Staying in the Orchestra

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 have.

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 Island, 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 Trek series would have suffered a similar fate except for the success of the Star Trek 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 résumé 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 strategy.

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 Day, 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, Downstairs. 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 thinking.

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 section.

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.

Consider 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 gravy.

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 war.

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.

America, 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 for.

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.

March 10, 2004

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

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