The vast majority of successful people who ever lived are people you’ve never heard of. If we are to drill down further and consider happy successful people, it’s almost certain that we haven’t heard of them.
The reason for that is something called the survivorship bias. Only a very small number of stories and identities make their way into the history books or into legend, and by definition, those that sought fame and fortune beyond what any human could possibly enjoy, are often overrepresented among them.
Even my own writing is guilty of this. I tell stories about Rockefeller and Grant and Alexander the Great. I don’t talk about the people who were talented but had a better sense of what was enough. Or the ones who were happy to let others get all the credit while they played for the love of the game and the craft.
This is true of the Stoics too, who I have helped to popularize. It’s only possible to write about the extremely successful ones—the emperors and the writers, the playwrights and the generals—because those are the ones whose names were etched into the record. But given the popularity of Stoicism in Rome and throughout history, the vast majority of Stoics would have been ordinary people living ordinary lives of discipline and virtue. Fathers, mothers, businessmen, diplomats and blacksmiths. There would have been literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Stoics, over the last 2500 years, and many of them were arguably better and more admirable than Marcus Aurelius. Or Seneca. Or Cato.
It might also be said that the ones we’ve never heard of—those were the lucky ones. It wasn’t fun to be the head of state. It wasn’t fun the be executed by a head of state either. It wasn’t as fun as you think to be Rockefeller or Kennedy or Lance Armstrong.
In a famous profile in The Atlantic on Saddam Hussein, Mark Bowden wrote that “one might think that the most powerful man has the most choices, but in reality he has the fewest. Too much depends on his every move.” This is true not just for dictators, but for anyone in a position of power, influence or responsibility.
For instance, the now standard prescription for an American president after he leaves office—the former most powerful person in the world—is sign a book deal, relegating them, no, obligating them, to slock it on television shows and an endless series of hostile interviews. Then they have to raise the money for their own monument to their own honor, the Presidential Library. And it’s all downhill from there. See: Bill Clinton, the most powerful man in the world a couple terms removed, as just another lame guest on Pittsburgh’s 96.1’s Morning Freak Show with Mikey and Big Bob.
Listen to a CEO answering dumb questions from shareholders during conference calls with resigned disdain. Watch celebrities gain the love of the world only to lose the ability to ever be in a loving relationship with one person. See the endless reunion tours and un-retirements of athletes and artists who just can’t walk away. Now, it doesn’t have to be like that—there’s no law mandating the story go that way—but the fact that it almost always seems to, tells us something. It’s what Seneca, a man who knew power and wealth in many domains, meant when he said that “slavery dwells beneath marble and gold.”
Along with extreme success comes extreme costs—it is often an all consuming drive that draws one to the spotlight…and inevitably to dark places as well. Alexander the Great died at age 32, after he’d driven himself and his men to the ends of the earth. Joseph Kennedy, who created a multi-generational legacy of powerful, brilliant children…also lobotomized his own daughter because she couldn’t quite measure up. And what of the countless successful people who lost their privacy, spouses, or youth in the pursuit of dominance in some sport, or in business, or politics? What of those who kept reaching and reaching after they had success, and destroyed everything they had built with the final overstretch?
What does this have to do with you? Isn’t there someone whose status and success you envy? Someone who has gotten more recognition, who has sold more books or widgets or real estate, who has won more medals or set more records? And when we think of these people, we think, “Oh, they’re the lucky ones. They got what I should have gotten.”
But is that really true? Maybe the lucky ones are the hidden figures. The people who don’t suffer the burdens of a public office or a clique of hangers or the anxiety of a reputation to uphold or the chorus of critics, they’re the ones who were deprived? Please.
Most people with a public persona tell you that the downsides outweigh the upsides. They have a target on their back from critics. They have less creative freedom. They feel irresponsible when they turn down opportunities because they know other people would kill for the chance. It’s not all bad of course, but there are real problems that go along with fame and fortune.
Meanwhile, several studies have shown that there are diminishing returns to happiness the higher you get in the income tax bracket. Once your basic needs (and then some) are taken care of, money may actually make things harder. You know the song lyric: Mo’ money, mo’ problems. But the same is true for other forms of success. A mayor doesn’t usually see their hair turn grey as fast as a president. A working character actor doesn’t have to deal with being typecast. The creator who never quite becomes the next big thing might actually have a longer, more enduring career than the debut artists who is feted about town.
It’s why a few years ago the notoriously private, but still wonderfully popular musician and songwriter Sia, would write, “If anyone besides famous people knew what it was like to be a famous person, they would never want to be famous.” There’s an old joke along those lines: The best way to punish someone is to give them exactly what they wish for.
The key then, when you find yourself wanting more, feeling inferior because you don’t have more, is to think about that. Don’t give the fantasies more weight than they deserve. See them for what they are. When you find yourself pining for fame and recognition, stop and consider what it might actually feel like when you get it—why you think you’ll be the exception to the rule and will find happiness in what nearly everyone else in history has found to be a chimera.
The motto of the philosopher Epicurus, which was taken up by the great essayist Montaigne as well, was lathe biōsas. Live in obscurity. The French saying, Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés: “In order to live happily, live hidden.”
This is not to say you must be poor or a failure. You can still be extraordinary. You just don’t have to be the most extraordinary. You don’t have to strive to beat out all the other broken people, to be the most well-known out of everyone who ever wanted to be known. Because what is that actually worth in the long run? Do you think you’ll appreciate your fame and money after you die? You think Alexander the Great knows that Alexandria is still standing?
So that’s the recalibration. There is a big difference between having enough that all your needs are met and being a billionaire. Between being Taylor Swift, the global superstar, and Sia. And those differences are not all good. In fact, many of them are objectively not good.
The next time you feel screwed that you haven’t gotten your big break, or watch as some potential life-changing opportunity to level up escapes your grasp, ask yourself if that’s really the case. Is it really bad luck? Or has Fortune done you a kindness?
On the contrary, the life just below that top, the middle class life, the just-enough-success-but-not-too-much? That’s the real blessing.
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