The Price of Success

I have been thinking a lot about something since Michael Jackson’s death. Does success destroy us? There is a line in an old Talking Heads song which goes “Watch Out! You might get what your after” There is a lot of truth in that line. Jackson’s obviously talent brought him incredible fame and wealth, but also seemed to contribute to his personal downfall and destruction. It seems that once you have enough money to do whatever on earth you want to do, you slowly begin to disintegrate as a human being.

When you have no responsibility, no limits on what you can do, you are in trouble. Many close to Jackson said that he began to push away anyone who would tell him ‘no’. As I watched the Michael Jackson memorial service, I wondered what Jackson’s life would have been like in Gary, Indiana if he had not found fame, would he still be alive? Would he be happier? I have a sneaking suspicion that he would.

I recently read comedian Steve Martin’s autobiography Born Standing Up. In the book Martin shares about his struggles and desires to make it as a stand up comedian. During the sixties and early seventies, he plays small clubs and writes for TV’s finding solace in his lack of success with other struggling writers, artists, and comedians.

But then in the mid seventies, he finds success beyond his wildest dreams. He becomes a pop culture sensation and goes from playing gigs to fifty people in dingy clubs to playing twenty thousand seat stadiums, his comedy albums sell millions. His dreams have come true, he has found unparalleled success. Yet Martin finds that this success is fantastic from a professional point of view, he can buy what he wants, go anywhere he wants, have anything or anyone he wants, but from a personal perspective it is crushing.

Martin discovers that success tends to surround you with sycophants with agendas, which is a terrible cocktail. Such success means that you are never challenged, you will remains unchecked, and your ego is rarely restricted. Martin finds he becomes isolated, travelling constantly, staying in hotel room after hotel room alone, never meeting anyone who does not want something from him; he is distanced from friends and family and his life is filled with a crushing depression. He recognized everywhere but he still feels alone. Success, Martin finds, carries an incredible price.

John Calvin once said that “the surest source of destruction to men is to obey themselves.” At the heart of the success myth in western culture is the concept of gaining enough personal power in which we get everything that we want and dream of. The celebrity is celebrated not just because of their talent anymore but because they have managed to ascend to a social position in which they rarely hear the word ‘no’. 

Calvin’s warning is vital to us today, our cultures tells us that what will make us happy is getting everything that we want, but the reality of celebrities lives paint a different story. This truth does not just apply to the famous, hearing no, not getting what we want, and having our ego’s checked are some of the hardest things we can experience, but strangely the most important for our development as human beings.  

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