The Difference Between Fame and Success

(ESL learners – click on the bolded words to see explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after! 🙂 )

Fame is on a lot of people’s minds. In the modern era, we are literally surrounded with fame. Famous people smile at us from giant billboards and glossy magazines, they entertain us from our televisions, and they try to catch our eye on every social media platform out there. 

They vie for our attention in practically every nook and cranny of our lives. 

Just a few days ago, I was browsing on LinkedIn, and a video of Cameron Diaz popped up in my newsfeed. And that’s when I realized that for how much it’s talked about and coveted, fame is one of the most poorly understood things in the world.

Let me explain.

Many of us have this misconception that fame equals success.

But actually, fame is a by-product of success.

To wit, there’s lots of people out there who are famous but definitely not successful. Otherwise, known criminals, frauds, people who have been involved in public scandals, and others who have gone viral for the wrong reasons, would by definition have to be considered successful.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t be both famous and successful. In fact, that is often the case. It’s because of this that when we think of success, our minds often bring up images of money and fame, and so that’s what we want to get so that we can be successful, but we are going about it all wrong.

Let’s take a look at a scenario.

When you are really good at something, for example, let’s say you’re really good at drawing funny comics, and so you work at it a lot and publish lots of good comics, and gradually get even better, then it is highly likely that people will like your comics, and probably share them with their friends, who will do the same thing, and so you will become more and more popular. Eventually, you might be featured in a magazine or newspaper, you might get thousands of visitors to your blog, and you might be able to start selling your creations or fan merchandise. 

As you can see, fame and money do enter the equation in this example, but what defines success here is the skill and hard work, not its after effects.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that you cannot become famous, but not every successful person will become famous, at least not to the same extent. There is a cap to the amount of fame that certain humans can share — if everyone were famous, then the word would lose all of its meaning. 

This might make you sad, but it might not necessarily be a loss. I would hazard a guess and say that being famous probably comes with its own set of catches. Since technology essentially eternalizes everything we do, any mistake or gaffe you make may be commented, ridiculed or shamed on the internet for years after the fact. People will start to talk about you a lot, and not having a lot of first-hand information about you, they may start to theorize and make assumptions, and those assumptions will be mistakenly accepted as  the proclivity is for people to forget that assumptions are just that, and they will start to spread it as “truth”. 

The bottom line is, you can try to become famous, but it will never be what defines your happiness. If you don’t take it from me, take it from Cameron Diaz.

ESL Notes (16 words / expressions)

Glossy: smooth and shiny. Think of a brand new magazine or car – the surface of both is glossy. (Back to the text)

Catch someone’s eye: to get someone’s attention, to make you interested in something. For example, “I was walking around the bookstore and a book about traveling in Paris caught my eye because of it’s beautiful cover image.” (Back to the text)

Vie for your attention: to vie for something means to compete with other people to try to get something. In this case, there are a lot of people on social media who are trying to get your attention, so they are “vying” for your attention. Spelling note: in the gerund, we use “y”, but in the infinitive, present (vie) and past (vied) it is an “i”. You can use “vie” with the preposition “for” followed by a noun, or with an infinitive verb. You can also mention who are the other competitors using “with”. Here are examples of each: “Six candidates are currently vying for the Democratic presidential nomination”.

“The two groups of scientists are vying to get funding for their research projects.”

“Older children tend to vie with the younger ones for their mother’s attention.” (Back to the text)

Every nook and cranny: every part of a place, even the smallest parts of it. Another example: “Every nook and cranny of the house was stuffed with souvenirs of their trips abroad.” (Back to the text)

Pop up: to appear suddenly or unexpectedly. Another example: “The words “Hard disk failure – program aborted” popped up on the computer screen.” (Back to the text)

Coveted: really wanted by many. For example, the Nobel Prize is coveted by many scientists and researchers. (Back to the text)

To wit: This is a formal expression which is used to clarify something or give an example of something you are talking about. Another example: “She’s starting to see the effects of the disease, to wit: her memory is less reliable and she can’t always find her way home after going somewhere.” (Back to the text)

Go about something: to start to do something, or start to deal with something. A very common and useful example: “How can we go about solving this problem?” (Back to the text)

Cap: Literally, it means a soft flat hat, or the top part of a plastic bottle that you turn to open the bottle. (Back to the text)

Hazard a guess: this is simply a more complex and advanced way to say “take a guess”. It may imply a greater level of uncertainty, or “risk” in your guess being correct, but sometimes it’s just used to avoid sounding overly confident if you are not completely sure about the information you have. (Back to the text)

Come with: this means that two things go together. For example, every job comes with its own set of unique challenges. (Meaning, every job you could have includes some challenges or will give you some challenges). (Back to the text)

Catch: a hidden problem or disadvantage. For example, if a restaurant offers you free food, you might think it’s too good to be true, and ask “what’s the catch?”. (Back to the text)

Gaffe: a mistake, usually one that is socially awkward or considered impolite. For example: “I made a real gaffe – I called his new wife “Judy”, which is the name of his ex-wife.” Another example: “You started eating before anyone else had been served? What a gaffe!” (Back to the text)

After the fact: after something has happened. For example, “Some ministers were only informed about certain important decisions after the fact” (meaning after the decisions had already been made). (Back to the text)

Proclivity: a tendency to do something or like something, often something that’s morally wrong. For example, “my colleagues have a proclivity to complain” (meaning they complain often, and it’s not a very good thing to do). (Back to the text)

Take it from me: if you “take something from me”, it means you learn or believe something I said, that is, you accept that it’s true, usually because “I” have some experience or know what I’m talking about. For example, if your chair breaks and you want to try to tape it back together, and I have already tried that in the past and it didn’t work when I tried it, I can tell you, “That won’t work. Take it from me”. (Back to the text)


Want to start using these words and make sure you don’t forget them? Try this exercise! Think about these questions (discuss them with someone) or write down your answers, using the word or expression in your discussion or answer.

  • When you buy books or magazines, do you try to keep the covers looking brand new and glossy, or do you like it when a book feels slightly used?
  • Have any items of clothing or other products at the shopping centre/stores caught your eye recently?
  • Have you ever searched every nook and cranny of your house looking for something?
  • Does it annoy you when you’re browsing the internet and advertisement windows pop up on your screen?
  • Is there a highly coveted award or prize in your profession? (ex: an award given to the most productive employee, the Nobel Prize, etc.)
  • If you had to personally fire someone, would you know how to go about it? If your computer broke down, how would you go about getting it repaired?
  • Try to answer some of these questions starting with “I’d hazard a guess that…” or “If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say…”. What has been the biggest change in the way universities in your country work over the last 10 years? What is the #1 most visited landmark/place in your city? What has been the most important scientific or technological development over the last year? What method of transportation do you think people will use the most in 10 years?
  • What kind of challenges come with working your job? (You can start your sentence, “working as a waiter comes with long hours of standing, some back pain due to carrying lots of weight, etc…)
  • Have you ever been offered something for free, or a gift, or won a great-looking prize, and then realized that there was a catch? (For example, you get a fully-paid all-inclusive trip to Barcelona for the weekend, but the catch is that you have to supervise two young children the whole time).
  • What are some gaffes you have made that you feel embarrassed about?
  • Do you have any friends who have the proclivity to constantly check their phone or social media?
  • Say or write some lessons you’ve learned from past mistakes, ending with “you can take it from me.” For example, “If you want to live in Italy, make sure you get a legal housing contract, take it from me.”

Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.

Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply! 🙂

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