When I was a young, if you asked a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, they would almost certainly name a profession like doctor, teacher, or police officer. Often the response would include a more glamorous profession of the day like cowboy, astronaut, or in Canada, ice hockey player. If you ask this question of a child today, you’re likely to get the response “I want to be famous” or “I want to be rich”. This is because many of the people kids idolize today are not famous for doing anything in particular. Many celebrities are now famous simply for being famous. Not because of their skills or contributions, but because of their personalities.
“It used to be about doing something. Now it’s just about being something.”
— Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in the Iron Lady, 2011
As a society, we have become obsessed with celebrity and fame. There are more celebrity magazines than news magazines. More people vote in TV talent shows that national elections. I am not immune to this. After seeing Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek at a film premiere in Madrid, I felt it worthy enough to write about. Why, after a brush with celebrity, do we feel good enough to tell others about it, like we have accomplished something worthwhile?
Celebrities are our modern day royalty. Even the Windsors have trouble competing with them. The human race has always worshiped heroes and idols, back to the earliest days of recorded history. It is part of our nature to glorify and follow leaders, to gossip, to compare ourselves and to take great interest in the downfall of others. This fascination is nothing new, but it has become more common and more intense, enabled by a steady diet of real-time, hyped-up, paparazzi-fed celebrity news. We have witnessed the apotheosis of Britney, Kim, and Paris and now worship a new pantheon of gods.
I do not blame these individuals. Their success is a result of our celebrity obsessed culture. It is made possible by those who reward their actions by consuming reality, celebrity, and gossip TV, magazines, web sites, advertising, and product endorsements. I too am one of these consumers.
I believe that fame and wealth should be a by-product of one’s actions, not objectives in and of themselves. They should be a consequence of making an outstanding contribution to the world. In recent years, many of the top graduates in mathematics, physics, engineering, and computer science have been lured into a career of working with esoteric financial derivatives that are many degrees divorced from the real world. I think it’s a shame that many of the world’s greatest minds are now working on Wall Street teaching computers to beat other computers, rather than solving the world’s problems. No longer are the professions of doctor and lawyer the pinnacle of society. We prioritize financial work more highly as evidenced by the fact that the rewards available here far outweigh those of almost all other professions. Except for the non-profession of ‘celebrity’, which is prized the highest of all.
Celebrities enjoy disproportionate riches, power, and privilege. As a result, many people are willing to do almost anything to get into the media’s spotlight. Although I believe in the free markets, it seems to me that in many cases people are excessively rewarded for their appearance, bad behaviour, or other trivialities. Because celebrities can become famous these days for the most inane, inconsequential, or outlandish things, many people have the notion that anyone can be a star regardless of their abilities or contribution. Like winning the lottery, many people seem obsessed with this prospect, even though the odds of it happening are infinitesimally small. Instead of working on developing their skills, they delude themselves into thinking that talent isn’t really required. Have you seen the American Idol auditions?
The focus on personality continues in self-help books that promise a quick fix by changing our behaviour. It is common to promote the idea that we can ‘fake-it-till-we-make-it’ through some sort of behaviour modification. That if we somehow change how we look or act or talk that we can enjoy success. These things do not work long-term. But there is an alternative that does.
It is far more productive to focus on one’s character. Time spent on self-awareness and self-improvement to become clear on our values, our beliefs, and what we stand for has long-lasting results. It is far better to become clear on who I am and then to have my actions flow naturally from this. Living a life that is congruent with my values is the only approach with lasting effect. Trying to constantly control my actions and my image or to project a character that is not who I really am is a doomed exercise. Trying to alter who I am by changing how I act won’t work.
“It’s not about how to achieve your dreams, it’s about how to lead your life, … If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself, the dreams will come to you.”
— Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
I want to have the clearest possible vision of who I am. I want to know myself, what I believe in, and what is really important to me to the degree that I will automatically act in accordance with it, and if not, the dissonance will be so apparent that I’ll quickly correct my course. I believe that focusing on my character rather than my personality will pay the greatest dividends.
Do you know someone who worships at the altar of celebrity? How does society’s focus on personality rather than character impact your life?