This must be one of the oldest
questions in the book.
If you had to choose between being famous or wealthy,
which would it be?
Before you blurt out your answer, let me qualify what
I mean by "famous" and "wealthy."
There are degrees of both.
You might be a well known radio host in your local
county, thus qualifying as famous, and yet move 90 minutes
outside that zone, few have ever heard of you.
Being locally famous for this discussion does not
count as famous.
Famous for these purposes means that 20% or more of
the people you're ever likely to run into at random in your
own country will recognize you and know who you are.
Wealth needs to be quantified, too.
Having enough cash in hand to buy a condo and rent it
out doesn't count as wealthy.
Without trying to declare some fixed financial
number, such as $4.7m, which others could debate really
isn't wealthy by their standards, let's define wealthy as
having enough money to take care of all your needs and
physical desires within reason and without ever having to
Let's not go to extremes with either.
At the point of answering my question, you're not so
famous that nine out of ten passersby would stop you on the
street nor so wealthy that Forbes is writing cover stories
I need to make that qualification
because wealth or fame, pushed to the extreme, usually can't
be parceled out separately from each other.
Take Bill Gates.
The reason he's famous is because he's one of the
richest people in the world.
Strip away that massive wealth and give him a net
worth of merely $100m, most of us would never have heard of
look at former President Bill Clinton.
He's world famous now and also very rich, but before
he became President of the United States in 1992, he was
fame his Presidency brought provided him the tremendous
riches he didn't have to work too hard to earn.
If you're thinking of choosing wealth,
imagine you're more like a local tycoon, with enough cash to
afford several restaurant franchises and take annual trips
to Europe while having no trouble paying your kids' college
tuitions fees to Ivy League schools.
If fame is your game, you'd start out being as famous
as, say, the most well known cast members on Survivor
or a currently popular but not mega smash television show.
Choose wealth, you have zero fame outside your
fame, then you're well off financially for now while the
fame lasts, but not rich by the definitions I've set out
So which is it going to be?
When I ask most people this question,
their answer is wealth.
They don't even think about it.
Not being wealthy, most of us think that if we had
wealth and all the comforts it brings, life would be sweet
The majority of us have jobs we don't like.
Very few, if suddenly blessed with massive wealth,
would quit those perceived dead-end jobs to channel
our energies into something we love.
Most of us have no real concept about what we'd do
with our time.
There are vague aspirations.
"I'd go traveling."
"I'd take karate classes."
9 hours a day? The
pursuit of hobbies and outside interests is a definite bonus
being wealthy, but it's no substitute for a focused and
As I write this article, I'm looking out at the ocean waves
lap across the shores of the Gulf of Thailand. It's heaven
--- as a respite.
I could not spend the rest of my life sitting here
and doing this if I weren't working towards a bigger aim.
Those with sharply defined goals, but
not the current financial wherewithal to execute them at the
moment, will see that choosing wealth shouldn't dramatically
change the direction their life is going in.
Early in his career, Stephen King, the successful
horror author, was writing books in his spare time as he
taught high school English.
Wealth brought from book sales allowed him to quit
his low paying teaching gig.
Had King not achieved financial success from his
writing, but a magic genie summoned him great wealth out of
thin air, my guess is that his productive time would've been
used the same way. He
would've quit the high school job and spent most of the free
time his wealth had generated into writing further books,
trying to make himself a success at that.
Whether King was handed the money from a benefactor
or earned it through success, wealth gave him the keys to
pursue writing fulltime.
The reality is that most of us have no
idea beyond the clichés what we would do if sudden wealth
came our way. We
would become slothful and while away endless hours doing
nothing. We may
dabble in charities or pottery classes, but as dilettantes.
Would this beat spending our hours stuck in jobs we
course. Any of
us would rather pursue half-assed hobbies that lead nowhere
than be stuck under someone else's clock doing work we think
is going nowhere.
I bring up this 'downside' just to point out that
perhaps choosing fame would be the superior option if you're
this type of person.
Don't underestimate fame.
It is much, much harder to become beneficially famous
than it is to become rich.
Beneficial fame is an important distinction.
There are many ways to become famous, plenty of them
bad. You could
make yourself famous by going on a killing spree, like Ted
Bundy or Charles Manson did.
If you're creative and efficient about your murders,
you'll definitely make the history books and possibly become
a household name, like Jack the Ripper or Osama bin Laden.
But that kind of fame brings no benefit.
You must either remain anonymous, like the Unabomber
did until he got caught.
Or after you're caught, your real name may be known
to all, but you'll be in prison for the rest of your life
or, worst case, executed by the system.
People can be famous without being
Mother Teresa and Albert Einstein are prime
Tremendous wealth would likely have benefited neither.
A young rich Theresa may have become addicted to the
trappings of luxury and steered clear of the humanitarian
work which made her famous.
A young and loaded Albert Einstein could have bailed
on his job at the Swiss patent office.
It was this boring job that gave Einstein long hours
to think and craft his Theory of Relativity.
