Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade were ripped from our lives in the past week in what early reports suggests are suicides. Robin Williams is another star extinguished before his time.
Kevin Spacey betrayed our trust along with a litany of actors and producers and comedians. It seems like an endless parade of successful men ran to the cliff like lemmings bent on self destruction.
Liz Taylor entertained us for decades. As a role model she left us with issues. Marriages came and went until she reached eight husbands over her lifetime. We see the same behavior today without the distraction of marriage in our modern starlets. Adored musicians race from one bed to the next until the world crashes in.
Closer to home we see bloggers and podcasters who failed us. Some crack under pressure while others lose themselves in drugs and cheap whisky. We idolize these people and want to be like them. Then, when we get a closer look, they have warts like the rest of us.
Friends and even parents can let us down. The perfect marriage collapses and nobody can figure out why. We watch as people we admire undertake destructive behavior. At some level it is entertaining. Deep down we know it ends badly.
We want our heroes to live forever. We want their example to help us live a better life. We want them to entertain us the way we remembered them at the height of their career.
Then something horrible goes wrong as we discover the emperor has no clothes.
Out of Left Field
Professionals who work with a lot of people for long periods of time start noticing patterns. In all the years I’ve been in practice only two clients ever surprised me with their divorce. In both cases I liked my client too much to see the forest from the trees. All the telltale signs were there to see if only I opened my eyes. A third case is impending. I didn’t see it coming, but it isn’t good.
My track record is pretty good. I can tell you within a few minutes of seeing a new client if their marriage or business will last and about how long it’ll last or how much wealth they’ll amass. Then I swing and catch air once every decade or so.
I’m not alone in this unique talent. Clients who are therapists tell me they tell the same thing, which begs the question: If I can see so clearly who will and will not succeed, why don’t I tell them so they can avoid the pain?
If only it were so easy! When it comes to financial matters I do speak up. I am brutally honest with clients contemplating an investment or planning a business venture. It’s rare, but I’ve helped clients I noticed were teetering on the emotional edge by recommending appropriate help. That is easy compared to telling a client their marriage doesn’t stand a chance in hell.
Two divorces surprised me. Not every client I had concerns over actually divorced (yet)! Investments are easy to advise on compared to interpersonal relationships. It’s not my place to warn clients they might not have a strong relationship.
Never Ending Failures
How can super successful people like Anthony Bourdain feel so low they feel the need to end their life? How can a loved rock star sink into drugs and other illicit behavior sure to destroy their career and health?
We can explain away the tragedy by blaming depression or other mental illness. While I give credence to the explanation, I think a lot more is going on under the hood. Mental illness isn’t a good explanation for why a football mega star is caught beating his girlfriend in a public elevator. Mental illness doesn’t explain why seemingly good people turn dark when they become celebrities.
There s another explanation I want to explore.
Why Good People Do Bad Things
I notice something many people fail to realize: our heroes are normal people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The international rock star, sports phenom, bestselling author, Hollywood celebrities and even bloggers are real people who were once something else.
Anthony Bourdain wasn’t always there helping us connect with food. Before he became a household name he was something else. Before fame he was a student and before that a child and before that an infant curious about the world around him. Something happened between then and here to cause him to take his own life. What could possibly have gone wrong?
First, it is unlikely a single defining moment which turns people down the wrong path. It can be a single event (divorce, illness, death of a loved one), but usually it is an accumulation of events that leads to their demise. It happens slowly so people adjust and accept the new behavior. Only after the defining moment is it clear—as hindsight so often is—do we recognize the problem.
But the real problem is that these are normal people! The demands on them once they gain fame must be crushing. Hell, your favorite accountant bends under pressure that wouldn’t even register on the scale real celebrities use just running a small business.
Another thing I’ve noticed is how small these people are in real life. Have you ever discovered an author, actor, musician or blogger you really connect with? Of course! Everyone has. We build up an impression of who and what these people are. Then we meet them in real life and they seem so small, so . . . like everyone else, sans the press of people wanting their attention. Our heroes are frequently underwhelming when seen in real life. They are the furthest thing from a superhero. They just belt out blog posts or books, or act in movies or sing really good. Otherwise they are just like you and me.
Can We Help the People We Admire Survive?
Perception is what drives people to act the way they do. After the Plutus Award ceremony last year where this blog won the Best New Personal Finance Blog of the Year a few of us talked before heading to the party. Congratulations went around as we drank in the moment.
As we prepared to attend the after ceremony party a few in our group felt good about so many people seeing our work. I plagiarized an author I met in Albany two decades ago at a sci-fi convention when I said, “If you walk outside this hotel and ask random people if they know what a Plutus Award is nobody will know what you are talking about.”
That’s the truth of the matter. People inside the demographic might know what a Plutus Award is, but virtually nobody outside the demographic will have a clue. It brings it all back into perspective.
Later this week there is a ChooseFI meetup in Appleton. I was invited to attend. (I’ll be there.) The host mentioned they needed a celebrity to draw more people. I asked who the celebrity they were thinking of inviting. Then it hit me. They meant me! I was flattered as all get-out. But I don’t feel like a celebrity. And in the real world I’m not. But if you love my work and read it regularly you might have a perception I’m some bigger than life individual. I’m not.
The worst part of popularity is the demands on time. People think they know you because they see your work. No harm is meant when they seek interaction. When the flow is manageable I love the recognition. When the water runs too fast I start drowning.
I never met an author who didn’t enjoy shaking hands and autographing her books. I never met a blogger who didn’t love talking shop and sharing ideas. Really, really famous people are different. Twenty people at a meetup or conference is a manageable group to communicate with. The press of thousands is destabilizing.
We can help our heroes. They are normal people who happened to strike a chord with a vast audience. They went viral so to speak. Books, songs, movies and blog posts all enjoy going viral. The more the better. But time is limited so a viral song or movie can push us to the extreme when it happens.
There are no excuses for what Kevin Spacey did. We can’t condone violence from our heroes. But we have to ask ourselves why so many of our heroes, people who have it all, fail so often. Personally, I think they crack under pressure. I for one would never withstand such an assault! In varying degrees none of our heroes do either. Fame always extracts a cost.
There is nothing wrong with admiring our heroes and role models. We must always be respectful of their time and wishes as it relates to their personal time. We can’t fix our heroes; they have to do that on their own. Support is always welcome, however, when it is unattached to a time demand.
Fame isn’t glorious. Even on a micro scale—the way a local businessperson sees the world—it is demanding. A modestly successful blogger gets several requests per day. People want a piece of you long before you do anything really big.
Many goals require acknowledgement to succeed. As a blogger I want traffic to justify my writing efforts. Traffic means more people will be interested in who this character is writing the blog. It’s natural to want to meet people who have shaped our lives.
Our heroes are normal people known by many. When you see a master at work it is clear they have given their life for their craft. Anthony Bourdain literally did.
Mrs. Accountant and my girls are sacred. I would give a lot for success in my business and this blog. If the price includes any harm to my girls I’d walk in a heartbeat.
But it happens so slowly, building over time, you probably never see it coming. Heroes need more than our admiration; they need our support. When we see one of our heroes, role models, begin to waver we need to take action. Most of us had no ability to help Bourdain. But there are people around you who may need your help: role models, heroes, parents, friends, our children. It is your responsibility to be the hero, the role model, when they do.
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