Menus Subscribe Search
guinness-record-book

(PHOTO: HUMBERT15/FLICKR)

The ‘Officially Amazing’ People Who Try to Break Guinness World Records

• November 01, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: HUMBERT15/FLICKR)

What kind of person wants to become the world’s fastest cucumber eater?

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.

Sarah Sloat
Sarah Sloat is an editorial fellow with Pacific Standard. She was previously selected as an intern for the Sara Miller McCune Endowed Internship and Public Service Program and has studied abroad in both Argentina and the U.K. Sarah has recently graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara with a degree in Global and International Studies. Follow her on Twitter @sarahshmee.

More From Sarah Sloat

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



Follow us


How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.