When Non-Fiction is Fun Part II: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

When you were a kid, do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up? I remember thinking I wanted to be a lawyer, because I liked to read and someone told me that lawyers do a lot of reading. Later I figured out lawyers don’t spend all day reading gripping novels which dampened my enthusiasm somewhat. Anyway: in my day, people wanted to be doctors, vets (this was a big one), teachers and scientists. I remember one friend aspiring to be either a judge or a prison warden which no doubt betrays some kind of dysfunction that I’m not qualified to diagnose but I’ll do it anyway. Control freak! Megalomaniac! Actually, she was the youngest sibling so I’m guessing it was connected with having older siblings bossing her around all the time.

However, nowadays, according to numerous studies, mostly in the UK, kids aspire to celebrity. It doesn’t seem to matter what field of study will lead to celebrity; the end goal isn’t to be the best singer, actor, etc. but to achieve celebrity by any means possible. Skill and talent are not the point, it’s all about the fame. This is the actual career goal of the majority of kids out there. Of course the commonly perceived main routes to celebrity are sports, music, acting…and nothing (reality TV). Through studies and statistics and interviews, Caulfield shows how tiny the chances of success are in these fields. Not only that, but the definition of “success” is the brand-name, super-rich celebrity kind, not the kind that just makes a living, which in these fields, is difficult enough.

For example, in the music industry, according to industry experts, the chances of a musician making a stable career are .047%. That’s just a making-a-living level of success. There are many musicians and singers working in the industry, but their ability to make a living and their enjoyment of their profession are not the sort of success that people envision when they go this route. American Idol chances of fame? .036%.

Acting? Making-a-steady-living actors only make up about 8% of the acting population. The chances of becoming a “big-name studio movie actor is 1 in 1,505,000.” You have a better chance of being hit by an asteroid (1 in 700,000). This is what kills me. If you said to a fame-seeking teen, What do you think the chances are of you being struck by lightning? he’d say, “Not gonna happen!” but if you said, Your chance of being the next Tom Cruise is 1 in 1.5 million he’d say, “I’ve got a shot!”

Sports? Out of 317,000 high school football players, only 250 are drafted. And “drafted” does not mean having a lasting or successful career. In a 1999 analysis it was estimated that 30,000 kids were playing minor hockey in southern Ontario:

Of that number, 235 were drafted into the Ontario Hockey League (the minor league), but only 110 of those got to play and even fewer, 90, played for more than three years. Of course, the number for those who made it to the NHL – a step necessary in order to have a sports career that would confer “celebrity” status – was even smaller. Fifty of the 30,000 were drafted, but only 25 played a game (as it happens, even this number was unusually high – it was a good year.) If you look at the number of players who had something close to what could be called a “career” – which, in this study, meant players still in the league at age twenty-four – the number drops to just 11. Bottom line: only 11 out of 30,000 ended up with a solid NHL career. And that was in 1999. Because more professional players are now coming from countries other than Canada, it is even more difficult to break in. (p. 217)

I’d heard some of these statistics when I read Selling the Dream by Ken Campbell and Jim Parcels. I didn’t post a review of this book because the many hockey parents around us might issue a fatwa against me. Although I don’t actually think they’re reading much, they’re too tired from driving their kids round to hockey practice at 6am.

Why do people continue in their pursuit of celebrity in the face of such odds? Well, for one, people never seem to believe statistical evidence over anecdotal evidence. That’s a given. I see it all the time! Also, people – and their parents – tend to radically overestimate their own talents. When these talents are questioned, they become even more entrenched in their high rating of themselves. This is apparently an evolutionary thing that is hardwired into us, so that we take risks that will result in benefits, even when the chance of success isn’t optimal. There’s also confirmation bias, which is when you seek out information that confirms opinions you already hold, no matter how nutty they are. This is real easy nowadays with the Internet! And there is the previous investment thing that Ken Campbell mentions in the hockey book. The longer you pursue a particular goal, the more resources you put into the pursuit, the harder it is to stop, even when success isn’t likely. This explains why gamblers can’t seem to stop gambling even when they’re deep in the hole. Hockey- and to be fair, other sports-oriented-for-celebrity-goals parents are similar! Not only is there the previous investment (although it’s not an investment really) but if a parent stops the funnelling of resources into the activity, then there is the fear that the child might think the parent doesn’t believe in them anymore. And if the money stops, then maybe that will be the reason that the child doesn’t succeed. It’s a real trap.

