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What's the recipe for fame? For one, you need more than talent

Taylor Swift, the Mona Lisa and Beyoncé.
Andrew Dias Nobreafp via Getty Images; Thomas Coexafp via Getty Images; Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy.
Taylor Swift, the Mona Lisa and Beyoncé.

Why is the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world? Why are The Beatles, well, The Beatles?

Or, to put it another way: If today only one person in the world knew the entire Beatles discography, could playing those songs make that person a star?

That's actually the plot of the 2019 movie Yesterday, which offers one of many hypotheticals that the behavioral economist Cass Sunstein explores in his latest book, How to Become Famous: Lost Einsteins, Forgotten Superstars and How the Beatles Came To Be. In the book, Sunstein identifies some of the ingredients for achieving fame.

He spoke with All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro about how talent plays a part, but there’s more to it than that.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Cass Sunstein: To have a champion is really great. The Beatles had a champion. Jane Austen had a champion. Bob Dylan had a champion. William Blake, one of the great poets who was long after his death completely ignored and then had a revival, had champions, and that is central.

A network of people who think, “You're amazing and I'm going to support you and we're going to become a team” — that can be really important. If you're prolific, that can really help. If you can inaugurate a cascade of enthusiasm then you might become, if not The Beatles, at least Herman's Hermits.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform during a civil rights rally in 1963 in Washington D.C.
Rowland Scherman / National Archive/Newsmakers
National Archive/Newsmakers
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform during a civil rights rally in 1963 in Washington D.C.

Ari Shapiro: You mentioned Bob Dylan. In the chapter about him, you also talk about a singer who, the point of the chapter is, I had not heard of before. Her name was Connie Converse.

You can find people who will argue that Connie Converse was as talented, as brilliant a songwriter as Bob Dylan. So what does the fact that Bob Dylan is a household name and Connie Converse is not tell us about what makes famous people famous?

Sunstein: So Connie Converse might be a little like John Keats in the sense that this is someone who, in her lifetime, failed, but long after became iconic. And Connie Converse, she is on the road to potentially becoming iconic.

She was writing her own folk songs before Bob Dylan, at a time when folk songs were really just repetition of old songs. Now, why did she not make it? Why did Dylan make it? He happened to find his way into the cafes in Greenwich Village. She didn't quite make it there. Some of it was that he was persistent. Some of it was that he was lucky. He got a big review in The New York Times early on. Almost no one else got a review like that from Robert Shelton.

He also got to know a very well-known record producer who said, “I'm going to take a chance on this young guy.”

That was John Hammond. When Dylan's first record didn't do very well, it was called Hammond's Folly. That's what it was known as, that he signed this kind of scruffy guy, Bob Dylan, who didn't sell many records, and Hammond didn't give up.

The point is, if there hadn't been somebody saying, “I believe in this guy, even though he's repeatedly disappointing my confidence in him,” Bob Dylan might have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Shapiro: So in some chapters you talk about two people of arguably similar talents where one became famous and one didn't. But there is a fascinating example of one person who became mega famous in one country and was virtually unknown in his birth country. This is the singer Sixto Rodriguez, and a documentary about him in 2012 won an Oscar. The film is called Searching for Sugar Man.

So this American singer-songwriter, who was unknown in Detroit, where he was from, was what, like Elvis in South Africa?

Sixto Rodriguez's story is documented in <em>Searching for Sugar Man</em>.
Pierre Andrieu / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Sixto Rodriguez's story is documented in Searching for Sugar Man.

Sunstein: Completely. So Sixto Rodriguez, who's very, very good, was a failed singer-songwriter who gave up, basically after a couple of tries, and became a construction worker, and he had a family and a pretty good life. But he wasn't in pop music.

In South Africa, and he didn't even know this, he was Elvis. He was Dylan. He was the Rolling Stones. He was The Beatles

Why was he so phenomenal in one place and so failed in his own home? And the intuition would be, well, “He resonated with South African culture and didn't resonate with American culture.” It's a good intuition, but it's almost certainly false. It's that he got some of the kinds of breaks that Taylor Swift got in the United States. He got those in South Africa.

Shapiro: And just to be clear, you are not arguing that talent is irrelevant, but you are arguing that talent is insufficient.

Sunstein: Completely. So you can find, probably in the airport today, at least two books which will say, “The key to success or fame or something is five things.” But those books are, I think the technical word is nonsense, because the [number of] people who have those five characteristics, who didn't succeed, is probably really, really high. They showed diligence or they had unhappy childhoods, or they're super talented, or they were poor.

So the idea that they are causally responsible for success can’t be shown by the fact that they are correlated with success for some number of people.

Muhammad Ali trains with a speed bag in 1966.
R McPhedran / Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Muhammad Ali trains with a speed bag in 1966.

Shapiro: So for every Muhammad Ali in the world, for every Taylor Swift, for every Beyoncé, for every Albert Einstein, there is who knows how many people with the potential who did not become Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Muhammad Ali, Einstein? What's your message to those people?

Sunstein: You've identified the heart of the book, and I confess that I didn't find the heart of my own book until very late. And I was interested in the wellsprings of success, not the wellsprings of non-success by amazing people. And there are people all around us — like, people we’re passing on the street — who are in one or another way potentially phenomenal and even they don't know that.

Shapiro: Do you see that as a thrilling possibility or a heartbreaking tragedy that, for every Taylor Swift, we might be surrounded by 10 people just as talented who can't get a break?

Sunstein: It's both. And the idea that there's all this extraordinary potential out there but, for the grace of God, the people who exploit their talent and get to be iconic wouldn't, and the people who don't didn't get the grace of God — that is heartbreaking. But it also gives us a kind of appreciative rise of the eyebrow when we pass people whom we might think didn't make it.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.