Reub's journey

19 May 2011

Success and fame

I was looking at some questions on a cheesy website for English language learners and saw this:
He started off from a very simple background and then worked his way up to be President of the bank -- a genuine ......... story.
(a) success
(b) famous
(c) glamour
(d) fame

Somebody named Sammy had posted a question, in perfect English:
"What is the difference between success and fame?"

Somebody named Alan posted a pretty good response:

'Success' suggests you have achieved what you wanted. 'Fame' means you are recognized and well known by many people.

Of course Alan didn't want to get into the murky question of whether the subject of the test's sentence really did want to be president of the bank. Did he? Maybe he actually always wanted to be a musician, a famous one, in which case the answer would have to be "E. None of the above."

To my mind, success and fame are value-laden cultural terms and they are as different as red from green. These two colors lie opposite on the color wheel, meaning that when they are mixed together they lose themselves in  brown. Success mixed with fame is tricky business.

Okay, give me success, but hold the fame.

Crow's Wing

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us--don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Emily Dickinson

It's ironic that poor, strange, Emily Dickinson achieved fame right along with her success as a poet. And when red is painted alongside green, they make each other most vivid.


  1. ooh. this almost hurt my head. :)

    i'll take success anyday and remain my non-fame-seeking hermit self. :)

  2. Success is such a relative term, isn't it? One earns it, as Sammy suggests but success means different things to different people. I can deem myself a success if I've reached a personal goal; another could see my success as falling short of their own goals for me. Fame, I think, is more the attention paid to the "successful" person and something measured more by others than oneself.

    Words are slippery things!

  3. I remember a wedding where my step-nephew turned to his father (my brother-in-law) and said something about him being successful in his life. He is a wealthy attorney, but all I could think about was that my sister was his SECOND wife and that sort of tarnished the term success for me.

  4. When you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, the answer far too often now: 'to be famous'.

    Not famous for something, just famous, a 'sleb' (celebrity).

    Nobody ever says I want to be good at what I do.

  5. twg: The way I wrote hurts my head too.
    Pauline: Yes it is relative. I hate it when other people have goals for me, screw that. I'm too old for that now, probably!
    Tabor: Well, maybe the second wedding was the real success story. I hope so.
    Rebecca: Thank you.
    Friko: I searched and searched for a recent article (where did I READ this) that said just that: what kids want now is fame. But I couldn't find it and so I couldn't cite it.

  6. And I just wanted to add that red, green and white candy corn? Yuck? It only tastes good in orange, yellow and white! ;-)


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