Ashrita Furman holds the record for setting the most Guinness World records. According to his website, he still holds 162 of those titles—feats that range from underwater hula-hooping to balancing a chainsaw on his chin. While some find themselves in the Guinness World Records books by genetics or as a byproduct of a different goal, Furman is part of a different class of competitors: the active record makers with only the title in mind. When speaking at a ceremony for the volume’s 50th anniversary, he said, “You know, the tallest guy, he didn’t do anything to deserve it.”
Getting put in the book doesn’t come with any sort of monetary prize, but it does allow you to become a part of a cultural phenomenon. The idea for it came about in 1951, when then-chairman of Guinness Brewery, Sir Hugh Beaver, missed a shot at a golden plover while hunting. Chagrined, he wanted to know if the plover was the fastest game bird in Europe but couldn’t find a book with the information, which inspired him to create a record book of his own. Published as the Guinness Book of World Records in 1955, it became an immediate best-seller and has since gone on to be translated into 20 languages and sell, on average, 2.7 million copies a year.
Masters of all crafts get there through an obsession with their work. Society just chooses what’s cool or what’s not.
Revamped as simply Guinness World Records 2014, the newest edition still has the vaudevillian flare that’s made it so popular for so long—there’s the hairiest teenager, the longest legs, the widest mouth. But it’s also filled with people like Furman who’ve become the best at something most of us wouldn’t realize was an option in the first place. They strive for a goal that, honestly, doesn’t make them all that famous. So why work so hard?
In his book Getting Into Guinness, one-time record holder Larry Olmstead simplifies it as this: “The bottom line is that the book has a glorifying effect on all its record holders, which is why people are so eager to get into it.” Like reality television or YouTube, the book offers a venue for fame that would otherwise seem unattainable—perhaps you can’t become a professional quarterback, but you can maybe stuff 400 straws in your mouth.
“A large chunk of the population has a desire for fame and what it brings,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “And I think the Guinness World Records book is one of those places where you can aspire to become famous—and [while] I’m not sure how many people in that book I would call actually famous, the book is. But there still is that aspiration; I mean the very title of world record. I can see the appeal. You’re thinking, ‘There are six billion people on this planet and I am the very best at one thing.’ And out of six billion, that’s pretty impressive.”
With so much of the world wanting to be famous—one in 10 American young adults, according to the Pew Research Center—fame is a surprisingly understudied subject. The former director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network, Orville Brim, laments the lack of research: “There are no tests for the fame motive; nor are there any experiments or field studies through which it can be objectively appraised.” The need for fame, he believes, comes from not-so-surprising desires: to be accepted, to feel loved.
Gavin Kilduff, a New York University assistant professor who researches competition and rivalry, says there’s a human need for achievement that goes beyond the desire for an economic prize. There are those who feel they must constantly measure their performance to see if they’re improving and stacking up against others.
“The thing about records is that they’re a very public thing, there’s all this notoriety that comes with it,” Kilduff says. “I would categorize that as really a drive for status. Status is something that is highly motivating and desirable, and this really links back to sort of our evolutionary origins in small hunter-gatherer groups where having high status came with all kinds of benefits and, in particular, reproductive benefits. So as a result we’ve just evolved to desire this prestige.”
Perhaps the pleasure of being put in the book all comes back to its slogan—a home for those who are “officially amazing.” Once you’ve broken the record, it’s in print; you are amazing, a rare person who has set a limit for what humans can do. Masters of all crafts get there through an obsession with their work. Society just chooses what’s cool or what’s not.
“Some of these people you see pursuing these world records, you think, ‘Oh, why don’t they get a life,’ or that they’re crazy,” Thompson says. “But in some ways they are simply doing something with a love and dedication that we admire if you’re doing them in an arena where somebody pays you.”
Even if that something is eating a 200-gram cucumber faster than anyone else. Furman doesn’t have that record yet—but there’s still time.