Staying in the Orchestra

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There is
an old counter-intuitive adage, "Nothing fails like success."
The idea behind it is that people select the wrong goal as their
criterion of success. Then, through hard work or an unpredictable
series of events, they achieve their goal. After achieving it,
they discover that they took the wrong path. The success that
they have achieved locks them out of the success they still might

If the person’s
criterion of success is the roar of the crowd — any crowd — he is
almost sure to be a failure. Crowds are notoriously fickle. A
person has some combination of attributes that lead to the adoration
of a particular crowd. But crowds disperse. Members join new crowds.
The new crowds want some other combination of attributes to applaud.

Milton Berle
was the first superstar of television, but his fame did not last
long. There is nothing like a weekly comedy variety show to flame
out. The public gets bored very fast. Berle never was in the public
eye again. Yet he craved applause.

Bob Denver
was famous on Gilligan’s
, but the cast’s contracts had no arrangement for
residuals. The show played in re-runs for years after it disappeared
from prime time, but Denver was type-cast forever. He disappeared.

The cast
of the original Star
series would have suffered a similar fate except
for the success of the Star
movies. William Shatner did have a police show series,
but that was all. The rest of the cast disappeared from television.
Much the same fate awaited the cast of Star
Trek: The Next Generation
, with two exceptions. One is
Patrick Stewart, who has made the transition to movies. He is
the star of the X-Men movies, which should keep him in high clover
until he decides to retire. But it is the other exception who
has impressed me as the model for how to stay in the orchestra.


In the most
recent Star Trek movie
, Commander Data was obliterated
at the end of the film. Unless we get another movie in the series,
and unless we get a time-travel sequence, Commander Data has become
the equivalent of Data General: gone forever.

The actor
who played Data, Brent Spiner, achieved what most young actors
dream of: to become a cast member on a successful TV series, followed
by even greater success in a series of big-budget movies. He had
an escalating income and something like lifetime job security.
Of course, that was only for as long as Star Trek had an
audience, but this turned out to be a long time.

But there
was a downside: he was type-cast as an android that has no human
feelings. Only late in the movie series did he get feelings. Spiner
honed his acting skills in a uniquely career-limiting way: mastering
emotionless responses. The better he got, the less versatile he
became. His rsum was as limited as his range of performances.

Then the
series went from small screen to big screen. The number of performances
shrank. The money rolled in from residuals, but the offers didn’t.

There are
some people who would regard this as the measure of success. Spiner
did not have to work any more. He was well paid by the last years
of the TV show. Syndication guaranteed lifetime income, or close
to it. Every 18 months or so, he could be in a movie as one of
the permanent cast. The person who sees retirement as the supreme
goal in life would regard this as the culmination of a great career

The problem
is, Spiner is an actor. Actors want to act. He is not a stage
actor, so he is apparently not motivated by hearing applause.
The other mark of success is cash flow. He has plenty of that.
What he did not have when Star Trek went off the air was
the ability to prove his professional skills. He was trapped in
outer space.

He had a
solution. He would take small parts. But he had a problem. He
was not a box office draw. If anything, there was a liability.
As soon as he came on-screen, the audience would think: "It’s
Data!" This would jar the audience. This is not good for
most movies. A few movies write in brief cameo roles, but the
practice is not used much any more, and it was always a gimmick.
Who remembers The
List of Adrian Messenger
? Who actually saw it in a theater,
other than me?

He took a
small part in Independence
, which at the time had no big-name star. Will Smith
had not yet made the transition to movie star. Then he took another
small role in Phenomenon,
a John Travolta vehicle. In both roles, he played a scientist.
Recently, he appeared on Law
and Order: Criminal Intent
, one of the Law and Order
spin-offs. (Law
and Order
has become so successful a format that it is
now a cottage industry on NBC. It’s a knock-off of the old Arrest
and Trial series, a 90-minute show that had Ben Gazzara as
a cop who arrested the bad guys and Chuck Connors as a defense
attorney who sometimes got them off.)

