On Wanting to Be a Millionaire

On a regular basis, my mom asks me if I’ve auditioned for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire yet.

I’d be good at it, right? All those years of parsing standardized tests combined with my reasonable knowledge of trivia? I could probably win the million dollars, hands down — or, you know, at least $250,000.

But what if I didn’t?

Today’s must-read longread is I Wanted to Be a Millionaire, a Slate story by journalist and author Justin Peters about what happens when you “have in your hand the money that would change your life, and then watch that money turn to vapor.”

Peters’ story is fascinating for a number of reasons: first, how he got on Millionaire to begin with (he was a friend’s “in-studio lifeline,” and the producers loved his on-air persona; a few months later, Millionaire booked him after a single audition), and second, how he thought about his hypothetical windfall:

What would you do if you had enough money to not have to work for a while? Which unlikely ambitions have you postponed because you couldn’t absorb the loss if you failed? My unlikely ambitions have always been performative. I want to be a comic actor and screenwriter. But I’ve never taken the necessary steps to make it happen.

The part of me that has been practicing David Allen’s Getting Things Done for close to a decade wants to sit down for a heart-to-heart with Mr. Peters and say “look, the reason you haven’t been taking the necessary steps isn’t well, you don’t have a million dollars yet.”

People put off their unlikely ambitions for a lot of reasons: maybe they know deep down that they aren’t talented enough to play at the professional level; maybe they like their lives as they are and don’t want to make the adjustments required to add in a part-time speculative job; maybe they like thinking about the imaginary future in which they are world-famous more than they like thinking about the imaginary future in which they have to work hard, spend money, and fail repeatedly in order to get there.

One of the big themes of this year’s JoCo Cruise, in fact, was the difference between wanting to make things and wanting to become a Professional Creative Person. First, debunking the idea that if you don’t make all of your money doing a Professional Creative Thing, you are a failure; second, reinforcing the idea that the difference between a talented amateur and a potential professional isn’t the fear of failure, it’s the hesitancy to do the work. If you want to do a thing and you’re procrastinating on doing the thing, figuring out the source of your hesitancy is really important.

So Peters, at this point, is right at the pre-professional level. He’s got an improv duo, he does open mics, he’s put on one-man shows. He’s doing at least some of the work and he’s getting some response. To borrow from the Millionaire theme, he could walk away with this life and it would be just fine. But Peters wants more — and to take the “necessary steps” to make it happen, he tells us, he needs one million dollars.

Peters does not win the million. He gets to the $500,000 level, misses a question, and leaves with $25,000.

Because his Slate essay is a longread, make sure you read the part where Millionaire host Terry Crews tries to subtly coach him into switching over to the right answer, ostensibly because Peters has a great on-air persona and the producers have told him specifically that they want to get multiple Millionaire episodes out of him. It’s very interesting to see just how much the show is dependent on its contestants, and how hard it works to find — and, apparently, coach — the right ones.

How does Peters feel about losing so much money?

I got back to Brooklyn. I went up to my cramped apartment, where the cold water didn’t work, the front door had no knob, and the landlord hated me. I buried my head in a sofa cushion and cried.

Then, he makes a decision: he’s going to spend the $25,000 just like he would have spent the million.

I’ve booked a West Coast tour for my improv duo, for starters. We’re going next week. We’re playing San Diego, Phoenix, Orange County, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. I’m going to ask Crews to come to the L.A. show.

This is exciting and sort of daunting for a lot of reasons. There is no established touring circuit for improv comedy. We’re completely unknown, and the audiences for our work don’t exist yet. I’ll probably lose a lot of money.

That doesn’t scare me anymore.

This scares me, but that’s because I’ve been there. I know how easy it is to lose money on tour while simultaneously not becoming famous. But I also know how much you learn on these kinds of trips, from “touring is way less fun than I thought it would be” to a clear understanding of your current talent and abilities. I suspect it will be a very valuable trip.

And now, for all of us: what would you do if you won a million dollars? Would you take a risk on an unlikely ambition? Would you pay down your debt? Would you buy a house? Would you do anything differently if you thought you were going to win a million and then came away with $25,000?

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