If you had to choose, would you rather be rich or famous?
If you had to choose, which would you rather be?
The two words are bundled together so often we treat them as atomic, but they are not synonyms.
It seems like an easy choice to me.
But, then why do so many people prefer option two? 1
Maybe we assume that “famous” is a stepping stone.
Although, that underestimates how difficult is it to go from “poor and famous” to “rich and famous”. There are actually very few who make that transition.
And in the meantime, how crappy it must be to be recognised by everybody, but not actually have the income that they will all probably assume you have to go with the famous face?
On the other hand, going from “rich and unknown” to “rich and famous” would be much easier, if famous was your ultimate goal.
I like Bill Murray’s advice:
I always want to say to people who want to be rich and famous: “try being rich first.” See if that doesn’t cover most of it.
The downsides of being “famous but poor” are not often discussed.2 Likewise, the benefits of being “rich and unknown” are massively under-reported. By definition, I suppose. But also because social media amplifies noise just as effectively as it does signal.
Maybe we need to be more specific when we describe these two options.
How do we decide what’s actually important?
One technique, often recommended in self help books, is to think backwards from the end: What inscription do we want on our tomb stone? What do we want people to say about us in our eulogy? How do we want to be remembered?
Those are all hard questions. And coming up with answers forces us to go deeper - to look beyond our immediate skill set, job and status to our underlying values, relationships and the impact we have on others.3
That’s definitely a big improvement, but it’s not a complete answer, because it’s still relying on an external perspective. What do other people think of us?
Is it enough just to do something great. Or is it also important that we are seen?
What role does the audience play? How much does the recognition matter?
Ultimately we can’t control what other people think or say or feel. So if we rely on that as our definition of success then the outcomes are going to be more chaotic. The bigger the group of people whose opinions matter to us the harder it gets. It seems better to shrink that number as much as possible.
This becomes critical when we consider how we cope with failure. Most people are not so scared of failure, they are really scared of other people knowing about their failures. As a result we all go to great lengths to pretend we’re constantly smashing it.
It’s very easy to say we shouldn’t worry at all about what others think, and at the same time more or less impossible to actually not worry about what others think. Of course we care. It is, one of the most human things we do
However, if we can’t reconcile our own assessment of ourselves, I’m not sure that there is enough external praise that can compensate for that.
On the other hand…
The Pixar movie “Coco” has some interesting lessons about legacy.
This review from Letterboxd sums it up well:
A story about death, murder, loss, grief, ageing, dementia, living skeletons, and deadbeat dads. Y’know, a kids movie.
My theory for a long time has been that the opposite of “famous” is something like “blissfully anonymous”. But it’s a small nudge from anonymous to generally unrecognised, overlooked, and (in the Coco sense) forgotten. So that’s something to weigh up. It’s a joy to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found.4
I’m critical of those who put their names on other peoples buildings, for example. But, then I’m not sure my name is even on many of the things that I’ve helped to build at all, which … doesn’t seem ideal either.
Kevin Kelly talks about only really needing 1000 True Fans.
Perhaps the optimum balance is something like: Micro Famous, Macro Rich.
Of course, there are lots of different ways to define a “rich” life too.
We might assume it’s monetary, and that is certainly the most common measure. But it doesn’t have to be, if you have a different aspiration which doesn’t require money to unlock it, then run with that. The logic still works either way.
Not having to worry about money is great. It gives you much more time to worry about everything else. However, more money by itself doesn’t make you a better person, or solve any fundamental flaws. I’ve been fortunate to know some people who are now extremely rich before they had much money. And in just about every case having more money just made them more of what they already were before (both positive traits and negative traits are amplified). No doubt the same is true of me.
I’ve also learned that removing cash as the constraint just highlights that the thing that’s universally scarce is time. Having a big net worth might mean you can do anything. But you still can’t do everything.
The other problem is that we all quickly normalise our achievements, however big or small they are. Happiness has a half life. There is nothing so amazing that we can’t get used to it. We quickly refocus on the next level up.5
There is always another level.
The “rich or famous” question we started with is intentionally contrived and also a little bit academic.
In reality, achievement and recognition are self-reinforcing. And neither is entirely discretionary. But unpicking these elements does help us tease out our priorities.
We are all victims of our own definition of success.
If we can honestly define what’s really important to us,6 then not only are we more likely to actually get it, but also much more likely to be satisfied when we do.
In 2012, a study found that a desire for fame solely for the sake of being famous was the most popular future goal among a group of 10-12 year olds, overshadowing hopes for financial success, achievement, and a sense of community.
Note: those kids are all now adults. 😳 ↩︎
See: Reasons Not To Become Famous by Tim Ferris.
And, keep in mind, in this post Tim is describing the downsides of fame in the context of also being successful. Imagine having to deal with all of those issues without the resources he had. It’s a much more difficult equation! ↩︎
See: David Brooks, on résumé virtues vs. eulogy virtues
Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. Our education system is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is, too — the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.