Fame can open up doors much faster than
wealth can. A
wealthy developer may alter city policy over time by
greasing the right hands to see that an area is rezoned to
his benefit. A
famous conservationist could generate a much wider debate
about city zoning in a fraction the time and bring lasting
sincere-hearted famous have ready access to capital; they
can always get other sympathetic wealthy or powerful people
to back their causes. Einstein
wrote several letters to the then U.S. President, Franklin
Delano Roosevelt, in 1939-40 about the possibility of
developing a powerful bomb, and the letters got read and the
suggestions it introduced seriously considered.
It doesn't work both
wealthy, as defined in this article, would not have as easy
of a time procuring the services of someone famous to do
Wealth does not trump fame.
The multi-billionaire Ross Perot ran against Bill
Clinton twice. With
basically an unlimited pot of greenbacks, Perot had no
problem financing his own campaign and doing it his way
He had to suck up to no one to get financial backing.
Still, he lost the 1992 and 1996 elections to then
famous but not wealthy Bill Clinton.
Fame can be ephemeral, much more so
than money. It's
easier to preserve wealth than fame.
Andy Warhol knew that when he said, in 1968, that
everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes.
He meant that more and more people will get a brief
grasp at the rope of fame, only to eventually lose their
grip and fall into obscurity.
This is easy to observe.
Look at the television actors that were on the most
famous shows twenty-five years ago.
Where are most of them now?
Most will have
dropped off the radar.
Fame is so much harder to bottle, which
is why durable beneficial fame is easier to turn into wealth
than wealth into fame.
Paris Hilton is famous simply for being famous.
She possesses no talents or skills that make her
could argue that she was already rich to begin with as a
heir to the Hilton fortune and converted that wealth into
fame. Then why
aren't all heiresses to million dollar fortunes famous on the
scale that Paris Hilton is?
Because wealth is relatively common.
We all personally know someone who is rich.
How many of those rich people you know are also
you're wealthy for some amazing headline-grabbing reason or
your wealth is so tremendous, fame doesn't usually follow.
I know people who, on paper, are likely
richer than Paris Hilton presently is.
These people are business owners.
You've never heard of them and never will.
Remodeling homes and running chemical laboratories
isn't really the way to become a household name.
If tomorrow, these entrepreneurs decided they were
going to become (beneficially) famous, how would they go
I can't really tell you.
They could try to become ever richer.
Instead of having a net worth of $100-200m, ramp that
up to $1-2bn.
Extremes grab headlines.
Besides that being easier said than done, there's no
guarantee that having a net worth of $1bn will make one a
household name, as more people today have net worths
They could try to devise a new product or process.
Again, that's no guarantee of fame.
Most inventors aren't famous.
$100m, $200m, $500m, even $1bn doesn't necessarily
buy one big time fame.
The odds are against it.
Make no mistake.
Fame can be converted into wealth, and big
time fame can be converted into wealth
Famous athletes routinely earn more through their
endorsement contracts than they do from their sports salary.
Skill brings fame, and fame brings money.
Bill Clinton was not a rich man before he became
he left office and could go on lucrative speaking tours,
write a memoir, sit on board of directorships left, right,
and center, it was easy to convert his fame into millions of
dollars of cash, and he did just that.
Obama and every President after him will have no
problem doing the same.
What's more, fame can bring in the cash faster and
with less effort than those who earn it the old fashioned
American actors and actresses can do 30 second to 1 minute
ad spots in Asia and get $1m.
That's more money per hour worked than they'll
command on their day jobs.
Fame is a great magnifier; the bigger the fame, the
higher the magnifier coefficient.
Wealth over fame is, I think, the more
It is normal to desire a higher standard of living.
This equates to better education, better healthcare, a
better living environment, more vacation time with the
fame comes off as an ego trip.
Unless the fame is exchanged for wealth or to push
through projects of personal concern that wouldn't be
greenlit as quickly or as easily, I don't see the real
benefit of fame most of the time.
Being readily pursued by groupies and scoring top
seats in the best restaurants without a reservation isn't
enough of a prize to compensate for privacy lost once total
strangers know your identity.
In the end, fame did John Lennon no favors.
There are still no shortage of people
Nearly every aspiring actor or actress or standup comedian
trying to make it in Hollywood would prefer to be famous.
Sure, none of them would mind being rich as well –
and everyone knows that riches follow Hollywood celebrity
status – but riches, I believe are secondary.
If you go back to the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's,
when salaries for TV and movie stars were so much lower in
real terms than they are today, there were still plenty of aspirants striving to be tomorrow's famous players.
Becoming President of the United States is another
grab at fame first, riches later.
Wealth brings respect.
Respect among the wealthy person's employees
(drivers, maids, cooks) because they are paid to be
respectful of their boss.
But also respect among people in the greater
community who respect the hard work and dedication that this
person underwent to become wealthy.
[The second respect would only apply if the wealthy
person is self made].
Fame brings more than respect; it brings on
Whatever a famous person says or does takes on greater
importance for no other reason than the person is famous.
Now maybe you have an inkling why famous celebrities
are often times asked questions of political or scientific
importance on issues they know nothing about.
You don't have to look deep inside
yourself for this one. Ask if it's respect or adulation
you're primarily seeking, and you'll have your answer.