years ago. He is probably the richest man I have ever talked with, and I knew Bunker Hunt before he got involved in silver speculation. I suppose nobody on earth except the man himself knows how much he is worth. Unlike almost everybody else known for his wealth, his wealth is decentralized internationally. The only reason I know about him is that I have known one of his brokers for over 30 years. Not only does the man not seek fame, but he is also paranoid about not being known.
There are a couple of references to him on the Web. They are about 30 years old. He is an expert in a particular board game. He is also an acknowledged expert in a narrow subdivision of the investment markets. He lives in what is basically an enclave in a Latin American country. He goes in and out of that enclave in his own helicopter. I have never mentioned his name, nor will I. You would not know the name, and he would probably find out that I mentioned his name, and he would be most unhappy. He is the type of man you do not want to make unhappy.
The other man was Jack Miller, the real estate investor. He started with nothing, and he built a huge portfolio of investment homes. I don’t know how many he had, but it was probably over 200 homes. He kept buying more. He was also gifted with the ability to coin one-liners. This is my favorite one: “There will come a day when Americans will seek a man on a white horse, and there are a lot of politicians out there with brown horses and whitewash.” That assessment sounds like this year to me. But I was also impressed by this statement. He said that he had great respect for cockroaches. Here was his explanation. “They eat anything, they survive everything, and they run like hell when the lights go on.” He always said that he greatly preferred money to fame. He understood that famous people get audited by the IRS.
He once was audited by the IRS. He told the story. He sat in a corner of the room. He kept looking at the floor. His wife had a table full of papers. She knew where everything was. She knew who owned what, which was always somewhat complex. She could answer every question the IRS agent asked. When it was all over, he gave them a refund. He had no idea that he was dealing with one of the savviest real estate investors in American history. That was how Jack wanted it. He was a cockroach.
You may have heard of the group known in our era as the Inklings. The two most famous members were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Both of them became famous in their lifetimes because of their novels, and their fame spread far and wide after their deaths. Neither of them sought fame. They met weekly in a pub and read stories to each other. There were several other members.
One of them was Warnie Lewis, C.S Lewis’s younger brother. He took notes of the group’s meetings. He was a well-respected historian of French elitist culture in the late 17th century, but almost nobody knew that he was C.S. Lewis’ brother. The people who knew the name W. L. Lewis were mostly academic historians and the students who read his books because they were assigned by these historians. I knew of his books, but I had no awareness that he was Lewis’ younger brother. I only found out after he died. He did not seek fame, but he gained great respect as a historian. Yet he was an amateur historian. He did it in his spare time. That is the kind of fame that is worth gaining. It is not sought after; it is imputed. It is imputed by people whose opinions matter.
In 1944, C.S. Lewis gave an address at King’s College. The title: “The Inner Ring.” It is here. It is a superb essay. He warned young men or anybody else not to compromise their integrity for the sake of being inducted into an inner ring of any kind. It is basically an essay against entry into secret societies. He ended with this.
The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.
One reason for seeking fame if it is really within your grasp is because you are selling something, including ideas, that would not gain any attention if the same products or ideas were being marketed by somebody who did not have fame. Yet, even here, I think it is dangerous to rely on fame.
Some of you may know the name Kathy Ireland. She was famous decades ago because she was a Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl for three issues. She appeared in 13 issues. Believe it or not, I paid no attention. I was not a reader of Sports Illustrated. I do remember the first time I ever saw her. It was in a Blockbuster store in the early 1980’s. She had produced a video on exercise. She had a peculiar kind of beauty. It caught the eye. Anyway, it caught my eye. But the target market for that product was not men. The target audience was women who wanted to look more like Kathy Ireland than they could ever possibly look.
She later went into business for herself. She did not start out with products related to beauty. She did this self-consciously. She wanted to know if she could be a successful businesswoman without relying on her looks, which she knew would eventually fade. The general estimate is that she is now worth $500 million. But her looks did fade. She is, at best, only an eight today. She is 56 years old.
She has the respect of Christian women, because she is one. Here is an interview with her that appear in a Christian women’s magazine. I don’t think she is famous anymore. She is respected, and she is rich. She has been outspoken in her opposition to abortion. But because her fame does not depend on public media, the people who control public media cannot inflict negative sanctions on her.
I think she was wise in not trying to build her empire on the fame that she had received because of her good looks. I am sure that her good looks still get her entry into any male-dominated executives’ circle, but somebody who is worth $500 million could gain entry even if she looked like Quasimodo.
Anyone who pursues fame as a goal has made a mistake. I have long been in agreement with my professor of American history in graduate school, Douglass Adair. He wrote what became a famous essay, “Fame and the Founding Fathers.” I agree with the thesis of the essay. A lot of those men wanted to achieve fame, and they were not going to achieve it if they only achieved statewide fame. They needed a larger arena.
Achieving fame had been a goal of the Renaissance. Renaissance humanists wanted to achieve fame. The Christian theology of the Middle Ages warned people against such a quest. The Renaissance unleashed it.
Fame, if it comes, should be a secondary byproduct of performance. If it becomes an end in life, it will distort the judgment of anyone who has made it an end.
This article has been first published here https://www.garynorth.com/members/20096.cfm