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Geoffrey Owens: Being Shamed for Honest Work and Our Definition of Success

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There’s a lot to learn from the story of ‘Cosby Show’ actor Geoffrey Owens. One of the most valuable lessons? We need to rethink the American Dream.


So. Geoffrey Owens.

If you haven’t heard the saga by now, let me catch you up to speed: on August 30, 2018, the Daily Mail posted photos of actor Geoffrey Owens, most known for the role of Elvin Tibideaux on “The Cosby Show,” working behind the counter at a Trader Joe’s in Clifton, New Jersey. Within hours, major news outlets were circulating the photos. Working actors and artists quickly jumped on Twitter to chastise the media for “job-shaming.”

A few days later, Owens appeared on Good Morning America to speak for himself, Trader Joe’s name badge pinned to his lapel. He was genial, upbeat and honest: “No one has to feel sorry for me. I’m doing fine.” He explained that, for those months between acting gigs, Trader Joe’s offered him flexibility and stability. Not too long after that interview, though, he told CNN that he resigned from his cashier job of fifteen months. Shortly after that, producer and director Tyler Perry offered him a role on his new television series. After a week of media coverage and public dissection, a working actor is working again. So ends the ballad of Geoffrey Owens.

Okay. But what did we learn?

Since the Owens story broke, there’s been a lot of discussion about the dignity of work and misconceptions about the life of the artist. Those are important conversations, certainly. But there is another issue to be addressed, something big, something deeply ingrained in the American psyche. If there’s anything you and I learn from the Geoffrey Owens debacle, let it be this: Americans need a more expansive definition of success.

The American Dream—anyone can become anything if they work hard enough. Individualism, upward mobility, rags to riches. Pioneers thrashing their way west. Immigrants pouring through Ellis Island and making a life for themselves in the New World. A midwestern girl hitchhiking her way to Hollywood, halfway to gaining everlasting fame and fortune. It’s romantic stuff, right? It’s the story we like to tell ourselves about America. And there’s truth to it. Grit and perseverance do pay off. But, like so many of the narratives we tell ourselves, the American Dream is oversimplified. It’s rarely as clear-cut as we hope.

Take actors as an example. For many of us, actors are synonymous with celebrities. We think of Jennifer Lawrence and Brad Pitt, people who have “made it.” In her book “Celebrity Culture and the American Dream,” Karen Sternheimer argues that for many Americans, celebrities “provide a continual reaffirmation that upward mobility is possible in America.” In other words, celebrities make the American Dream look simpler than it actually is. Whether we know it or not, the very existence of celebrities forms our definition of success.

Grit and perseverance do pay off. But, like so many of the narratives we tell ourselves, the American Dream is oversimplified. It’s rarely as clear-cut as we hope.

But what many of us don’t realize is that for most actors, fame and fortune is not the dream. Working is. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total number of working actors in 2017 was 43,470. How many famous actors can you name? Maybe 30? How about 43,000? There are thousands of actors like Geoffrey Owens going to auditions day in and day out, working side hustles in the meantime, hoping to snag a role every few months or years. Data USA claims that working actors make, on average, $44, 562 a year. That’s not outrageous, but it’s liveable. For most actors, success is not about notoriety or exorbitant wealth. That’s not reality. Reality is making a living while doing what you love. And that’s okay. No, that’s great.

See, we as a society need to start talking about success differently. In an article for Time magazine, author Ruth Whippman writes this: “While Americans are wonderful at big dreams…they are surprisingly bad at more modest ones.” Americans suck at dreaming small. We love to think about putting human beings on Mars, but we can’t fathom a once-famous actor now working at a grocery store. But that’s reality. In real life, success is a mixed bag of big dreams and attainable dreams, aspirations and compromises, all while navigating a thousand mitigating factors like class, race and socioeconomic standing. Life is hard. But we’re getting by. We’re doing what we can with the time we’ve got.

 

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I think the story of Geoffrey Owens should be our signal to modify our definition of success. Owens shows that there is far more to living well than living in Beverly Hills and being a household name. As Whippman notes, “… in reality, the bulk of our wellbeing is not made up from the remote possibility of stratospheric success but from…more low-key aspirations.”

She’s right. Real success should not be measured by making it to the top and staying there. It should be measured by putting your kids through college, paying off your car, having a job that makes you smile. Geoffrey Owens may not be a rags-to-riches success story, but he is a success. And so are you.