The World of “Now”

Once upon a time – and I suppose a fairy-tale beginning is appropriate – when young people were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, the questioner would receive a plethora of answers:  president, a fireman, a police officer, an astronaut, a baseball star, etc..  Today… the most common response is: “I want to be famous.”

The pop art icon Andy Warhol once said something to the effect that everyone would have fifteen minutes of fame, and whether “everyone” will ever have that, Warhol was certainly right about the fifteen minutes part.

As I see it, though, never has fame been so short-lived, and the problem with this mindset is that the incredibly fleeting nature of present-day fame has also tarnished the value of experience, which is far different from fame.  Fame results from the praise of others;  experience is a combination of knowledge, skills, and understanding gained over time, yet an older practitioner in almost any field is usually regarded as old-fashioned and less able than a younger, more “vital” person.  And frankly, outside of the limited field of athletics, that’s a total fallacy.  Yet the fame and media culture has sold this image, and people, especially the American people, seem to have bought it lock, stock, and barrel.

Of course, the fact that fame is fleeting has always been acknowledged by human beings. The Romans had a slave whisper to a conqueror during his triumphal chariot ride through Rome, over and over, “Fame is Fleeting.”  A.E. Housman wrote the poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” with the lines:

Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man…

I can remember a time when there was at least grudging respect for age and experience and when such scorn for anything not current was expressed by phrases such as “that’s so yesterday.”  Once, American students actually had to know who the past presidents were and what they did. Once, most actors, not just a fortunate few, had careers lasting more than a handful of years.  Once, executives had to have experience in the business they were running. As I noted earlier, I doubt it was coincidental that Borders Books failed, given that the company, in its later and declining years, kept hiring CEOs and other executives who had no experience in the book industry, although they were semi-“famous” for accomplishments elsewhere.

Studies of CEOs have shown that, in general, the most effective CEOs are the ones who are the least famous, but the highest-paid ones [who are seldom the best] are the tallest and best-looking. And yet, with the growing cult of “fame,” companies go for “big names” and impressive appearance, whether they have the experience and the talent for the position, and at least one major financial company is headed by a big-name whose lack of competence has already been publicly shown.

The problem with the “now” culture is that it’s the culture of the moment, and that’s the culture of lemmings, where everyone follows the current fad, the “flavor du jour,” and current fads never last.  Because they don’t, and because they tend to exclude those with experience beyond the present and the accepted, when times change, and they always do, those in control make mistakes that older and wiser heads would caution against.  Or put another way, there’s a very good reason why Warren Buffet is one of the richest men in the world… and why Donald Trump has had to be bailed out of the majority of his projects, despite the “celebrity apprentice” un-reality reality show.

Fame and public personality are all too often just a flash in the pan, fool’s gold.  So why do so many people seek fame and try to emulate the merely famous, all too often ignoring the people who’ve actually accomplished something lasting more than minutes or months?


3 thoughts on “The World of “Now””

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Good points, although I’ve heard it said that most research mathematicians do their best work relatively early in life, suggesting that while experience has value, so does not only physical but mental flexibility, which unless intentionally practiced, also deteriorates somewhat. There is also a value in not having succumbed to what is known to be impossible: most of the results are sloppy or wasted effort, but from time to time something exceptional appears simply because the person pursuing it didn’t know any better. So experience, although valuable and worthy of more respect than it receives in most of the west, still needs the foolishness of youth to complete it.

    Also, how would you categorize someone like the late Steve Jobs? No, he wasn’t a key figure in the history of technology; but he was a perfectionist about design, the founder and restorer of a profitable company, and yet he still seemed to relish the power of image.

    I suspect that image is only a problem when substance is sacrificed to it, which is, alas, too often accepted.

    As you’ve suggested on many an occasion, easy answers aren’t likely to be complete answers.

  2. Daze says:

    If you read the completely fascinating biography, it’s clear the Steve Jobs is exactly an example that proves the point Lee is making: there evan be no real doubt that the Apple board were right to fire Jobs when they did – if he stayed in charge it would have gone down pretty quickly. The experience he gained working with two small groups of brilliant people in Pixar and NeXT who wouldn’t take all the BS from him over the following decade was what enabled him to do the management job he did from his return to Apple.

  3. Daze says:

    d’oh: “thAT Steve Jobs”: “Can be no real doubt”. Note to self: reread posts before pressing Go. 45 years of computing experience and I still do it.

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