Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Slipping in

Q: Is the culture of celebrity and reality TV eroding our understanding of what constitutes success? What should we tell our children about people such as Tareq and Michaele Salahi who apparently crashed a White House state dinner in pursuit of reality TV fame?

American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once observed, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."

Thoreau clearly had no television at Walden in 1854. He'd have a hard time finding peaceful woods today, what with Survivor contestants lurking desperately (but not quietly) in the bushes, television cameras trailing their every move, or some Extreme Sports Channel players racing past on trail bikes.

He'd surely observe that no song goes unsung in the age of American Idol and America's/Britain's Got Talent. Walden 2010 would probably be a blog with some You Tube footage.

Popular culture creates a false image of success by exalting individual free expression as an end in itself -- a person can be "successful" by eating worms on Fear Factor or climbing up a gigantic foam rubber pyramid on American Gladiator.

"Success" on reality shows is not even about winning, but rather, simply appearing on the show, being willing to engage in weird or embarrassing acts for the sake of mass entertainment (and profit for the production companies who are the real success stories). If there's any good news here, it's the fact that most contestants survive, unlike the old days when some gladiators had to die for the games to be successful.

While reality shows may be all good fun, unfortunately, they feed into pop culture's obsession with fame, celebrity, even notoriety as surrogates for success. Worse, they lead people -- especially young people -- to think that success comes not from hard work and mastery of knowledge and skills, but rather, from the phenomenon of appearance -- on television, on You Tube, even in the crowd surrounding a celebrity. Reading and writing a book report on Walden is hard, solitary work; making a video for Jackass with your friends is fun and easy.

In this noisy, eminently narcissistic culture where fame is too-often prized over excellence, parents and teachers face considerable challenges in teaching children about real success. With the news full of "teachable moments" such as the Salahis crashing the White House party (allegedly), opportunities abound for responsible adults to talk with kids about the difference between getting on TV for doing something stupid vs. being recognized for real achievements. Rather than focusing on the gate crashers, talk about the legitimate guest list and why people of achievement were invited to the White House.

Hundreds of real success stories were present for that state dinner -- why haven't we learned more about them? The answer is that really successful people don't need to be on television to be successful, and, in fact, many avoid the media spotlight altogether. Truly successful people know that it's better to be on the original guest list due to your achievements, than to be outside the fence hoping to slip in.

By Patricia McGuire  |  December 3, 2009; 11:24 AM ET  | Category:  notoriety vs. success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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