Mental Model: The Precarity of Reputation

For many of you, this quote is nothing new. You may even be rolling your eyes at the image and quote above. Yes, you have probably heard this more times than your mother telling you she loves you. I still want to reinforce the message with a few examples that creatively unpack that sentence to make it really vivid. What drives you to lose a reputation you built up over decades in under a few minutes (sometimes seconds)? It has a lot to do with the Amygdala Hijack. We will look at examples involving a headbutt, some cannibalism, and illegal injections as our case studies.

Case Study #1 – Zinedine Zidane

Zinedine Zidane was one of the great football players of his era. He had a brilliant career and was well on his way to being remembered as a legend for his soccer brilliance. Then, at the twilight of his career and on the biggest football stage of all – the World Cup – he lost his cool and did this:

He is now basically going to be forever remembered as that French guy who headbutted an opposing soccer player at the 2006 World Cup. A reputation that was built up over 2 decades through unfathomable amounts of blood, sweat, and tears evaporated in a single moment.

Case Study #2 – Mike Tyson

Mike Tyson was one of, if not the greatest (and definitely the most feared), heavyweight boxers of all time. He came from absolutely nothing and clawed and scratched his way to the top of his sport through relentless sacrifice for boxing glory. His opponents trembled in fear at his atomic left hooks that left boxers knocked out cold inside the ring.

To be honest, Mike Tyson already ruined his reputation with the rape conviction of Desiree Washington in 1991, in which he served jail time.

He ruined whatever reputation as a boxer he had left when he decided to go for a fight time meal of human flesh:

Mike Tyson is going to be remembered as that guy who had a chance to be the GOAT of boxing but was a terrible human being who raped someone and then also decided to bite off a piece of an ear of his opponent. A reputation that was built up over a decade was shattered by a rape conviction and then completely shattered by his taste for human flesh.

Case Study #3 – Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong was once wildly hailed as one of the GOAT athletes. His remarkable story of battling and surviving cancer and riding mind-boggling distances on a metal frame with 2 wheels with only the assistance of one testicle was the perfect embodiment of the human spirit in sport: overcoming all odds to becoming the best in class. The only problem was… he cheated the whole damn time:

He’s been stripped of all of his Tour de France titles and a reputation he’s been building since he was 16 years old is all but gone down the drain. He will know just be remembered as that guy with one testicle who was very, very clever at cheating his sport by injecting things super discreetly into his body.


Some additional examples where you can witness reputations being ruined that took so long to build up.

Marty McSorley was a NHL enforcer who built up a reputation in hockey over 2 decades as one of the most feared and respected “tough guys” in the league. Then, in one moment, he ruined that reputation by doing this:

Brutal. He got a criminal conviction for that and know will forever be known as that white guy who slashed a black hockey player with a hockey stick to the head, knocking him out cold on the ice.

Tom Cruise seemed like a normal, cool dude who acted in solid movies like Top Gun, Rain Man, and Jerry Maguire. Then, we find out he might not be all there in the head due to the cult religion he is a part of:

And then to confirm he’s bat shit insane, he goes and does this:

An acting career that took over 2 decades to build a reputation as a Hollywood A-list celebrity is down the toilet. Now he’s remembered as that crazy Scientologist who jumped on Oprah’s couch like an idiot.

Ugh, and this final one… a guy who was on his way to being THE GOAT of pop music (or music in general) went from this:

And this:

To this:

And this:

It’s really frightening what Michael Jackson devolved into, especially seeing where he was at and where he was projected to be going in the late 1980s.

A reputation that was built up since he was 6 years old went down the drain in a serious of bizarre and unsettling events. Instead of being immortalized as the greatest pop musician of all time, he will be forever remembered as that creepy ass guy who had children sleep in his bed and whose appearance ended up resembling something out of his Thriller music video.


The pattern here is that all of these people were on the precipice of immortality as the greatest in either their entire field or a niche in their field. They were just about to grab the brass ring. Then they collapsed.

In some examples, that reputation that was built up over decades was lost in a few seconds; in others, it was a slow burn off of all that goodwill built up over decades that reached where it was all gone.

This is what it means to build up your reputation over decades and see it disappear in 5 minutes.

It is so damn hard to build up and so, so very easy to lose.

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3 thoughts on “Mental Model: The Precarity of Reputation

  1. I’ll agree with all of that except the first one. Ask anyone who follows football who zidane was, and they will tell you that he was one of the greatest players ever. No-one cares about the headbutt.

    1. Agreed – I was thinking more from the “common-man/woman-who-knows-very-little-about-football/soccer-but-just-enough-about-it-to-know-who-Zidane-might-be” which doesn’t apply to anyone who knows about football/soccer.

      More of an exaggerated/vivid example to make the case about how reputation can “potentially” be ruined in a few seconds as opposed to it actually being completely ruined.

      Thanks for your opinion!

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