There’s also something called “denominator neglect” in which people will ignore the many trying to break into a certain field – the denominator – and focus on the numerator – the number of people who succeed. So they’re not seeing the 30,000 trying to get into the NHL, they only see the 11 who do. And think those are pretty good odds! A parent quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press said this:

I’ll guarantee you one thing,” the hockey dad said, “If you don’t buy a lottery ticket you can’t win. That’s why if parents can afford it, they will pay. It’s an endless, hour-less [sic] debate but at the end of the day in order to keep up with the competition level, you have to train year-round…Everybody says only one player will make it out of a million. Why can’t it be yours?” (p. 235)

Except that a lottery ticket only costs a few bucks, not the $300,000 that many hockey parents sink into their kids’ training. And it’s not only the money, but all the time, energy and family resources that have gone into this ephemeral dream, and all the activities and education that the children lose out on and that could, ironically, actually furnish them with a successful and happy life. It’s devastating to think about all the kids who are spending nearly every waking moment not in school in pursuit of athletic achievement – at the expense of reading, or learning to play an instrument, or learning some other art form, or any of the immensely rewarding and enriching activities available to kids today. Or even just playing for the sake of playing. After all, these are games, and they’re supposed to be fun, not a hothouse for forcing professional athletes. I shudder to think what will happen to these kids who have been raised to believe that they will undoubtedly have a celebrity-level career in sports when they reach their own ceiling, so to speak. They have nothing else to fall back on, either professionally, because they’ve had no time to develop other marketable skills, or personally, because they also haven’t explored other pursuits that might give them a sense of joyous accomplishment.

There are other components of this phenomenon that Caulfield touches on, such as the social pressure to pursue unrealistic goals: “Never give up!” “Follow your dream!”, the role of media in promoting fame-seeking, and all the industries that exploit people’s willingness to shell out big bucks in their pursuit of celebrity. One of Caulfield’s interviewees points out that if you are have a good career in IT, people don’t say things like, “Keep at it! Don’t give up your dream!” if you’re not Steve Jobs. But they do in these celebrity fields!

Luck is also considered. Caulfield references Tom Brady, but we had an example here recently also. Alex Biega, who was drafted 9 years ago, finally got to play an NHL game with the Canucks last week. He scored the winning goal! Yay Alex. Clearly a talented player. But the reason he got his chance is because four players were injured and he got called up from the farm team to fill in. And even though he performed well, even this may not translate to a good career in the NHL. (Thanks to Justin for providing this relevant anecdote because I didn’t notice myself, not being a hockey fan.)

Success in these fields can’t be predicted. That’s another thesis point. Both the Beatles and Elvis were initially rejected by industry experts and music labels. Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hours theory really has a lot to answer for, because this idea has given people the illusion that they have some control over these endeavours. Paul McCartney points out that many bands were playing at least as much as the Beatles when they were in Hamburg, but they didn’t all become successful. Ten thousand hours is not enough, people!

There’s also a section about the actual value of celebrity. In these chapters, Caulfield considers high divorce rates, higher than average mortality rates, and the high rates of bankruptcy and financial distress amongst celebrities. The suicide rate is higher than that in the general populace as well. There is a lot of stress involved in attaining celebrity and also maintaining it because I guess being a former celebrity kind of sucks. Celebrity also seems to exacerbate psychological issues because of the stress and pressure, also the isolation and lack of privacy. God, it’s depressing.

What is the upshot of all this? Socially it’s a pretty pernicious cycle. Studies have shown an inverse relationship between the happiness levels in countries and the obsession with celebrities in those countries. When you spend a lot of time examining the lives of the rich and famous, your own life doesn’t seem so hot. Not only that but social mobility, one of the key tenets of the American Dream, is also lowest in those countries most obsessed with celebrity (United States, United Kingdom and South Korea). Highest social mobility and also happiness? Denmark! Caulfield posits that barriers to social mobility limit options to the point where people start to see celebrity as the only attainable option. After all, look at all the famous dum-dums! Because it seems like a lot when all you read is People magazine. Can’t be that hard, right? And there just don’t seem like many other options when your worldview is so limited.

So, instead of doing something constructive like get an education, or get involved in politics in an attempt to effect social change, time is given to empty dreaming and resources are squandered in the pursuit of something unattainable. Even if the goal were somehow attained, the rewards are largely extrinsic, because a lust for celebrity is not about intrinsic goals. It’s not the activity itself, it’s the material rewards that count.

I remember watching Chris Rock do standup a few years ago and he made a point about how he is rich and famous and lives in a neighbourhood of nice houses. For him, it said something about race relations in the US that his neighbour was a dentist. But I would observe also that there are too many kids who think that the road to success looks like Rock’s, as opposed to the more attainable and reasonable goal of dentistry. Isn’t it amazing that there are a lot – a LOT – of kids out there who think that they will be celebrities, so they don’t need school? They’d rather pursue these incredibly shallow goals with little to no chance of success, and waste opportunities to do something more meaningful that would provide them greater happiness and more benefits. Whoops, I’m ranting. Last quote!

Filmmaker and comedian Bobcat Goldthwait….provided this advice during a commencement speech he delivered for his daughter’s graduation from college. “I truly believe that success is for creeps. We already reward narcissism way too much in our culture,” he said. “Do what makes you happy, and be nice.” (p. 306)

I lied. One more!

“Hey, I still buy lottery tickets, but I don’t spend the rent,” [Allison] Arngrim* says. “If people gambled with this kind of money in Vegas, everyone would say they had a gambling problem. But when people do it for fame and celebrity, for some bizarre reason our society says it is okay.” (p. 302)

Enough said. These posts have been hard to write because I felt compelled to do more than cheer for the book. I think these are important issues in contemporary culture, so I wanted to convey as much information as I could without actually mailing everybody a copy of the book. Thanks for reading to the end!

* Allison Arngrim played Nellie Oleson in the Little House on the Prairie TV series.

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