Rich vs Famous

If you had to choose, would you rather be rich or famous?

You say you want diamonds and rings of gold.
You say you want your story to remain untold.
I say make your bloody mind up!

If you had to choose, which would you rather be?

  1. Rich, but unknown; or
  2. Famous, but actually poor.

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 data would suggest many people prefer recognition: 1

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.

Those pre-teens are all adults now.

Maybe we mistakenly assume that “famous” is a stepping stone. Although, that underestimates how difficult it is to go from “poor and famous” to “rich and famous”. There are very few examples of people who have made that transition.

And in the meantime, how frustrating it must be to be recognised by everybody, but not have the income that we all assumes goes with a famous face?

On the other hand, going from “rich but unknown” to “rich and famous” would be much easier, if famous was the ultimate goal.

I like Bill Murray’s advice: 2

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.3 Likewise, the benefits of being “rich but 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.

Let the judgments of others be the consequence of your deeds, not their purpose.

— Leo Tolstoy


How important is recognition?

A technique, often recommended in self help books, is to work backwards from the end. What inscription do we want on our tombstone? What do we want people to say about us in our eulogy? How do we want to be remembered?

Those are all hard questions that force 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.

That’s definitely an 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 if nobody else notices? What role does the audience play? How much does 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 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 only really scared of other people knowing about their failures. As a result too many of us 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.4

However, if we can’t reconcile our own assessment of ourselves, there isn’t enough external praise that can compensate for that.

The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses.

— Muhammad Ali


On the other hand…

The Pixar movie Coco has some interesting lessons about legacy.

This review from Letterboxd sums it up well: 5

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.

You can achieve much more if you don’t constantly stress about getting recognition. But, occasionally, it’s lovely.

It’s a joy to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found.

So what actually matters: the achievement or the credit?

It’s easy to assume that success comes from recognition. But knowing that something wouldn’t have happened without me is much more satisfying. I like to think of it as leaving the credit to be claimed by the people who think that’s the important thing.

In reality, achievement and recognition are self-reinforcing. And neither is entirely discretionary. But unpicking these elements does help us tease out our priorities.

Perhaps the optimum balance is something like:

Micro Famous, Macro Rich.

Level up

Of course, there are different ways to define a “rich” life too.

We usually assume it’s monetary. 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 leaves much more time to worry about everything else. However, more money by itself doesn’t make anybody 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. There is still only space for one unbounded commitment.

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.6

We are all victims of our own definition of success.

If we can honestly define what’s really important to us, then not only are we more likely to actually get it, but also much more likely to be satisfied when we do.7

There is always another level.

Don't be dyed purple.

— Marcus Aurelius

Quiet, please

There is an alternative to chasing recognition:

Be so good they can’t ignore you.8 Build a great business from a solid foundation. If you do that and still want to be famous afterwards, it will be much easier then.

Be honest about the lessons you’ve learned so far. Choose to work with people who can teach you and lift you up rather than people who expect you to already have all of the answers.

Be authentic. Don’t worry too much about fitting in - the goal is not to be the same as most people.

Be envious rather than jealous.9 But be careful: Try not to compare how you feel on the inside with the misleading representation of how others look on the outside. Always remember many of them are faking it.

Be proud, if you do eventually achieve your goals, but stay humble even then. It’s very unlikely that you achieved anything entirely on your own, so try not to get too distracted by how much credit or recognition you personally get. On the other hand, be liberal with the credit and recognition that you give to everybody who helped along the way.

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. That only unnecessarily increases the pressure you put on yourself. Remember, anybody who is really crushing it rarely needs to talk too much about that.

This approach probably won’t make you famous, but it’s a much healthier path.

  1. Why Do You Want To Be Famous? by Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific American, 4th September 2013. ↩︎

  2. The World According To Bill Murray by Jacob Stolworthy, Esquire, 21st September 2015. ↩︎

  3. Reasons Not To Become Famous by Tim Ferriss, 2nd February 2020.

    Keep in mind, in this post he is describing the downsides of fame in the context of also being wealthy. Imagine having to deal with all those issues without the resources he had. It’s a much more difficult equation. ↩︎

  4. Dr Emily Anhalt, Twitter, 4th December 2021:

    Lies we tell ourselves:
    I shouldn’t care what people think of me.
    Of course you care. We all do. It’s the most human thing there is.
    It’s actually important to consider others’ perspectives of us. Just don’t forget those perspectives are heavily influenced by their own [shit].

  5. Coco Reviews, Letterboxd↩︎

  6. The Half-life of Happiness, by Paul J Gertler, Raimundo Undurraga & Sebastian Galiani, Vox, 21st July 2015. ↩︎

  7. See: Happiness Lab by Dr Laurie Santos ↩︎

  8. In this interview with Charlie Rose, Steve Martin explains that many people who ask him for advice are looking for a shortcut, or silver bullet:

    Nobody ever takes note of it because it’s not the answer they want to hear. What they want to hear is “here’s how you get an agent” or “here’s how to write a script”. But I always say “Be so good they can’t ignore you”. If somebody is thinking “How can I be really good” people are going to come to you. It’s much easier doing it that way than going to cocktail parties.

    See also: So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, by Cal Newport. ↩︎

  9. As Homer Simpson explains to Marge and Lisa:

    Jealousy is when you’re worried someone will take what you have. Envy is wanting what someone else has.

    Homer Simpson on Jealousy and Envy, YouTube↩︎

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