Fame: So You Want to Be A Big Shot?

Fame: So You Want to Be A Big Shot?I recently have had the good fortune to be in contact with a moderately famous person whom I’ve admired for much of my life. What I notice is that my first impulse, having some access to him, is to pester him as much as possible. This is unfortunate, but telling. Fame makes us strange–both the person who becomes famous, and their fans. We don’t act normal. They become reclusive or worse. We become toadying and star-struck. It’s all rather embarrassing. And yet many of us crave fame, perhaps even more than wealth. Why?

Fame: The False Promise of Self-Acceptance

We believe we want what we believe famous and successful people have: the contented joy of self-acceptance. We believe that through power, wealth, attention, adulation of many people, we will attain this sort of joy. One does not have to go deep into the history of celebrity to find poignant counterexamples to the rule “being famous (rich, successful, adored) will make you happy” — Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, and more recently, sadly, Robyn Williams. The tragic deaths of these talented individuals (and there are so many more like them) demonstrate that fame and fortune are no guarantee of happiness, or even of a tolerable life.

Fame Comes with Bad and Good (Surprise!)

I imagine we all know that being famous can be quite stressful, but many of us, or at least some of us–including me–still find it alluring. The more famous one is, the more one is badgered by fans. Bob Dylan wrote in his autobiography that his fans literally would climb on top of his house (I’m surprised he didn’t live in a walled compound!) Being rich and famous attracts hangers-on, many of whom are more consumed with their own needs and ambitions than of true respect and admiration of the famous person. I would think this result both in loneliness and paranoia. Further, if one has succeeded a few times in producing hits in music, literature, or some other endeavor, there is the further pressure of continuing to produce and win top ratings.

This is not to say that there are not quite happy and satisfied persons who are also famous. Such individuals however may be happy despite their fame, rather than because of it. They may be happy much more because of what correlates with fame, but does not require it: the opportunity to do a lot of things they love doing, especially the activity (music, acting, writing, playing ball, and so forth) for which they became famous.

Valued Living: Even Better than Riches and Fame?

Studies of happiness have found weak correlations between wealth and happiness, with quality of relationships in one’s life being a far stronger correlate. Fame and fortune themselves have been implicated as sources of unhappiness in the few studies that have examined them. As authors of the linked article point out, fame, fortune and also beauty (the latter included in their study as well), are all goals external to the self, in distinction to internal achievements such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Put a different way, goals are by their nature external, while what I call values are by their nature internal.

Values, unlike goals, cannot be “achieved,” they are lifelong aspirations, things that cannot be completed but which serve as guiding stars. Values often can be put in the form of verbs and adjectives, such as “Treating others kindly,” “Being a good parent,” or “Expressing creative ideas.” Such verbal formulas can sustain us and endlessly generate new goals. Life becomes about the value, and the goals become simply ways of structuring activity that serves the value. For example if “Being financially responsible” is a value, one goal that would serve it might be “Getting rid of my credit card debts.” Once the goal is achieved–or for that matter, once I’ve decided I’ve failed to achieve it–either way, the goal disappears. I need a new goal. However, if I’m in touch with the underlying value, the need for a new goal is not a problem. There are always new goals I can set in the service of a true value, a guiding star, an ideal.

Self-Acceptance and Valued Living

When our actions are in blatant contradiction to our values, we naturally feel guilt and shame. While these emotions do not necessarily help us, they can serve as signals that we are not living according to our own values. We do need to start with self-acceptance to a degree, in order to put a foot forward, to start moving toward “walking the walk” of our own values system to a greater and greater degree. But also, as we see ourselves making progress, comporting ourselves more and more with our values, it does become easier to accept ourselves. We no longer feel an intuitive sense of shame (emotionally) nor self-condemnation (cognitively) to the same degree, because we no longer need those signal to ourselves; we have addressed the massive discrepancy between our values and our actions, and now, though we will never be perfect, we have confidence that we are at least making progress.

Self-acceptance and values-based living reinforce and propel one-another. They are interdependent aspects of our self-experience. With self-acceptance, we can accept that we will never be perfect in living our values. With values-based action, we give expression to self-acceptance in meaningful ways, rather than stagnating into a kind of false, flimsy “self-esteem” that no matter how much we are deviating from our own values we still “love ourselves” in a superficial, self-helpy, pop-psychology kind of way. It won’t cut it to “just love yourself no matter what.” Like any love relationship, it takes some work.

Fame, Schmame

So my conclusion is that fame just doesn’t really matter. The reason that I admire the people I admire is that they produced works of excellence that improved my life. But anyone can improve the lives of others, and everyone can produce fine work in some way. I have been very impressed by some of my auto mechanics, who have made my life better with their excellent skills and customer service. They are hardly rich and famous, but they seem pretty satisfied with their lives and I can see why.

As the examples of Kurt Cobain, Robyn Williams and so forth prove, riches and fame do not guarantee life satisfaction. What drives life satisfaction is acting on one’s own most deeply held values, steering our behavior according to these values, aligning our goals with our highest ideals. Living in that way, we never lack for goals, we never lack for self-acceptance, and we never lack for ways to appreciate our lives. As I expressed in a video a while ago, it’d be nice to be rich and famous because it might be easier, or more convenient, to live out some of my ideals. But who said life must be easy? I’ll take a life that’s difficult and meaningful over one that’s filled with luxuries, flooded with admiration from others, and saturated with social power, but ultimately meaningless. And if fame and fortune come, that’s nice. If they don’t, that’s fine too, because I have the option to live my values under all circumstances.

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Joseph Rhinewine, PhD. People collaborate with me to live life fully: with principle, passion and vigor. My expertise is providing and teaching Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based, experiential and relational behavior therapy. I also apply Acceptance and Commitment processes to coaching those who wish to take their lives to a new level.

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