I happened
to watch part of the show because we had just finished watching
a DVD of Upstairs,
. My daughter is visiting with us, and she got
a phone call from her husband. So my wife and I watched part of
the TV show until she returned. I don’t know how the story came
out. I don’t much care. But seeing Spiner on the show got me to

Spiner must
have gone to his agent at some point and told him, "I want
to work. Get me whatever you can." Unless he is addicted
to something expensive, he is not doing these walk-ons because
he needs the money.

Why is he
doing them? Because he is an actor. As an actor, he walked into
the Star Trek gold mine almost two decades ago. That was
a huge move up in terms of income and audience recognition, but
it was a dead end as far as his reputation as an actor went. He
cannot live by playing an android. A director of a sci-fi movie
might say, "Get me a Brent Spiner type," but not Brent
Spiner. Brent Spiner is Commander Data.

He played
second fiddle for years in a very famous orchestra. We have no
comparable phrase for "playing first fiddle." We do
have the phrase, "playing second fiddle." Patrick Stewart
played first violin. He has made the transition. But Spiner was
always second or third fiddle. He was sufficiently recognizable
to get type-cast. He was not first violin.

To stay in
the orchestra, he had to move back down into the violin section.
He is no longer second fiddle. He is part of the faceless string

He wants
to stay in the orchestra, any orchestra. To do this, he had to
be a support performer. He has to be content to be a back-up person.
He knows that he can be easily replaced in the cast. He is not
coming from a position of strength. But he is willing to subordinate
himself to the system as if he were a newcomer on the way up.

what he is facing. Do fellow cast members regard him as a has-been
or as a professional who likes to keep in the business? The show’s
stars are not as famous as he is, yet here he is. Travolta was
more famous, but Bill Paxton wasn’t, and neither was Will Smith
at the time. To be in the position of having your fellow performers
think, "What is this guy doing here?" might bother most
actors who had been close to the top for as long as Spiner was.
Either this anomalous position doesn’t bother him or else he has
overcome it for the sake of staying in the orchestra.

Spiner ought
to be every successful person’s role model. He made it almost
to the top early in his career, made a lot of money, and then
lost the vehicle to remain in the limelight. His response was
to settle for journeyman roles in second-tier vehicles. A breakthrough
role may show up one of these days, but probably not. He had his
breakthrough as a young man. He may be cured of the quest. He
has a degree of fame that few people ever attain. His image will
still be on-screen long after he is dead. Star Trek will
probably be shown on some cable network, somewhere, in the 23rd
century. Yet he keeps doing walk-ons.


Money keeps
a person solvent. If you can make money doing whatever it is you
like to do, you are truly blessed. If the money is good enough
that your savings program will become large enough to support
you in your retirement, then you are uniquely blessed. Not many
people are in this position, although millions of them think they
are. They still think Social Security will somehow prevail.

Money is
a tool for you to stay in the orchestra. It lets you do what you
want to do without having to quit to do something you don’t want
to do. Any income beyond this and a retirement program for the
day that you’re just too tired to stay in the orchestra is sheer

I am a great
fan of Upstairs, Downstairs. I think it was the best dramatic
series in TV history. It still rents well at the local library.
It still sells on eBay. The social distinction between the masters
and the servants was rigid in England. Mr. Hudson, the butler
who rules the downstairs staff like an autocrat, warns them not
to get delusions of grandeur, not to mimic their betters. Yet
that world did not survive World War I. The women who went into
the defense factories could not be lured back into domestic service
in 1918. Neither could the young men who went off to the trenches
in France. Yet in 1914, at least one-third of the nation was in
domestic service in England. In a very brief period, the social
landmarks were blown down by the economic forces produced by the

You have
to be willing to change. You may be called on to move up, as the
servants downstairs were. You may be called to move down, as the
residents upstairs were. The key to success in both cases is the
willingness to adjust to new market conditions. The series ended
with the suicide of the heir, who had been a moral loser from
the beginning, and could not make the adjustment.

Some orchestras
are worth abandoning. The English aristocracy could no longer
afford to keep people in service after 1918. Their employees had
escaped the social boundaries that had prevailed for centuries.
This took four years.

The same
thing had taken place in the American South after 1865. Former
slaves were willing to work hard, but they would not work on gangs.
The structure of cotton production moved from gang labor to piece-rate
payment. The more you produced, the more you earned.

