The School of Life is a London-based company co-founded by philosopher Alain de Botton which produces materials about philosophy and psychology, many of them with a self-help slant. Among other activities, it has a YouTube channel with roughly 6 870 000 subscribers as of now. I find most of the content which I have viewed on the channel quite poor and shallow, although it has been what feels like years since I last watched any substantial amount of it. In any case, this essay is about one specific item there.
It should be noted that the School of Life has been criticised for oversimplification and factual errors in the past, as in this video by Dr. Hans-Georg Moeller of the University of Macau.¹
My focus is on the School of Life’s video about fame. It can also be read as an article on the company’s website, but has vastly fewer views there. I will be referring to the article, however, so do not be surprised if the text is slightly different from that in the video. My contention is that most of the article can be refuted with reference to a 2010 scienitfic paper titled “Toward Understanding the Fame Game: The Effect of
Mortality Salience on the Appeal of Fame”.
As it happens, the main problem with the article is captured almost in its first words. Readers are told that
[f]ame is deeply attractive because it seems to offer very significant benefits. The fantasies go like this: when you are famous, wherever you go, your good reputation will precede you. People will think well of you, because your merits have been impressively explained in advance. You will get warm smiles from admiring strangers. You won’t need to make your own case laboriously on each occasion. When you are famous, you will be safe from rejection
and so forth. The author, or authors, whoever they may be, go on to attack this notion by objecting that “the world isn’t generally kind to the famous for very long. The reason is basic: the success of any one person involves humiliation for lots of others”.
The School of Life’s assessment of the motivations which lead people to want to be famous is far too limited. Crucially, it overlooks one major factor, which is that awareness of one’s own mortality and a fear of death incite people to try to achive renown as a means to immortalise themselves. This can be called the paper’s central idea. Thus, the authors summarise some of their findings as follows:
The present research provides support for the idea that the appeal of fame derives partly from existential needs engendered by the uniquely human awareness of death.
In Study 1, a reminder of death increased the desire for fame relative to a reminder of pain (Greenberg et al. 2010: 11).
The erroneous idea that people only ever want to be famous in order for others to view them favourably and accomodate them is also at odds with the real-life desire to be infamous. The psychological paper’s authors demonstrate this phenomenon with the example of a man who went on a killing spree in 2007 “to obtain the symbolic immortality fame provides” (Greenberg et al. 2010: 13).
This is not to say that nobody wants to be famous in order to be treated well, or obsequiously, by others. The article under examination, however, does make claims of such an over-generalised sort. For example:
No one [!] would want to be famous who hadn’t also, somewhere in the past, been made to feel extremely insignificant.
This claim is so general as to be virtually unfalsifiable. Surely everyone has been made to feel insignificant at some point, and “extremely” is an extremely flexible adverb. However, the above sentence argues for a necessary causal relationship between a feeling of insignificance and a desire for fame. This idea does not seem reasonable when one considers the aspiration to fame as a means of immortalisation which apparently drives many people.
Moreover, the authors of the aforementioned scientific paper also conducted an experiment in which desire for fame appeared to be increased by questions which drew subjects’ attention to their mortality, but not by questions which asked them to imagine their lives as meaningless (see Greenberg et al. 2010: 9-12). This suggests to me that feeling as though one’s life is meaningless — that is, feeling insignificant — is at least less likely to engender a longing for fame than is a fear of death.
Another overly generalised statement is this:
What is common to all [!] dreams of fame is that being known to strangers emerges as a solution to a hurt. It presents itself as the answer to a deep need to be appreciated, and treated decently by other people.
This assertion is untenable for some of the reasons previously mentioned.
The unnamed author would have readers believe that “one of the great signs of good parenting[ is] that your child has no desire to be famous”. This, of course, is a terrible message, because it is false in light of what we have just seen, and liable to cause parents undue worries when such a desire does manifest itself.
In fact, even the main point of the article does not seem to be correct. The idea is that celebrity attracts resentment because “the success of any one person involves humiliation for lots of others”. Presumably, what is meant by this is that others who want to be famous are likely to detest those who have it out of some form of envy. Yet again, Greenberg et al. cast doubt on this idea. According to their paper, the desire for fame appears to increase admiration towards celebrities (see Greenberg et al. 2010: 11). Therefore, it seems that the School of Life’s understanding of the reactions which fame usually elicits in the broad masses of people is almost exactly opposite to the truth.
In addition, the article contains dangerous normative statements. Witness, in particular, this one: “At an individual level, the only mature strategy is to give up on fame”.
How sententious. To return to the psychological paper, it seems that “famous people […] commonly start[…] as admirers of other illustrious or legendary figures” (Greenberg et al. 2010: 8). This, in turn, suggests that enormous quantities of human creativity, effort and excellence have historically been mobilised by the desire to become famous. The School of Life’s morality looks apt to diminish this immense reservoir of human capital by stigmatising the motivation behind it as immature.
Ironically, a position much more mature than the School of Life’s is found in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, appropriately titled “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”:
Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action; and therefore, in many cases, it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity among the other comforts of life.
In conclusion, the article in question fails to convey a proper understanding of the desire for fame and of its consequences, let alone to make a sensible prescription based on its flawed perceptions.
- The video has its own problems. The doctor points out the use of certain partly and totally incorrect quotes in the School of Life’s video on Lao Tzu. The rest of his commentary is hardly worth hearing, mostly consisting of dubious claims of “Orientalism”.
Greenberg, Jeff, Spee Kosloff, Sheldon Solomon, Florette Cohen, and Mark Landau. 2010. “Toward Understanding the Fame Game: The Effect of Mortality Salience on the Appeal of Fame.” Self and Identity 9: 1-18.