In 1983 a group of music entrepreneurs in search of money and immortality agreed to create a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Artists love recognition, and so more than 300 have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, including David Bowie and Nina Simone. But Dolly Parton doesn’t want to join them. The vaccine-funding vocalist has bowed out from her nomination, saying: “I don’t feel that I have earned that right.”
A cynic might say that Parton withdrew before being voted down: she is a country and pop legend, but some fans question her rock credentials. She’s on a longlist of 17 artists marked out this year for the honour, including Beck, Dionne Warwick and, erm, Eminem.
But withdrawing in the face of embarrassing defeat is real wisdom, as Vladimir Putin could learn. Announcing your withdrawal early and proudly turns it into a victory — something else that might be noted at the Kremlin and passed down the 20ft table.
Parton’s reticence is a lesson for the rest of us, too. Limitless ambition is part of our culture. Even failure is now only meant to be a springboard to greater heights. Yet we know our limitations better than those who appoint us. You could blag your way through a job interview, but should you? Sometimes the brave option is to accept that someone else is better qualified.
The Peter Principle, coined in 1969 but identified years earlier, holds that people in a hierarchy rise to the level at which they are incompetent. You do one job well, so are promoted to a job that requires different skills.
Among celebrities the principle blows even harder. People who have reached the top of one profession go straight in at the top at another. Former UK chancellor George Osborne was parachuted in as a newspaper editor; footballer Frank Lampard quickly became a Premier League manager; actor Gwyneth Paltrow is a wellness influencer.
Celebrities find it hard to accept their limits, because they became celebrities by denying them. “Confidence is the main achiever of success . . . Just believin’ you can do it,” said Parton, who attributed her desire for attention to being the fourth of 12 children. She has published 3,000-plus songs, made films, set up a reading charity and created a theme park, Dollywood. When Andy Warhol told her she could be a great preacher, she shot back: “What do you mean? I am a great preacher.”
But Parton always had an engaging modesty. One of her greatest songs, “I will always love you”, was written for country star Porter Wagoner. She had grown too big to continue on his TV show, but the lyrics suggest the opposite: “If I should stay / I would only be in your way.”
She told NPR in 2012 that she had “a guilt complex” at having succeeded ahead of others “much more talented”. These days that is called imposter syndrome (and the Peter Principle has never applied in the same way for women, who have been less likely to be promoted unless they excelled). But a degree of self-doubt is healthy.
William Sherman, the Union general in the American civil war, rejected talk of the Republican presidential nomination in 1884, saying: “I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected.” Sherman thought that he would be “a fool, a madman, an ass” to enter politics at the age of 65. He also hated politics and feared that his wife’s Catholicism would be targeted. Many celebrities tempted by politics should consider his example.
Parton’s rejection of the Hall of Fame was not Shermanesque. It was better than that. She suggested she might accept one day, “if I’m ever worthy”; indeed the process had inspired her to put out “a hopefully great rock ‘n’ roll album”. How incredible, at the age of 76, to turn down glory of which she thinks herself unworthy, and turn to hard work instead. Someone needs to start a Hall of Fame for such heroism.