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Success for Dummies

There is something important to be learned from Jeff Dunham's improbable rise. Passion and belief are often able to create a path forward where none may exist.
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Many stories of tremendous personal success are impressive and instructive. Now and then, we come across one that's astonishing, and that can change our attitudes about what is or isn't possible in the world.

I recently came across an example of this -- the story of a man who has followed his passion to pursue a decidedly quirky interest since he was a kid and has attained extraordinary financial success with it, against all odds. From an early age, he knew what he wanted to do and be. He apparently didn't care about the objective probability of success for his chosen career, or whether what he wanted to do was even generally profitable. He didn't undertake any market research to determine if there was a real demand that would allow for the accomplishment of his dream. He wouldn't even take any of the cultural hints around him that the focus of his passion was a thing of the past that could no longer provide a viable financial future. He just did what was in his heart to do, and did it to the best of his ability at every possible opportunity.

As a result, in the past year alone, this man on a mission reportedly has grossed 38 million dollars in ticket sales from people who want to see him live out his dream. He's also sold over 4 million DVDs and pulled in an additional 7 million dollars in merchandise sales based on his work in the same period of time. Forbes ranks him as the third most highly paid comedian in America, behind Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. The precise nature of his personal success is so amazing that the New York Times magazine just devoted a long article to describing the phenomenon. My favorite line in the piece mentions a brief midlife crisis that this hard-working man experienced years ago concerning his choice of career. The sentence that caught my attention was:

"He'd just turned 40 and, for the first time since he was 8, questioned whether it was feasible to become a superstar ventriloquist in America."

Having known nothing about the popular comedian Jeff Dunham prior to reading the Times article, I had to smile at the outrageous vision of stardom that he had long entertained. To dream the impossible dream, indeed: It's hard not to love the incongruity of the mere idea -- a superstar ventriloquist in America, 21st century style. Our quixotic dreamer went through his temporary crisis of confidence when he was earning $600,000 a year, but his goal of mega success boosted by television specials seemed as remote as ever. And yet, just seven years later, through constant touring across the heartland and beyond, along with the eventual support of the Comedy Central cable channel, he's somehow managed to attain his nearly oxymoronic quest.

Many years ago when I was a professor, my students at Notre Dame had a hard enough time explaining to their parents why they wanted to drop their business courses and major in philosophy. Shock and dismay would often ensue. It's difficult even to imagine the parental concern and conversation that could result from a young person of the same age announcing his serious career ambition to become a superstar ventriloquist. At that point, his horrified parents might ironically still see his lips moving, but hear no further sounds.

Ventriloquist dummies -- like the hula-hoop, yo-yo, shooter marbles, accordions, and car fins -- seem to belong mainly to a former age. Ventriloquists, along with jugglers and plate spinners, were once regulars on variety shows in the early days of television. But it was news to me to learn that there are still a few who have ventured to ply the trade over the past few decades, mainly in the humbler settings of county fairs and children's parties. The sheer idea of a superstar ventriloquist pulling in an estimated 30 million dollars of personal income during the economy of the past year, and at the current stage of our cultural history, can appear literally unbelievable.

Surely, there is something important to be learned from Jeff Dunham's improbable rise.

Success of this magnitude is never overnight. Dunham has been at it for scores of years. He reportedly once thought that his big break had finally come back in 1990 when he was invited to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But that small flash of fame faded and he went on to face 12 subsequent years of continued relentless touring in relative obscurity. Many people would have given up the dream, thinking they had had their shot, and that it just must not be in the cards. But Dunham's journey represents some of the major themes in classic success stories -- including the importance of resilient confidence and a doggedly determined persistence that seems almost irrational in its refusal to quit or even reduce the scope of its ambition.

Critics of Dunham and his dummies often call his act "racist, sexist, and homophobic." Others say that, in their opinion, he's just not funny. But hordes of manic fans deem him both hilarious and perfect for our time. Some claim that he's skewering culturally common stereotypes with the dummies and their bigoted views. Detractors allege in reply that he's just reinforcing those views. They might try to explain his success by pointing out that pandering to popular prejudice has always been a reliable route to riches -- if conscience will grant you that option. Ventriloquism through the mouths of dummies creates the appearance of a personal distance from the content that either entertains or offends, and that allows the performer himself to seem to rise above it all.

So the debate goes on. But meanwhile, the magnitude of this particularly improbable success just seems to expand. And at the same time, another ventriloquist, Terry Fator, has also appeared on the scene, following Dunham. After winning Season Two of America's Got Talent, taking home its million dollar prize, and working at the Las Vegas Hilton for another 1.5 million dollars over a 5 month commitment of only 3 shows a month, Fator has now hit his own jackpot. He's received a 5 year, 100 million-dollar contract with The Mirage that includes an option for doubling the commitment and the revenue. This is not bad at all for a man who once played in a 1,000 seat auditorium to only one audience member.

What can we learn from all this? Perhaps nothing startlingly new, but a few lessons come to mind that we would do well to remember. The seemingly impossible can indeed happen. Passion and belief are often able to create a path forward where none may exist. Persistence against all odds can in fact sometimes prevail. Our cultural circumstances need not define us or hold us back. Talent and determination willing to take a risk can win the day. And anything of value that might seem relegated to the past can be revived flamboyantly, with the right spin and flair.

This last thought has a special resonance for me, as I work to bring the ancient wisdom of practical philosophy back into people's lives. I suddenly have visions of a tour bus and Vegas lights. Maybe all I've needed are some small, hand-operated, toga-clad figures of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to take onto the stage with me. That might in fact work. After all, I did write the book, Philosophy for Dummies.