I started writing books when I was in the fourth grade. My first book—a picture book—was titled Austin, Texas (clever, I know) about the place where I was born. I had no desire to be famous. I didn’t even know what fame was. I was just an artist with a package of colored pencils, doing what made me feel profoundly alive.
Over time, my creative motivations changed.
The shift was both subtle, and also normal. It is human instinct, in a way, to move from creating and living as a way to express what is in our souls to creating and living in such a way that will get us noticed and recognized make us popular and loved. This of course takes many different shapes—from trying to get more followers on Instagram to jockeying for a promotion at work to just trying to get invited to a weekend party.
But no matter what shape it takes, chasing fame is this constant teetering between acting and living in such a way that makes us us, and acting in and living such a way that makes us liked and approved of.
So completely human. So expected. And so normal.
Which makes it easy to overlook.
Fame and unhappiness.
The most obvious problem with overlooking our tendency to fight for approval at the expense of ourselves is that this is the road to unhappiness.
Our hunger to be noticed, to been seen, to be appreciated—all these are intensely human, innate, built-in desires. But when we’d rather be noticed than to be ourselves, we have a problem. (TWEET THAT)
Arthur C Brooks writes in the New York Times about what research says about those who seek recognition and fame:
In 2009, researchers from the University of Rochester conducted a study tracking the success of 147 recent graduates in reaching their stated goals after graduation. Some had “intrinsic” goals, such as deep, enduring relationships. Others had “extrinsic” goals, such as achieving reputation or fame. The scholars found that intrinsic goals were associated with happier lives. But the people who pursued extrinsic goals experienced more negative emotions, such as shame and fear. They even suffered more physical maladies.
This is one of the cruelest ironies in life. I work in Washington, right in the middle of intensely public political battles. Bar none, the unhappiest people I have ever met are those most dedicated to their own self-aggrandizement — the pundits, the TV loudmouths, the media know-it-alls. They build themselves up and promote their images, but feel awful most of the time.
That’s the paradox of fame. Just like drugs and alcohol, once you become addicted, you can’t live without it. But you can’t live with it, either. Celebrities have described fame like being “an animal in a cage; a toy in a shop window; a Barbie doll; a public facade; a clay figure; or, that guy on TV,” according to research by the psychologist Donna Rockwell. Yet they can’t give it up. —Arthur C Brooks
The reminder for us all is twofold. First it is intrinsic motivations—for art, creativity, life, friendships, etc—that keep us satisfied and happy over the long haul. And second, fame (attention, approval, etc) is like a drug. No matter how much of it you think you need, it will never be enough.
Like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we will never ever get to where we think we are trying to go.
The pervasiveness of fame
There are really two major reasons it is so difficult to avoid this feeling that we are somehow lacking something unless we have more followers, more fans, more likes, more awards, more money than the person sitting next to us. One is that, in the culture we live in, fame seems so close to our fingertips.
We’re just one YouTube video away (so it seems) from being “discovered”, from our Big Break.
This is the lie our culture has sold us, even though it has some truth to it (don’t all the best lies have some truth to them?)
We have bought it, hook, line and sinker.
And second, the rise of social media—along with all it’s benefits—has this way of luring us, in our humanness and our desire to be noticed and recognized and appreciated, into a space where we must perform not only for those who are in our immediate social circles, but also for the thousands of people who may or may not ever encounter us in real life.
This is the currency of our world. We want to be famous.
And yet it is a lot of weight for our fragile souls to bear.
Who Is Affected?
Part of the reason it’s even so important to talk about the pervasiveness of this mentality is that, even if you don’t think it affects you, it probably affects you. Even if you think to yourself how you couldn’t give a flying you-know-what about social media or followers or likes or fans; in a world that is more profoundly connected than ever before, we are even more prone to posturing and comparing and competing—and all kinds of other things that will, eventually, steal our happiness.
Which of the following do think will make you happier?
- A promotion?
- A bigger paycheck?
- A date with someone you like?
- A business opportunity?
- An award or accolade?
- Acceptance from friends or parents?
