How Important Are Important People?

There are people who hold an outsize place in our culture. We tend to mythologize individuals, and celebrate their role, for good or evil.

Why do we do this?

First, we tend to want to put a face to an organization or to a group. For example, Tim Cook is Apple. Pope Francis is the Catholic Church. Lebron James is basketball. A group of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people is difficult to conceptualize. But one name, one face that stands for a movement is something we can comprehend.

We also like to remember important contributions. Albert Einstein’s scientific contributions are such that his name and appearance have become synonymous with science. Mother Theresa was a symbol of kindness and generosity to the whole world.

But whether it is a celebrity, an athlete, or a musician, famous people drive ratings, increase page views, and sell newspapers. So clearly some people are considered, by society, more important than others. More worthy of attention.

What is the alternative?

However, an entire political movement has sprung up to combat this. Talk of income inequality, of the 1% — the richest and most powerful of society — is featured on debate stages and town hall meetings around the country. If wealth and influence are considered “important”, there is an ongoing effort to return some power and voice to those who don’t have it.

While it is worthwhile to appreciate the contributions of individuals, does that also have the effect of minimizing the efforts of others with a lower profile? Steve Jobs was a visionary, sure, but it was the engineers and software programmers of Apple that actually produced the iPod, iPhone, Macintosh computer, and other products. It is the rare individual whose success doesn’t rely on the efforts of dozen, or hundreds of unheralded workers.

Do we, as a society, give too much credit to too few people? Or is fame and fortune fully deserved (and obscurity of others so implied)? How important are important people? Does it matter how important is defined?

Related questions: What is important? Where does authority come from? Who is the most important person in your life? Which historical person would you like to meet?

 

How Much Power Does An Individual Have?

It can be difficult to properly judge the role of an individual in our society.

On one hand, one person can feel completely powerless. With institutions like political parties or religious groups consisting of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, an individual has a limited voice. Some individuals, due to wealth or fame, can influence many people all at once, but if you are not one of those people, what recourse do you have?

Alternately, in our culture we often mythologize the lone creator. Steve Jobs was Apple, Jeff Bezos is Amazon, and Elon Musk is Tesla. We often associate an individual with large and powerful groups, even when it isn’t proper to do so.

Amazon, for example, is a huge company, filled with innovative people. Jeff Bezos didn’t design or build the Kindle. He didn’t develop or program the Amazon Web Services. He doesn’t fulfill orders, doesn’t make deals with distributors, doesn’t manage inventory. There are thousands of people employed by Amazon to do all of these tasks and more.

One of the greatest talents one person can have, however, is the ability to inspire others. One person can inspire a second to join them, and a third, and so on. That’s the ability that Steve Jobs had, and why our society revered him.

Everything that happens in our culture is done by individuals. A song becomes a hit because individuals listen to it. A book becomes a best seller because individuals each buy a copy. A movie is culturally significant because people — one person at a time — think it is.

Who really wields the power, the crowd or the people who make up the crowd? How much power does an individual have?

Related questions: How can we turn ideas into actions? Why do we feel the need to belong? How important is the artist to art? Where does authority come from?