In my previous post, I loosely defined celebrity to the point of suggesting that every employee is a kind of celebrity to a certain audience of peers and bosses. There may be a better term but I like the impact of the term celebrity. Celebrity is when established recognition is the major or sole qualification for invitation into a certain activity. A competing term in my mind is that of a brand. A popular career development concept is that of building a distinctive brand through networking and achievement.
A distinctive brand is a kind of celebrity. When there is a need, we look for packages that we recognize. We look for brands that were recommended by others or that didn’t disappoint us in the past. From a consumer’s perspective, this is very rational. In most transactions, the stakes are high enough to motivate the avoidance of disappointment. Often the stakes are higher to motivate the promise of exceeding expectations.
One part of what defines our culture is that we are a culture of consumers. We are savvy shoppers who want the best return for our purchases. Often that return is in terms of how the purchases affect other people’s perception of the purchasers. I can appreciate the desire to prefer the use of brands and celebrities to leverage my advantage.
An analogy is hosting a party. The goal of the party is to enjoy the company of both familiar and unfamiliar guests. The preparation of the party may involve some centerpiece whether it is food, or music, or guest speaker. The centerpiece has a high premium of excellence. A lot of the preparation involves background items where the premium is avoiding disappointment. Even something as simple as paper napkins, we will choose a brand that we can trust will not include torn, poorly folded, or improperly cut napkins. Details matter.
Any endeavor involves an overriding goal or mission that uses some attraction that has a high promise of success and some supporting items that have a high promise of not failing. What makes this special to us is that initial goal or mission. In the case of the above example it is the success at meeting new people or encourage your friends to continue their association. We pay a premium for the attraction that will succeed and the support to not fail.
Such a market for attraction and support narrows the candidates for employment. These are areas were we are reluctant to take chances on the unknown. We prefer the known and proven. Over time, a certain few will command a higher preference and they become celebrities or leading brands. As the successful get more successful the less successful fall behind. The less successful make efforts to improve or to find other ways to stand out. The goal to strive for is gain the highest reputation for delivery of success of the avoidance of failure.
I see the benefits and attractions. I’m also a member of a culture that values these benefits. Other cultures may place their priorities differently.
An alternative culture may place higher value on their familiarity of the people performing the roles of the attraction and support.
Consider a family thanksgiving dinner. We recognize the family members and friends who prepare the dishes, or who help to set up the table, or to clean up afterwards. Success may occur despite overcooked side-dishes or an emergency cleanup because someone dropped the pot of gravy in the kitchen. Despite the lack of success and the presence of failure, we value fond memories and improved respect for each other from that collaborative effort.
The above example sets a bar for participation at good enough in order to maximize participation. This view values participation over excellence.
Another attempt at this distinction is the idea of getting help to perform a home improvement project. Say I want someone to paint a room. In an urban environment, I hire a professional painter who is licensed, bonded, and has a lot of references. In a rural environment, I hire a neighbor who happens to have some free time and has helped before in doing other things not involving painting. In the first case, I have some confidence that the job will done promptly and with low risk of defects to maximize his income and potential of adding to his references. In the second case, I pay for his services if he finished in a reasonable amount of time and did not leave any major defects. Even though the first may be a better value with the assurance of skill and protection from risk, the latter has the benefit of improving my relationship with a neighbor and possibly helping him with extra cash or a relief from boredom.
I use these analogies as simplifications to avoid more complicated analogies that occur in the workplace and society. I hope at least to hint at the core distinction of rare celebrity excellence vs more accessible good-enough. As a consumer or a manager, I try to get the best that I can afford. I value celebrity.
I question my value of celebrity. It may be misplaced.
I am encouraged by recent trends to accept generic brands such as in groceries or pharmaceuticals. We are finding these nameless brands to have a consistent predictable level of quality even when we recognize a distinction in comparison to more famous brands. When it is good enough, we accept the benefits of the lower cost or higher accessibility. In some cases, we risk criticism for not choosing generic alternatives. This is promising. We may be gaining a broader appreciation that needs can be met by non-brands, or non-celebrities.
I question celebrity when I look at it from the perspective of the individual.
From the perspective of the non-celebrity, there is very limited middle ground to make a living.
Starting out from obscurity there is very little opportunity of progressive advancement with middle tiers that can support continued investment for advancement. Advancement depends on financing either from some unrelated source or from luck of gaining the attention of someone able to help develop those talents. A celebrity rises from a pool of talent of individuals with comparable talents or potential talents who are left behind.
From the perspective of the celebrity, there is also the downside of the imperative to protect and advance that celebrity. The celebrity must be careful not to take risks that can tarnish his brand. For example, a talented actor may have an unrelated image of a certain type of personality. Contradicting that unrelated personality trait can tarnish his image as an actor.
Worse than that is the demand that he changes his interests to meet the expectation of the status he has achieved. The celebrity has to conform his interests to the expectations of his fans. Such contradictions (such as expressing a politically-incorrect view) can be more damaging than a failed performance.
There is something dehumanizing about becoming a celebrity. The reward of recognition, admiration, and often wealth come at the cost of constraints on narrow options for how to live a life. Non-celebrities, even those that don’t aspire to the top of his profession, need to constrain their lives not only to devote the improving their abilities but also to avoid unrelated activities or interests that are considered inappropriate for that goal.
There is decreasing opportunity for all people to live complex lives of many interests and unrelated goals.
Society as a whole is also losing by losing inputs of the broader population. Participation of non-celebrities are limited to occasional selections among a limited list of celebrities. The extreme example is that participation in many public policy debates and decision making is highly restricted to celebrities of large hidden cultures inside bureaucracies.