Recently I was writing an article about people who experienced adversity in life and went on to become famous and successful. I’m sure you would recognize all of the names. A number of things struck me as I pondered the resource material the publisher gave me and wrote the article.
First of all, the people recognized as examples in the lists I perused represent a minute fraction of humankind, and yet they are touted as the best of the best, at least in the estimation of many admirers. Why? Many people bravely face and struggle against the adversities these few overcame and never get credit for it. Indeed, many fail and sink into poverty, depression, illness, isolation, obscurity, and death. I consider for example parents, who if they take their responsibilities seriously are some of the greatest of heroes. Or great writers of the past whose works never reached the printed page. Or soldiers who fought valiantly and yet lost the battle. So many people with good hearts, true motives, kind dispositions never show up on lists such as the ones I was researching because those with the capability to publicize them never even know they existed.
And we have these few on a numbered list who some writer thought to honor as exemplary role models. One person, someone in the tech industry near the top of the list, I have been reading about recently, and I know for a fact that he is not someone fit to emulate but rather a ruthless industrial cutthroat who slammed doors in other people’s faces so that he could get ahead. I did not include him in the article I had been commissioned to write. I wondered how many other people there are who are just as talented as the people on this list whose morals didn’t allow them to do what this person has done to get ahead, and as a result are not as rich or famous. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about integrity when you’re dirt poor, but there are many, many people that no one will ever hear of who made the right decisions – decisions that may have cost them some obvious rewards but allowed them to retain clean consciences.
When I write of these things I’m not riding some sort of moral high horse. Hell, I want to be rich and famous. If I could only take one I’d take the riches and leave the fame, as I tend to be the shy sort, but the two sort of go together in the writing game. I’m tired of scraping and struggling. I want to do some more traveling and see some of the wondrous sights I saw when I used to hitchhike from place to place. Back then if I wanted to go somewhere, even halfway around the world, I’d just get up and go, money or no money. It’s a little more complicated now, as a parent. I can’t just take off and leave the kids behind, and I can’t take them with me without financial resources.
I have often contemplated what constitutes success as a writer. Is it the number of readers you have? The amount of money you make? Or is it the words you produce? As far as amounts of readers and income, compared to many other writers, I am pretty much a failure. If you judge by the works I have produced, I am a success. Five novels, five short story collections, three novellas in a series, three memoirs, a collection of essays. They are good books. Each time I do the best work of which I am capable. As a writer, I can’t do more. As a publicist, perhaps, but not as a writer.
Back to our strange celebrity culture that idolizes characters who are often reprehensible. Popular news outlets report on their wardrobe changes, sexual proclivities, and misdeeds as if it is all important news, and the readership lets out a collective gasp when they hear of all the oddities, but who really gives a damn anyway?
Yes, some of these people in the spotlight did overcome great odds to get where they are. But you know what? Many more people around the world overcome great odds every day just to survive and keep their children alive. I was writing another article recently about the World Food Program that the United Nations implements to help starving people in crisis situations. Most of these people receiving beans and rice and vegetables to keep themselves and their children alive will never “overcome adversity” and become famous billionaires. Yet hopefully they will live and thrive in their own ways when their crises are averted.
Sometimes I read these bullshit articles about celebrities too, when I am browsing the Internet at the end of a long day. Sometimes I wish I had the kind of money they earn, but I never envy them or wish I was in their place. And I certainly don’t look to them as role models. Our consumer society rewards some people more than others because they sell more movie tickets or other products, but true heroes are all around you, in your midst. They may never make the media top ten lists, but that doesn’t in the least diminish their worth.