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Home / Economics  /
The Tastier Option:  Fame vs. Wealth
fame wealth

Each offers perks, quirks, and jerks

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 work again.

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 about you.

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 him.

And then 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 neither.   The 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 community.   Pick fame, then you're well off financially for now while the fame lasts, but not rich by the definitions I've set out here. 

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 thereafter.  

Not necessarily.   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."  Really?  Forever?   "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 productive life.  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 despise?  Of 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 immensely rich.   Mother Teresa and Albert Einstein are prime examples.   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 change.  The 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 ways.  The wealthy, as defined in this article, would not have as easy of a time procuring the services of someone famous to do their bidding.

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 without compromise.  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 famous.  You 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 famous?  Unless 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 about it? 

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 exceeding $1bn.  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  effortlessly.   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 President.  Once 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 way.  Famous 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 natural decision.  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 family.    Choosing 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 pursuing fame.  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 adulation.   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.      

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