The memory is from 14 years ago, but it stings like it was yesterday.
“I think he’s a famous old actor,” I said, during a game I play with friends where you have to get your team to say a name you’re reading on a slip of paper that they can’t see.
“Humphrey Bogart!” one person yelled out.
“Charlie Chaplin. Marlon Brando!” another hollered.
My heart sank as I looked at the words “Henry Kissinger” written on the paper I was holding. I was in a “I somehow don’t know who this incredibly famous person is and I’m about to be horribly exposed for it” situation. There’s no feeling quite like it.
But wipe that fucking grin off your face, because here’s the thing about famous historical people—there are a lot of them. And you learn about these people in a variety of ways—school, parents, books, articles, movies, etc.—but the system isn’t airtight. Throughout your life, you fill in more and more of the gaps, but no matter who you are, you have some embarrassing gaps somewhere. I can sum it up like this:
There are some names in everyone’s Danger Zone. Beware the Danger Zone. To break it down further, here’s where you can fall when it comes to a famous name:
Zone 1 is by far the most dangerous, and as you get older, there are fewer and fewer big names there (I was 18 during the Kissinger Catastrophe—18-year-olds tend to have a lot of big names in Zone 1). But most people reach full adulthood with a still-crowded Zone 2, and names that are referenced all the time should ideally not be in Zone 2.
Today, we’re going to focus on a 10 absurdly famous, almost mythic people (much more famous than Kissinger) who are yet in a lot of people’s Zone 2 (and maybe even a few in Zone 1)—when you finish the post, they should all be in your (and my) Zone 3, and you’ll be safe. I got to this list by surveying friends and readers about which huge names they were ashamed to know very little about, and these are some names that came up again and again.
As you read, you’ll come across some that are already in your Zone 3 or 4, and you’ll be surprised they’re even on the list. But remember, everyone’s different life experience leaves them with their own unique set of gaps—where you have gaps is typically a random crapshoot—and some of the names you know very little about will seem totally obvious to someone else. Let’s get going—
Alexander the Great
Lived: 356 – 323 BC
In 11 words: Strapping man’s man world conqueror who greatly expanded Greek civilization
His main thing: When Alexander was 20, his father, King Philip II of the ancient kingdom of Macedon, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. Philip II had had military ambitions to expand his kingdom into Persia, and Alexander inherited an army ready for battle. But no one had any idea what this kid’s deal was—turns out power had just been handed to one of the most prolific conquerors in history. For the next 12 years, Alexander would accomplish his father’s ambitions and go far beyond—into Egypt and as far East as present-day Pakistan. The crazy thing is he was just getting started—his stated expansion goal was “the ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea”, and he was well on his way (he made a push towards India, and his next plans were to take the Arabian Peninsula) when he died of some sickness (or possible assassination) at the age of 32.
What’s especially cool about Alexander the Great is that he did it all in his 20s. He was just a dude in his 20s and in his brief 12-year stint, he did this:
This was the largest empire in Ancient Greek history, and though things declined soon after his death, his conquests allowed Greek culture to spread far and wide and launched the Hellenistic Period of Ancient Greek Civilization, whose influence carried as far as the Byzantine Empire almost 2,000 years later.
2014 equivalent: Mark Zuckerberg
Lived: 1254 – 1324
In 11 words: First European to document travels to Asia after 24-year voyage
His main thing: Marco Polo was 15 when he first met his father and uncle, who were traveling merchants returning to Venice from a long voyage. They wasted no time planning their next one, this time taking 17-year-old Marco with them. The voyage lasted an epic 24 years, and went like this:
The thing that makes Marco Polo so famous isn’t that he was the first European to explore Asia—he wasn’t—it’s that he was the first one to document it, in his book The Travels of Marco Polo. He returned to Venice from his 24-year voyage in his early 40s and lived the rest of his life there as a wealthy merchant.
2014 equivalent: Curiosity Rover
Lived: 1928 – 1967
In 11 words: Charismatic, polarizing, ruthless Marxist revolutionary, enduring symbol of rebellion and counterculture
His main thing: I can’t be the only one who has spent my life confused as to why the guy on the t-shirts is such a big thing. The Maryland Institute College of Art called the above photograph (taken of him at a memorial service) “the most famous photograph in the world,” and today, the image is a ubiquitous logo that symbolizes rebellion against authority, capitalism, and imperialism. But who was he?
Che grew up as an Argentinian math-loving, chess-playing intellectual who got his medical degree and became a doctor before deciding he’d rather be a rad dude. He took those ambitions to Mexico, where he met the Castro brothers, and they hit it off because both parties hated the US and blamed capitalist imperialism for most of the world’s suffering. He went back to Cuba with the Castros and helped overthrow the government, and he was a key member of Fidel Castro’s new regime, both as a brutal executioner of political enemies and as the Finance Minister, shifting Cuban trade relations away from the US and toward the Soviet Union. He was an energetic dude and spent a lot of time in foreign countries trying to incite revolution, until he botched it and was captured by the CIA-assisted Bolivian military and executed at the age of 39.
2014 equivalent: Some mixture of Occupy Wall Street and al-Qaeda
Lived: 1910 – 1997
In 11 words: Nice, possibly dickish nun who dedicated herself to helping the poor
Her main thing: Mother Teresa decided to obnoxiously spend her life making the rest of us look bad by dedicating everything she had to “serving the poorest of the poor.” She is ethnically Albanian, grew up in the Ottoman Empire (in present-day Macedonia), and moved to India at the age of 18 to be a nun. And for the next 17 years, that’s what she was—a nun and a teacher, and she seemed content with this until Jesus, she says, told her to stop being a dud and do something to help all of the ridiculously poor people around her. So she changed her path and founded the Missionaries of Charity, which, among other things, ran hospices for poor, sick people so those “who lived like animals could die like angels.” She proved to be quite the entrepreneur, leveraging her growing celebrity and taking her work abroad, eventually scaling her charity to 133 countries with the help of 4,500 involved sisters. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and tends to be a symbol of all things good today.
2014 equivalent: Some NGO you’ve never heard of because people like Mother Teresa are usually not famous
Lived: 100 – 44 BC
In 11 words: Roman general/dictator who laid the ground for the Roman Empire
His main thing: He came up from modest means and actually got a pretty late start. When he visited Spain at the age of 32, he saw a statue of Alexander the Great and it put him in a bad mood because he felt that he had accomplished very little (typical GYPSY). And he was just getting started as a priest before a war of rivals in his hometown ended the wrong way and forced him out of that title—so he turned toward the military instead. He rose steadily, both in military rank and political influence, until he eventually overpowered the weak senate, overthrew the Roman Republic, and was declared dictator.
He was a good leader, beloved by most of the people and made sweeping changes to the constitution, laws, and government structure that laid the groundwork for the Roman Empire, which would flourish for almost 500 years after his assassination.
2014 equivalent: Steve Jobs
Page 2 (Billy the Kid, Galileo, Confucius, Cleopatra, Gandhi) →