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To Become Rich and Famous, Take a Vow of Poverty and Anonymity

When the famous documentarian Ken Burns first started doing his long, historical documentaries, he thought he was taking "a vow of anonymity and poverty,” he recalls.

Just think! The greatest historical documentary filmmaker of all time, now widely celebrated and commercially successful, thought he was doomed to obscurity when he first set out.

In some cases, one must be willing to accept anonymity and poverty in order to do something great.

Sometimes, glory flows most assuredly to those who do not seek it.

The career of Ken Burns is particularly instructive because his work is brutally painstaking.

His 18-hour Vietnam War (2017), for instance, required 12 years to make. Burns interviewed more than 80 people, reviewed more than 1,500 hours of archive footage, and sifted through more than 24,000 photos.


The Ken Burns documentary I most recently enjoyed was Mark Twain (2001). A wholesome and edifying flick for any writer or America enjoyer. Instead of Netflix tonight, watch Mark Twain here (free).

It's almost impossible to produce exceptional, painstaking creative work if your primary goal is fame or fortune. The reason is that fame and fortune are extremely improbable until after you've produced exceptional work, and even then these rewards are far from guaranteed.

Nobody is long motivated by an extremely unlikely reward, even if the reward is exciting enough to make one aspirational.

Thus it can happen that becoming exceptional is more likely for those who believe they are unexceptional and doomed to obscurity but have the desire, and the courage, to do the work nonetheless.

In the Arts and Letters, desire and courage are often the limiting constraints, more so than raw talent, skill, or IQ.

To produce work that’s worthy of fame and fortune, one should desire to do the work so badly that one is content to achieve nothing at all with one's entire life because the reality is that one probably won't achieve anything at all with one's entire life, if one is constantly tinkering with some inefficient obsession.

But if you have what it takes to pass this filter, suddenly you might just have a fighting chance.