Which of these two companies would you rather start and sell?


I was asked an intriguing question this week by a friend, Juan from Monterrey, Mexico, that you might like to ask yourself.  The question is: which of these two companies would you rather start and sell?   Company #1, after it is all done, is sold for $500 million. Company #2 is sold for $5 billion.

Easy choice, huh?

But here comes the catch.  In Company #1, you make the money, but nobody knows who you are.  The sale does not attract attention.  You are not famous, you can go out and not be recognized.  Even your neighbors probably don’t know that you are particularly wealthy.  You still have your privacy.

With Company #2, that does not apply.  This company is very high profile, and when you sell it, you become super-famous, Zuckerberg-style famous.  Everyone knows you are in the Trump league.  You are a multi-billionaire.  You can’t walk down the street without people whispering about you.  You can’t sit down in a restaurant without someone coming up to you.  You can’t go to the movies without people staring.  You are in the public eye.  You don’t entirely belong to yourself – at least in other peoples’ eyes, they own a chunk of you too now.

So which would you prefer?   Now it’s not quite so simple.

What I replied

Without hesitation, I wanted to start and own Company #2.   I like the idea of getting wealthier, even though I don’t splash money around and never will.  And hey, I think being in the public eye might be rather fun.  It might have as many advantages as disadvantages, particularly if nobody knew where I lived, and as long as it was in Europe rather than the Americas.  I might feel differently if it happened of course.  Maybe I would need bodyguards.  Maybe everyone would try to be my “friend” for the wrong reason, which would be tedious.  (Felix Dennis, the former rock star and publisher of the subversive magazine Oz, wrote a book about being rich; he said it had many disadvantages, but it definitely improves your sex life no end.)  Maybe I would become a slave to my money and possessions – maybe they would possess me.  Maybe I would spend too much time worrying about preserving and increasing my wealth.  Maybe it would detract attention from the important things in life – truth, beauty, a few precious friends and relationships.  Maybe it would restrict my freedom to go anywhere and do anything.

Maybe I would hate all that.

Maybe not.

What about you?   It’s worth thinking about because Felix Dennis claims that the reason most people don’t become rich is they don’t really try.  If you do, you can probably do it, he says, but it requires devoting your life to that.  He also says that making money makes you a rather chilling person, obsessed with money, and that harms relationships.  I don’t believe that is necessarily true, but he has a point.  Quite a few rich people are like that.  It is a danger.  I won’t say anything at all about the charm and personal warmth of the Republican Presidential front-runner.

Be careful what you wish for.  Especially if you spend the best years of your life obsessing about money.

The 80/20 View

But then I started thinking, what insight can my old friend, the 80/20 Principle, shed on whether fame is desirable?   I came up with three possible insights:

  1. A Few Ways to Be Famous Are Better than Most

Eighty percent of people happy with fame are probably in twenty percent or fewer of the ways to be famous.  One of the best ways must be to write a book that people still read twenty, fifty, a hundred years later.  And in accordance with the Principle, that is very rare.  Shakespeare, Gibbon, Dickens, Marx, John Stuart Mill, Darwin, Keynes, Viktor Frankl, Orwell, Hayek, Dale Carnegie, M Scott Peck, Richard Adams – these are all raves from the grave that I re-read frequently, and millions do too.  You will have your own list.  How do we join that choir of angels?  Beats me.  But at least every single writer can hope for immortality, and be consoled by the thought that it is often posthumous, so we can still hope as we die.  Marx was largely unrecognized in his lifetime.

Another great way to be famous is to give away a lot of money.  Only snag is you have to make it first, or inherit it.  If not very easy, both are a tad hard.

It is also good to be famous for artistic or sporting prowess.  Somehow this leads to a kind of nice immortality too.

  1. A Few Ways to Be Famous Are Really Bad News

“All political careers end in failure”.  So Britain’s maverick politician-intellectual, Enoch Powell.  True enough though.  They go on and on until they get thrown out.  Unless they are lucky enough to get shot when in office.

Being a pop star is usually even worse.  You tend to die young, and not in a nice way.  Even if you don’t die quickly, you tend to look twenty years older than your real age.

And of course, being a mass murderer is not recommended either.  Unless you are a communist, in which case you tend to be revered, at least by a segment of the population.  Oddly enough this does not work if you are a fascist.  So if you go in for mass-murder, pretend to be left-wing.  Lenin, Mao, Stalin – you may have killed tens of millions, and enjoyed it, but at least some idiots will think your heart was in the right place.

  1. A minority of famous people can avoid the downsides of fame

There are great novelists, great thinkers, great philanthropists, and great scientists who are famous, and yet manage to avoid most of the downsides of fame.  Charles Darwin was one. A gentle, retiring man, he hid in his cave and let Thomas Huxley argue on his behalf.  Imagine if he had been like Richard Dawkins.  His life would have been hell.  State what is revolutionary, but avoid giving offence.  Give no interviews.  Know no journalists.  Never ever go on television.  Have no website.   Do not tweet.  Be modest.  Live somewhere obscure, and especially, outside the US and outside a major city.  Buy an island nobody has heard of, or live in a beautiful little town or village that nobody visits.  Lie about where you live.  Let your achievements do the talking.  Pay a PR firm to keep you out of the news.

To be famous and obscure at the same time must be wonderful.  You have made a dent in the universe, but the universe has not made a dent in you.  This can be done.

So there you have it.  Decide if you want to be famous.  If you do, do it in the right professions.  Do it modestly.  Hide in your cave.  And laugh all the way to eternal life.

Image credit – Pixabay

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