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Overinformed, Part 1: The Fetishization of Success

Two nights ago (at the time of this writing), I was lying in bed at midnight, wide awake.

My body wanted to sleep. I was craving it. Sleep was the only thing that I wanted to do in that moment. But instead of drifting off peacefully, I stared at the ceiling. I tossed and turned. I got up and walked around.

Everything I was working on was weighing heavily on my mind. Voices kept sliding in and out of my head while I struggled to silence them.

  • What if none of your clients pay you on time?
  • If this online store fails, what happens next?
  • Aren’t you terrified of publishing this next book? What if it bombs?

And so on.

I didn’t sleep much that night. That wasn’t the only time this week I went through that, either.

My mind is 100% preoccupied with making my business successful. It was for a few years. It honestly still is in a lot of ways.

But I want more.

Chasing after success isn’t a bad thing though, right? It’s good to have goals that you are in pursuit of.

Unfortunately, thanks to our unprecedented access to other people’s lives, my brain shifts very often into Comparison Mode, which is the worst place to be. I compare my lack of success or my struggle with those who seem to fall backwards into piles of money and massive client lists.

This is the problem with that mindset.

The story behind the story

As I was driving home from my parents’ house last Sunday after another big Green Bay Packer win (yee-ha!), I plugged in my phone and listened to the Nerdist podcast.

For those unfamiliar, Nerdist is hosted by Chris Hardwick, the former host of MTV’s classic dating game show Singled Out. Turns out he’s not a “cool” guy, but in fact a large nerd (hence the name).

On the show, he sits down and has fascinating conversations with famous people. His first interview with Tom Hanks is what got me hooked on the show.

Because his interview style is so disarming and relaxed, you often see a side of famous people that you don’t get elsewhere.

Anyway, last Sunday, I’m listening to him interview Mark-Paul Gosselaar. If you are somehow unfamiliar with him, he played the lead character of Zack Morris on the classic ‘80s and ‘90s teen sitcom Saved By The Bell – a Meitner Family Favorite.

Saved By The Bell went off the air in 1992. If you think about it, he hasn’t done a whole lot since then – at least not in terms of high-profile acting. He’s been in some movies that I remember, and has had TV series, but nothing that has taken the world by storm like SBTB did.

You’d think his lack of work wouldn’t be that big of a deal. After all, SBTB was huge. And thanks to the nostalgia of the last few years, it’s just as big now as it was back when it first aired.

It’s on in syndication pretty much all the time. It stands to reason that cast members would be making so much money from those reruns that it didn’t matter what kinds of roles they were getting now.

Instead, Gosselaar revealed a chilling fact: they signed terrible contracts back then.

When the show was first run, it aired on Saturday mornings. Saturday mornings are usually a time for syndication. Because syndication in that day was pretty new for a first-run show on Saturdays – and because the cast was made up of teenagers – the cast signed terrible deals.

They’ve made virtually no money on syndication. They also have made zero dollars on merchandise, which is unheard of today.

Despite SBTB being a massive pop culture phenomenon, Gosselaar says, “We didn’t make dick on that show.”

Even worse, and this part intrigued me even more, the pressure of being on that big of a show comes with its own problems. Gosselaar says (I’m paraphrasing here):

“When I do a show, eventually pays attention to the fact that it’s me. So my name gets associated with the show. Then, when the show fails, that failure gets attached to my name. Everyone else on the show can go out and find work, but I have to let the failure die down first. The last time I was on a show that got cancelled, I didn’t work for 7 months.”

This successful actor and one of the most famous guys alive, thanks to being on a hit teen sitcom in the ‘90s, didn’t make any money from it and faces ridiculously high stakes every time he works.

Geez, no wonder Screech stabbed a guy (reppin’ my home state!).

Does success = happiness?

The average response to someone else’s success is a mix of envy and the classic phrase, “It must be nice.”

But is it?

How often do we see celebrities turn to drugs and suicide? The drugs because there’s a void they can’t fill, and the suicide because they can’t find a way to be happy.

Yet, this fact blows the minds of the average outsider.

When Heath Ledger died, there were initial rumblings that it might have been suicide. The manager at the restaurant where we worked said that day that he couldn’t understand that.

“For all the money he makes, how could he be unhappy? I’ll take the money then!”

Note: it wound up being an accidental drug overdose, but that’s still a pain he’s trying to medicate away.

In my research for a project I was working on for a company, I looked up a group called “Tiger 21”.

Located all over North America, Tiger 21 can best be described as a support group for the ultrawealthy.

If you want to get into the group, you need to pay $30,000 per year. Across the group’s 300 members is a total net worth of around $30 billion.

These guys (and ladies) are some of the most financially successful people on the planet, bar none.

Yet, they need a support group.

In their monthly meetings, they do talk about their investments and how they are performing. But they also discuss protection of their wealth, building a meaningful legacy for themselves, and how to not screw up their kids.

I spent hours reading up on these guys, and at no point did I notice anyone talking about how happy they were.

Despite their millions, each member of Tiger 21 had very important and meaningful issues affecting their lives.

The Age of Comparison

We live in a time when everyone has a public persona: each Facebook profile is less an honest look at someone’s current life and more each person’s understanding of what the “ideal self” looks like.

This is usually the part where I get all Stuart Smalley and tell you you’re “good enough just the way you are”, but I’m not. Maybe you’re not that great, and striving to be better is definitely a good thing.

But everyone deals with tough times. Everyone has to navigate a rocky road:

  • It builds character
  • It helps you develop resilience
  • It shows you what you’re made of
  • It prepares you for bigger and better things – and higher stakes

We don’t live in a perfect world. So behind every awesome thing is something that kinda sucks. That’s the reality of the world we are in.

So don’t fetishize someone else’s success. Even the most successful people in the world (by your standards) have things that they are dealing with. There’s a drawback to everything.

And when you chase success – which is fine – remember that achieving it won’t solve all of your problems. If you can’t find a way to be happy now, no amount of money or fame will ever change that.

Work on your success. Pursue it. Give it all you’ve got.

But work on yourself. Embrace the downsides. Cope with the stress.

And understand that success is not the absence of stress. If you are pursuing that, you’ll never be happy.

Find a way to be happy now, because that idealized version of success in your head is never going to come.

Mark-Paul Gosselaar was not sitting around complaining throughout the interview. They were honest responses to questions he was asked.

Instead of wallowing in the struggle, he found ways to be happy. He said he had more fun on Broadway than at any other point in his career – and he still wasn’t making any money.

Shift your perspective on success. Don’t view it as the solution to all of your problems. Your problems are deeper, and only you can find a way to fix them.