Thursday, Apr. 30, 2009

And No. 1 Is...

I don't believe TIME editors think these are the 100 most influential people in the world. I think they want you to think they think these are the 100 most influential people in the world. If they claim that Cambodian human-rights activist Somaly Mam is important, not only are you going to think their magazine is smart but — perhaps more important — they're going to get Angelina Jolie to write about him. Or her.

I, however, work on a simpler journalistic principle, one called honesty. And I say that if these are the most influential people in the world, then I'm not living in the world. Of the 100 on the list, I'd heard of only 48 — seven of whom I've met. You take away my acquaintances, Oprah and the President, and I'm doing better with the names of the staff of A couple of the people on the list do not even have Wikipedia entries, which means that they lack not only influence but any friends at all.

So in the interest of journalistic objectivity, I've run each member of the TIME 100 through a basic test to rank their influentialtivity: How much have they directly affected me? Look, I get the butterfly effect: London Mayor Boris Johnson (No. 16) runs a city with congestion-pricing rules, traffic around Oxford Circus is reduced, Prince Harry gets to a nightclub faster, he's in a better mood, he doesn't put on any Nazi clothes that week, and my phone conversation with my dad is 20 minutes shorter. But in reality, the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics by Yoichiro Nambu (No. 86) is going to influence my life only if it explains the latest episode of Lost.

My scientific ranking from most to least influential (which can be found at shows some surprising results — one of which being that 100 is a ridiculous number of people to Google. Most of the people sank to the bottom of my list because they made the mistake of doing things that aren't ever on TV. Others simply didn't deliver. Where's all the change you talked about, Barack Obama (No. 12)? I'm basically eating and watching the same stuff that I was before Jan. 20. And some were completely irrelevant. Coming in at No. 100 on my list was Nouriel Roubini, the economist who predicted that the housing bubble was going to burst — thus making him the least influential person in the entire world. I know cheeseburgers make us obese, but nobody is slapping gold stars on my ass.

The very top of my list was up for a lot of debate, so I asked several contenders to make a case for their candidacy. George Clooney (No. 4), who came for dinner at my house and discovered, disabled and dismantled a beeping carbon monoxide detector, says, "I think the choice is obvious. Angela Merkel (No. 94) has never crawled around your attic. And Xi Jinping (No. 82) hasn't won one single Sexiest Man Alive award. Although with all due respect, they are both very sexy. I'll be by to fix your cable." That Clooney knew my cable was broken is so eerily Batman of him.

Nicholas Christakis (No. 5), a Harvard professor of medicine and sociology whose entire field of study is how people influence each other, argues that he has affected me as much as a sibling. "I don't know if your sister got you into trouble, but I did," he says. That's because I wrote a column in which I stole his idea that the peanut-allergy epidemic is an overreaction from overprotective yuppie parents, completely forgetting that all my friends are overprotective yuppie parents.

But the person who convinced me that she had influenced me most is the head of the Bravo network, Lauren Zalaznick (No. 1). I've known Lauren for eight years, ever since she accidentally sent me an e-mail meant for other TV executives in which she called my television writing "amateurish" and said someone should "tell him to use a real font." Since then, we've had regular breakfasts where I turn to her for advice. "It's like I'm your life COO," she says. "I feel like you could call me for a million dollars' bail. If you said, 'I've been wrongly accused of murder,' I'd be like, 'O.K., we have to get into it right away.' " Zalaznick made No. 1 on my list because I now know that she has a million dollars.

I chose Zalaznick over Clooney and Obama because Christakis' studies are right: the people who influence us most aren't our leaders, titans or heroes. The people who most affect us are the ones we spend the most time with. When a friend of a friend of a friend gets happy, it increases your happiness more than a $5,000 raise would. Zalaznick won not just by being one of the smartest, nicest people I know and by giving me more column ideas than anyone besides my editor but by putting in the time. The bathroom won't grout itself, Clooney.