On the other
hand, other orchestras are worth staying in. If you have a skill,
and you see that consumers are willing to pay you for performing,
either in money or in applause, you may not want to quit. The
number of hours of time donated by Americans to charity is enormous.
If the volunteers should ever quit, it would disrupt the entire
social order. Millions of unpaid staff keep the economy going.

One of the
best reasons to accumulate capital is to gain a stream of income
that enables you to get out of the orchestra you don’t like and
into one that you do like. There is a physician in my church who
got tired of plastic surgery. Actually, he got tired of paying
$30,000 a year for professional liability insurance. He had invented
a cream that restores scarred tissue, removes age spots, and generally
makes women look better. He built a company that sells the product
through dermatologists and plastic surgeons. He makes more money
selling the product than he made operating on people.

Yet he still
wants to stay in the orchestra. So, he volunteers for foreign
missionary service. There is never a shortage of poor people in
foreign countries who need reconstructive surgery. Last year,
he went to Iraq for two weeks. He operated on children. Nobody
in Iraq was going to sue him if there was a mistake. So, he still
plays in the orchestra. He just doesn’t play for money.

He got into
the orchestra and got trapped by the money. This eventually turned
sour for him. As an unplanned side-effect of his career, he discovered
the formula for the anti-scarring cream. He saw an opportunity,
and he took it. This enabled him to escape from the lawyers. Now
he puts his skills to work in places where the government’s subsidy
to tax-funded law schools has not increased the supply of lawyers
to the point of eroding the practice of medicine and just about
every other profession. He is happy with what he does. He can
stay in the orchestra for as long as he wants to.


If you have
no instrument that you love to play, you’re in trouble. But if
you have no orchestra to play in, you’re also in trouble.

It is sad
to be anyone who has a skill but is not maximizing his enjoyment
of playing. I tell people to do whatever they can to get into
the orchestra of their choice. This usually requires extra time
for practicing. It need not require a lot of extra money. There
is a trade-off in life between time invested and money invested.

The availability
of night schools in the United States opens many doors for people
who want to advance themselves. This is a uniquely American phenomenon.

There is
evidence that by investing one hour a day to master a field, even
a new field for a person, the investment will begin to pay off
within a year — two at the most. There are so few people who are
strongly motivated to master any field that anyone who shows initiative
can climb higher on the rungs.

unlike England, has never taught its citizens to stay in their
place. This is our greatest economic strength as a nation. There
are always new orchestras forming, always conductors who are looking
for people who can play. If you are willing to play second fiddle,
even if you are now playing first violin in an orchestra that
doesn’t play your kind of music, there is a conductor out there
who wants you.

In the darkest
days of the Great Depression, 75% of men had jobs. They could
not be picky. There were lines of applicants ready to replace
them. But they could stay in an orchestra.

What happened
after World War II was a huge upward move in productivity and
worker skills. This is now happening all over the world. The American
way is spreading. The whole world has figured out that musicians
and orchestras can play better music when the government isn’t
the conductor. Only Cuba, North Korea, and a few third world dictatorships
in Africa resist the message.


The fact
that you have access to the Internet and read this sort of material
puts you ahead of the pack. But the line of replacements is forming,
just as it did in the depression. This is why you should work
to make it to second fiddle if you’re trapped in the string section.
The best way to play second fiddle is to adopt the mental attitude
of Brent Spiner, who moved up to second fiddle early. When it
was time to move back below second fiddle, he decided to make
the adjustment. The person who is willing to move down, just to
stay in the orchestra, is exactly who a good conductor is looking

The observation
in Chariots
of Fire
is true. When champion sprinter Harold Abrahams
says, "If I can’t win, I won’t run," his girl friend
responds, "If you don’t run, you can’t win." She had
it right. He kept running. They made a movie about him because
he won the gold medal in 1924. But the movie’s script writer also
wrote in a fictitious character who won the silver medal in his
specialty. There is a place in life’s scripts for second-place
finalists. And even losers who make it to the Olympics are winners.
The movie begins and ends with the last survivors, a no-medal
loser and the fictitious silver medalist, at the funeral for Abrahams.

If your goal
is to stay in the orchestra, you need only keep practicing. There
is a director out there who is looking for you.

10, 2004

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
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