Here’s a question I would like us all to stop and ask ourselves: what will getting those affirmations or affections actually get us?
Am I looking for something outside of me that I can give to myself?
The cost of chasing fame.
What are we trading for this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that doesn’t seem to actually exist?
Here are a few things that come to mind:
- Creativity—chasing fame prevents us from focusing on what will really heal our hearts, like creative projects that restore our souls and help us find our way home.
- Love—the concept of being “famous” narrows our focus to ourselves and prevents us from really seeing how we are connected to other people in the world. When we are stuck in grief and fear and hopelessness, the way forward is LOVE. Pursuing the empty promise of fame prevents us from being able to see the real value of this.
- Connection—it’s not that someone who has experienced fame can’t be authentically connected to others. I know many “famous” people who are very authentically connected. It’s just that the race for fame (competition, perfection, posturing) can be in direct contradiction to the rules of connection (safety, vulnerability, honesty).
- Satisfaction—since fame is on a continuum, how do we measure it? How famous do I have to be to be “famous”? How many followers and “likes” do I have to have before I consider it enough? Is 250k enough? Or do I need a million? 7 million? What if, instead of defining “success” or “fame” we defined “enough” and let the rest take care of itself?
- Ourselves—at our core, we are all imperfect, multi-dimensional, constantly changing, total paradoxical beings. One day we want to be vegan, and the next day we want to eat bacon. Today I want to read a book, and tonight I want to watch a movie. I have meltdown and breakdowns like anyone. We are imperfect and fallible and beautiful and always learning and growing. Fame doesn’t allow for this. Fame asks us to be two-dimensional, predictable, “perfect” or nearly-perfect versions of ourselves, which might be fun to watch but is not real life.
- Balance—fame tempts us to believe that the world revolves around us, and the minute we begin to believe this, the slightest change in our environment can make us feel like the world is crashing in on us; and like it’s our job to fix it. It shouldn’t be surprising that we’ve seen so many celebrities lose their balance in life.
This is not to say that fame is bad. If fame or success or money or left-handedness comes to you, great. But trying to make yourself something you’re not in order to manifest some kind external circumstance-whether that’s fame or something different— is a recipe for disaster.
“Fame is a spiritual drug. It is often a by-product of our artistic work, but like nuclear waste, it can be a very dangerous by-product. Fame, the desire to attain it, the desire to hold onto it, can produce a “how am I doing?” syndrome. This question is not, “is the work going well?” It’s “how does it look to them?” —Julia Cameron
My point is fame is dangerous. And without some careful attention, our built-in appetite for it can lead us down a road of destruction.
The cure for a fame-soaked soul
There are a few suggestions I have for those of us who find ourselves swept up in the Fame Drug, which is all of us in one way or another. If you’re reading this, chances are pretty high you have been feeling the pressure of the fame drug, the allure of it.
It’s been drawing you in, despite your resistance.
And for you (me too), the first and most important imperative I would give you is to find a creative project that you can do ONLY for the sake of the project. By that I mean you are not engaging in this creative project for the sake of getting attention or recognition someday for how amazing you are at the art.
You’re literally just doing the art for the sake of the art.
It might actually help you to find a creative outlet you’ve always been drawn to, even if you think you’re not good at it. Like playing the guitar, or taking a dance class, or writing a book. Because again, the point is not to get a bunch of applause from an audience.
The point is to become more yourself.
Julia Cameron puts it this way:
The point of the work IS the work. Fame interferes with that perception… We all like credit where credit is due. As artists, we don’t always get it. Yet, focusing on fame—on whether we are getting enough—creates a continual feeling of lack… Remember, treating yourself like a precious object will make you strong. When you have been to toxified but the fame drug, you need to detox by coddling yourself. What’s in order here is a great deal of gentleness…”
So to reiterate, you find a creative project you can take on just for the sake of the creative project—not for the sake of sharing it—and then you act incredibly gentle and gracious with yourself as you explore and get curious and make a giant mess and a fool of yourself.
This will detox you of the fame drug.