American Idol or American Idle

January 17, 2011

How Far Will Your People Go to Get Their 15 Minutes?

By Eric Chester

In 1948, the upstart medium known as television was still finding its way into mass markets of American homes. The original, new shows that debuted that year included Candid Camera, the Original Amateur Hour, and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. Although few knew it at the time, those shows birthed an entire genre—reality television.

The term “reality television” didn’t really gain momentum until decades later. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that reality shows began spawning like rabbits in the spring. Today as I reviewed Wikipedia’s entry on the topic (“List of reality television programs”), 413 of the world’s 468 reality shows had debuted since 2000. So that’s 55 shows worldwide in the first 52 years of reality show history, and more than 400 in one more decade.

Without question, this proliferation of reality television has made a prophet of Andy Warhol, who famously predicted that, “In the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” The teen dream of becoming a star—a rock star, a movie star, a football star, an Internet star, a reality show star—is now more of an entitlement than an aspiration.

Parents are culpable in this. Early on, we steer children toward the talents that the world values—signing, dancing, acting, athletics … We have good intentions. If we have a prodigy on our hands, we want to find out. What if little Seth really is the next Peyton Manning or tiny Brooke really is the next Miley Cyrus?

But we get caught up in the fame and lose our balance when we don’t also teach them the skills and the follow-through that come with more challenging labor—prepping the wall before painting it, researching the topic before writing the paper, etc… We help them major in entertainment, so that’s what we produce—entertainers who can get swept up in the adulation of the spotlight because that’s all they’ve ever known. Many of the brightest stars flame out all-too-quickly because they lacked core work ethic values, while others, Manning for instance, shine brightly for years and years precisely because they learned these values early and often while growing up.

So the question for many people isn’t so much if they’ll get their fifteen minutes of fame but what they’ll do with it.

In the past, it came mainly through high achievement. To attain fame, we had to become the best of the best—the best actor, the best baseball player, the best scientist, the best writer—or even the best outlaw. But fame and respect weren’t synonymous. Now we’ve got hundreds of television and Internet channels, and most of them are begging for content. With the decline in moral values, you now can become famous for doing something incredibly bizarre, dangerous, weird, or self-deprecating.

William Hung grabbed his fifteen minutes because he was one of the worst, if not the worst, singers to pass through the auditions for American Idol. Richard and Mayumi Heene grabbed theirs by telling authorities their six-year-old son had floated away in a homemade helium balloon (a failed hoax in an attempt to land a reality television show for their family).  And 15-year-old Keenan Cahill is now on the late night national talk show circuit gaining worldwide fame by lip-syncing pop songs (quite badly) on a laptop webcam in his bedroom and uploading the videos to YouTube where they’ve been seen by more than 50 million viewers in the past several months.

Getting noticed—regardless of what tactics are used to get noticed—usually translates into revenue from a book deal, motivational speaking gigs, media appearances, or paid ads on your YouTube video.

No wonder so many young workers question the need for work ethic. Why put forth the effort and personal sacrifice to find success on Work Ethic Lane when Just Get Noticed Drive leads to bright lights and big bucks and appears so much easier, sexier, and a whole lot more fun?

Instinctively, those of us in the older generations want to blame the young for their lack of work ethic values. But that does little good—for us, for them, or for the future of work. For starters, we share in any blame that needs owning because, to some extent, they are what we’ve made them. Second, blaming, complaining, and moralizing don’t make things better. The emerging workforce has no desire to listen to the old man on the porch screaming, “Get off my lawn, you whippersnappers!” Understanding and influencing the emerging workforce are the keys to driving positive change, both within ourselves and with those around us.

What Leaders Can Do
You aren’t going to be able to brainwash your young employees into not wanting, at some level, fame; the desire is woven too deeply within them.  You can, however, help channel the energies they expend toward that outcome in a positive direction—perhaps one that works to your mutual benefit.

Take steps to assure that your culture is one that throws its biggest spotlight on those who achieve excellence. The days of merely adding a new engraved nameplate to an ‘Employee of the Month’ plaque in your lobby are over.  Be on perpetual search for new ways to recognize and reward outstanding accomplishment. The more successful you are at making your stars shine brightly the easier it will be for you to attract new stars, keep your existing stars, and make others in your organization want to duplicate the performance that is deemed worthy of stardom.

Eric Chester is the founder & President of Generation Why, Inc., a training and consulting firm offering insight, perspective and strategies to leading companies and organizations to help them recruit, train, manage, motivate, and retain the very best of this new generation. His newest book “Getting Them to Give a Damn – How to Get Your Front Line to Care About Your Bottom Line” is a must read for business professionals and leaders in our industry.


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