15 Minutes – Warhol, Cowell and Workplace Porn

15mins

Great men, unknown to their generation, have their fame among the great who have preceded them, and all true worldly fame subsides from their high estimate beyond the stars.
Henry David Thoreau

Much in the news and on social media channels lately following celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s comments (in that esteemed organ of social commentary, the Radio Times), about the reliance of his business on immigrant workers owing to the apparently workshy tendencies of young British nationals. It’s a replay of some of the debates we periodically witness at the time of entry into the European Union of new nations and a new tranche of newly mobile workers looking for a fair wage for their hard work. And work hard they certainly do, coming as they so often are from countries who, for one reason or another, have a strong work ethic embedded in their cultures or have not been exposed to the insidious pull of celebrity (I deliberately avoid the term celebrity culture as an oxymoronic phrase that gives more weight than it’s ephemeral nature deserves). Nor have they taken Andy Warhol’s famous comment about everyone being famous for 15 minutes as a life ambition all of its own, lacking as they do an all-pervading media slavishly in thrall to notions of fame.

Oliver’s comments naturally strike a chord with a certain type of reader of publications such as the Daily Mail and reaffirm certain prejudices in regard to the value of immigration and the fecklessness of youth more generally. Despite the many outlets available to people who hold and espouse these views, there is little in the way of nuanced debate. The tendency seems to be to tar the whole demographic with the same brush. More instructive, perhaps, are comments from what one assumes to be youngsters on the BBC’s Newsbeat webpage which reflect a broad agreement with a view that attitudes amongst some of the workforce to work in general are not perhaps as filled with a sense of potential as one might hope. When Warhol talked of being famous for 15 minutes, he was not noting that there was any potential or untapped talent within each and every one of us that, if properly given life, would lead to fame. He was referring instead to the prevalence of a mass-media that, in capturing even the most mundane of occurrences, would bring a degree of notoriety to nonentity.

Europe’s largest lending library opens today in Birmingham. Its chief executive was interviewed by the BBC and told the interviewer, in response to questions about whether it was worth the £188M it apparently took to build, that it certainly is because “it’s about empowering people and helping them fulfil their potential”. I happen to think that libraries are a hugely important social resource and well worth the investment of resources needed to expand and maintain them in our communities. However, much of the wild goose chase of modern workplace design and management is taken up with building and curating environments that might better foster creativity, innovation and collaboration with talk of engineering opportunities for serendipitous encounters at that fabled fountain of corporate intelligence, the water cooler. Leadership theory is following a similar narrative arc, determined that there be no truth in the saying that there is nothing new under the sun. What chance innovation, if that proves to be the case. This stuff is everywhere. Like porn on the web and its deleterious effect on how a certain proportion of young people view sexual relations and relationships, it creates unreal expectations of what work is like for the wider population. Somebody like Steve Jobs did not become well-known because he was the only one of his peers from school who, sharing an identical potential, found a way to unlock it. He was notable for the fact he was unique in the way he envisioned the technological world and the way he went about making his vision a reality.

Celebrity, fame, the National Lottery, bankers’ bonuses and the huge sums thrown around in professional football all serve to create a miasma of false expectations. Couple this with an ever-shifting curriculum and a corporate media machine that celebrates the value of creativity and innovation over sheer hard work and determination for comparatively lacklustre rewards and it becomes easier to appreciate why some people have the attitude to work that they do. Why would I settle for a life of relatively thankless toil when I could become famous and/or wealthy overnight without lifting a finger? This is the vein of thought that Simon Cowell has tapped in to. Some might see this as a more democratic process, what with the public vote via money-spinning premium rate phone lines. It’s not particularly democratic to engineer the process of whittling down the candidate pool to suit your agenda though. What we seem reluctant to discuss is that many people only have the potential within them to stack supermarket shelves for a living. There can and should be dignity in that and leaders in business, commentators and public figures should ensure that there is, in the way they talk, act and set expectations.

My father was appointed MBE in the most recent Queen’s Birthday Honours . It made me pay particular attention to the others similarly honoured, having previously been rather sceptical about such things. Away from the celebrities and business leaders who hog the headlines, the vast majority of those receiving awards are people who have spent their lives in the kind of jobs that some are now apparently turning their noses up at. In their spare time they have devoted many, many unheralded hours to their local communities and to wider society giving no thought to reward excepting the satisfaction of a job well done or of having given selflessly. Any cynicism I might have felt evaporated as I read their stories. Many of these folk will enjoy a day out with their friends and family at the investiture and return home, pop the medal in a drawer with other clutter and get straight back out there and do it all over again.

Living in a democracy demands more personal responsibility than we are led to expect. We should be drilling it into people from an early age that, whatever small modicum of talent or potential you might possess, it’s hard work, guts and determination, as much as where you do it or who you learn from that will get you to where you end up at any point in time. You might be inspired by any towering figure from history but you simply cannot replicate the circumstance or individual makeup, however much the snake oil salesmen would have you believe. Genes, luck and choices all play their own part but there is no failure in the modest scale of most individual human achievement. We should start to celebrate that fact and recalibrate expectations.

Postscript: It just occured to me that there might be some small measure of irony in the fact that Jamie Oliver’s televisual philanthropic experiments and restaurants were named “Fifteen”.

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One comment

  1. Upper Class suits your blogging style Simon

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