Recently I admitted that I want to be a famous writer.
After I wrote about this I got a lot of responses from friends and people I respect warning me that’s a bad goal. They told me it seems shallow. I’m sure many others thought this too, and didn’t say anything.
But fame has a mixed rap, because many people who openly pursue it are admired for their big dreams.
I thought it was interesting that fame can be seen as good or bad depending on the person. I wanted to know, what’s the deciding factor? I started to do some research. Here’s the result.
1. Where Do You Come From?
In order to see how people react to fame I had to look somewhere that the quest for fame happens a lot: rock music.
In the music industry a lot of artists openly seek fame. They don’t try to hide it. But their fans don’t think they’re jerks—they love them for it.
At the same time there are many stars who deride their own fame, complain about it, or put it down. And their fans love them too.
What’s the difference?
I cracked open Milk It!, a book about 90’s alternative rock. What can I say, I’m a 90’s child. In the book, author Jim DeRogatis talks about how Pearl Jam distanced themselves from their own fame. They refused almost all interviews after their debut and front man Eddie Vedder led the band in keeping to its indie Seattle roots: low ticket prices, a fight against Ticketmaster, and self-effacing lyrics.
Jim contrasts them with Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page had every intention of creating a chart-storming band. He used his industry experience and on-stage persona to build Led Zeppelin into gods of rock. Showing no humility, they basked in their fans and enjoyed every possible excess. They even released their fourth album without their name on it just to prove it would still explode.
Both bands ruled in their time, and they even shared a similar genre. But one succeeded by relentless fame-raking and the other through almost embarrassed humility.
The difference is the background the bands come from. Led Zeppelin rose to greatness in the 70’s, a time when hard rock was the staple of working class kids. All the great classical rockers were over-the-top superstars. Pearl Jam took the limelight in the 90’s as part of the post-punk tradition, hitting it big with middle class kids. The enduring punk ideal is that the musician is just one of the fans.
Like all awesome ideas, this is a simplification, but there’s something to it. Late 80’s punk and 90’s alt-rock represented a lot of bored middle class teens whereas the 70’s rock scene in Britain came from very poor roots. The same model explains why 2000’s indie rockers are shamed for selling out while 2000’s hip-hop stars are expected to, and rap proudly about their money and success.
In other words, if you have nothing it’s OK to be super ambitious. But if you’re already comfortable, you shouldn’t talk about aiming for the top. Middle class guilt kicks in and you’re supposed to act like your success doesn’t matter to you.
This is even more true for very rich people. Listen to a CEO give a talk sometime and pay attention to the self-deprecating language. If you’re already on top, you try to act humble. In general, people bend toward the middle. Rich and poor people will describe themselves as “middle class.” Liberals and conservatives will say they are “moderate.”
So seeking fame is more acceptable if you have humble roots.
2. Choose a Focus
Another thing I discovered is that people’s reaction to ambitious fame-seekers depends very much on how you phrase your ambitions.
Instead of saying I want to be famous I decided to start saying I want to be a famous writer. This instantly changed people’s perceptions.
When I talked about how I want to be famous, people seemed confused. I would get skeptical comments like, “That’s quite a goal.”
But if I said I want to be a famous writer, people instantly lit up. They thought that was a great dream and everyone, even total strangers, expressed encouragement. At worst someone would give me pragmatic (but obvious) advice like, “Well, that’s going to be hard to do.” But no one ever seemed put off.
I believe this has to do with focus. If you just say you want to be famous, it implies that you want all of the rewards of fame without doing anything to earn it. It also sounds like you have no plan to get there, so you’re naïve and you’re going to fail.
On the other hand saying I want to be a famous writer expresses some of your passion. It shows that you have a talent and it implies you’re willing to work in your field to achieve fame.
In general, if given a choice between a passionate hard worker and a lazy person with no plan, public opinion goes to the hard worker. Some anime characters may be exceptions.
The Nature of Fame
Fame is desirable, just like money or sex. And like those things, going after it the wrong way looks douchey. But wanting to be well-liked, respected, and remembered is something everyone can understand. In other words there is nothing wrong with fame itself, or pursuing fame. It’s all how you go about it.
Anybody else out there hoping to make it big in this lifetime? How have friends reacted? How do you talk about your ambitions?
My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.