The Seductivity of Greatness: The Superstar Effect

Madonna

JK Rowling is worth $1 billion.  The average writer makes $37,000 a year.

Oprah Winfrey is worth $3 billion.  The typical actor/performer makes $50,000 annually.

Jerry Seinfeld is worth $800 million.  If a comic makes $35,000 in a year, he’s considered successful.

Economists refer to “the superstar effect” to describe top talent accounting for a staggering proportion of revenue in an industry.  And it isn’t just the entertainment industry.  A 2006 New York Times piece claims Executives at top firms make 4-times as much as those in the middle-tier.  In an increasingly globalized world, more people have access to ‘the best,’ and, therefore, ‘the best’ are rewarded in every way, especially financially, oftentimes at the expense of the very-very-good.  One hit every two weeks is the difference between a baseball player that bats .300 and one that bats .270.  The difference in salary could be $30 million.

This winner-takes-all society is a direct result of capitalism.  Whether or not it’s ‘good’ spurs the world’s ‘greatest’ economists into heated debate, from which the only takeaway is nobody really knows anything.  Conservatives claim rewarding superstars benefits the economy, as it engenders competition that improves the overall quality of goods and services, and the money spent by the royal-class eventually trickles down to the peasant level.  Liberals counter that superstar economics eliminates the middle-class.  Without redistribution, Liberals claim, class-conflict and revolution are inevitable.

Regardless of who’s right or wrong, one thing that’s certain is we live in an intensely capitalist society.  One where greatness is idolized and falling short by even the tiniest margin renders a person irrelevant to all but those in his immediate circle.  As a result, very early on, as one chooses a vocation, one must determine not only the field to which his talents translate most directly and whether or not he’s willing to work hard-enough to reach the frontier, but also if the gamble is worth it.

And it is a gamble.  A huge gamble, especially in less meritocratic fields.  If you’re LeBron James it’s less of one.  As long as LeBron remains healthy, anybody with an iota of basketball knowledge can see he’s the best and most-gifted player on the planet.  In more subjective fields, however, the difference between stardom and starvation is the whim of one-or-two gatekeepers.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example, was rejected by 14 of 15 publishers.  If the 15th hadn’t come through, JK Rowling would be worth about a billion dollars less.

Although magnified in the most glamorous professions, luck and politics play a role in every career.  Whether a lawyer gets promoted to Partner has as much to do with how well he schmoozes and with the age and racial demographics of the current Partners as with his facility with the craft.  Darwin presented his paper on evolution a few hours before Wallace presented his.  A century later it’s referred to as Darwin’s theory.  If Darwin had never existed, the only change to science would be the name attached to evolutionary theory.

In this paper, Roger Callois calls superstars’ rewards “disguised lotteries” and a “special kind of game of chance.”  The insinuation is that even attempting to be a superstar is irrational.  Quentin Tarantino raising $50,000 to produce Reservoir Dogs was so unlikely to do anything other than bankrupt him that the risk-neutral individual would never have tried.  That the industry was able to recognize his talent and that he was given the opportunity to produce Pulp Fiction is an outlier occurrence.  For Tarantino, though, the risk paid off.

ArnoldAnd this is why a person even considers his own coup at greatness.  Everyone at that level at one point took a huge risk that paid off.  In this Grantland feature, Arnold Schwarzenegger tells the story of the luckiest moment in his life.  He was 18 and in the Austrian army.  At night he worked out for 3 hours while the others were sleeping, and he worked out for 3 more hours in the morning before the other soldiers woke up.  He sacrificed 6 hours of sleep as a member of the Austrian army because of an inextinguishable notion that he could become the world’s greatest body-builder.  This is insane.  More insane is that, one day, he broke out of the military base, hopped on a freight train to Germany, and won his first ever Junior competition.  When he got back to the Austrian military facility, his superiors called him into their office and reprimanded him.  However, after he told them he won, they engineered a plan to help him out.  They would ‘punish’ him by forcing him to exercise more.  If Arnold had not had a ridiculous vision, an inhuman ability to function without sleep, unparalleled natural talent, and supportive commanding officers, he would never have become the superstar that he became.

Callois explains, “A superstar has extraordinary natural talent augmented by an even more extraordinary perseverance and drive.”  A superstar has to be crazy enough to believe that if he works hard and risks everything the odds will bend in his favor.  The superstar is crazy enough not to see it as a risk but, rather, as destiny.  In the words of Lupe Fiasco, “If you are what you say you are, a superstar, then have no fear.”

Some people take risks and are rewarded handsomely.  “Why not me?” one might ask when regaled the unlikelihood of the pursuit.  In America, kids are told from an early age that they can do anything.  This is both true and false.  You can do anything, provided you’re willing to take on enormous risk, work harder than anyone else, and have the talent and resources to substantiate it.

What if you fall short on one of these metrics?  What if you decide on a risk-averse path?  What if you get good grades in school and go on to Med or Law or Business School?  If that’s what you did, you can still try to be the best doctor, lawyer, or CEO.  But that takes as much or more work and luck as anything else.

For those of us who realize we’re never going to be the absolute best at any one thing, we do what’s within reach.  We strive to make a comfortable income at a profession we enjoy and spend free time either with friends and family or developing hobbies.  We laugh at Seinfeld, refer to Oprah for advice, and follow along as Harry Potter searches for horcruxes.  We’re comfortable, perhaps happy, and hopefully not complacent.  We spend most of our time focusing on the details that would make our little nooks more lively.  Tuesday night dinner with a friend.  The swimming pool before work.  Finding a costume for Halloween.  Loves me, loves me not.  We occasionally wonder if we could’ve made it had we taken acting classes and gone to Hollywood, or if we had moved to Spain at 8 and focused on soccer.  The ego says there’s a chance, the brain says it wouldn’t’ve been worth the risk, no way.  Either way, we’re envious of the superstar’s income, talent, and acclaim.  At the same time, we’re removed enough to realize that glory, while seductive, isn’t pre-requisite to happiness.  It’s nice that people are willing to take those risks, and it’s too bad 99% are either not good or lucky enough.  There’s nothing more inspiring than the bright-eyed 23 year-old who dreams big.  There’s nothing more pitiful than the empty-handed 45 year-old trying to convince himself the risk was worth it.

Struggling Artist

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