A lot of people, especially younger people who haven’t quite figured out what they’re good at yet, want to be famous and have lots of admiring fans. Me, I’ve been famous, and I still have a lot of admiring fans. I’m here today to talk about why a thoughtful person might want to avoid this, and outline some risk-mitigation strategies if you want or need to play the fame game.
Why now? Let’s just say I’ve had some interactions recently that reminded me of my responsibilities. “With great power comes great responsibility”, and oh, yeah, fame is a kind of power.
For purposes of thinking about fame-as-power, there are two different kinds with two different weights. There’s fame for what you do, and there’s fame for what you are,
The two people I’ve most recently become a fan of are instructive examples. One is a brilliant musician/composer/bandleader named Simon Phillips. I wrote about him in Finding jazz again.
I admire Simon Phillips tremendously for what he does – jazz fusion with a combination of sophistication and drive that I’ve desperately missed since the 1970s/1980s halcyon days of that style. The fact that he seems to be a pleasant, thoughtful, down-to-earth person who I think I’d get along well with is nice but incidental to his appeal. He could be a pretty awful human being and I’d still respect his ability to make interesting music a whole lot.
On the other hand, Jordan B. Peterson is a big thinker, a psychologist and mythographer and synthesist who may be – or at least be becoming – the most important moral critic of our time. But it is not merely the breadth and brilliance of Peterson’s thought that is impressive, it is the personal qualities that shine through in his lectures – a foundation of intellectual courage and humility that underpins his thought. What he is is an important part of the persuasion for what he thinks.
Simon’s what-you-do fame probably doesn’t weigh on him a lot; all he has to do to justify the expectations his fans have is be a workaholic creative genius, which seems to be a role he has learned to occupy as easily as he walks or breathes.
Peterson’s fame probably does weigh on him – because Peterson aims at nothing less than transforming humanity’s understanding of itself, and his effectiveness depends in part on being seen to be worthy to exert moral leadership.
What-you-do fame doesn’t really have to lose sleep wondering about anything larger than its own career. What-you-are fame is heavier, especially when what-you-are represents a kind of aspiration for your fans. If Peterson isn’t a stone sociopath or a delusional nutter (and I’m certain he is neither) part of his response to fame has to have been occasionally losing sleep over the possibility that he might be wrong – an inadvertent Pied Piper leading his fans and possibly civilization in general over a cliff.
I have some what-you-are fame myself, and I’ve lost sleep to that kind of worry. Not often, and not recently – but then my goals aren’t quite as ambitious as Peterson’s, and the community in which I’ve been famous is narrower and more sharply defined than the entire intellectual world Peterson is trying to make over.
Peterson’s tackling a really big problem: why is humanity afflicted by radical evil, and what can we do about that? My own ambitions have been more modest – to fix some things that were broken about software engineering and bootstrap the hacker culture up to being more effective. Yeah, OK, I’d like society to draw some larger libertarian lessons from what I demonstrated, but I don’t stress about that; if I’m right, history will unfold that consequence.
What Peterson and I have in common is the power that comes from having fans and the implicit pressure of having to live up to what our fans expect of us, not just in skill and creativity but in character – which is much more wearing on a person.
When you’re what-you-are famous, a million people might want to be like you when they grow up, or at least follow you around because you’re cool. And man, that pressure can be brutal. Simon Phillips has dodged it, possibly deliberately. I think the musicians who don’t dodge it are at least a large subset of the ones we lose to drugs or suicide.
The difference is, if your fans only expect you to be a brilliant instrumentalist/composer, the pressure is mostly off when you’re not playing. But if what your fans expect of you is to be virtuous and worthy of emulation, a prophet who gives form to their individual and cultural aspirations to become more than they are – you’re never ever off that hot-seat.
You can’t let them down. You can never allow yourself to let them down. Because if you’re Peterson, or even if you’re just me, you know that your prophecy shapes culture – you can all too easily grasp how letting your fans down might be a crime against the future, rippling forward to failures with unimaginably large consequences.
Every parent and teacher feels this a little. Now scale that up by a million! Despite the potentially larger scope of his influence, I may in present time feel this pressure worse than Peterson does; I’ve already done a few things that I’m pretty sure have had historical-scale effects, whereas he may not have yet – or, if he has, he may not yet be sure of the scale and thus not yet fully have the weight on him yet.
If you don’t think you can or want to handle the pressure of all those fan aspirations and the responsibility to the future, you should stay the hell away from what-you-are fame. You might want to stay away from what-you-do fame too, because sometimes it’ll twist on you into the other kind. (More generally, once you reach a certain level in either they do tend to start feeding back into each other.)
That’s close to what happened to me, but not quite. I started with what-you-do fame; to some extent I took on what-you-are-fame as a mission requirement to sell the open-source vision. I knew the risks, and they frightened me considerably, but I accepted them as my duty. I’ll return to that point later on.
I’ve described about one kind of risk, that you might fail those you inspire, and the dread that comes of that. There are at least two others.
If you’re an extrovert with the dopamine/acetylcholine-driven personality of a stand-up comic (think Robin Williams) or a revival speaker, you can actually feed on the energy of crowds. I’m like that, I have that brain chemistry, and it’s like a high – the crowd’s desire for you to be larger than life makes you larger than life, which excites them, and it’s positive-feedback time.
The effect seems to scale with crowd size. People who are really good at working this kind of loop on large crowds can start riots or mass religious conversions. I don’t actually know if I’m that good – my mission never required me to find out. But there have been times, especially addressing crowds of over a thousand people, that I felt like I was close to inducing mob cathexis, and that if I’d pushed harder, I might have done it.
If you have a big ego and a small brain, that would be an exhilarating feeling; for me it was more like ‘frightening’. I don’t feel like anyone (including me), should have that kind of power – it corrupts. The subtler downside that goes with that capability is that it is dangerously easy for people who have it to become adulation addicts.
When I was deciding whether to step up and be Mr. Famous Guy back in ’98, this is the possibility that viscerally frightened me. Rationally perhaps I should have been more worried about failing the future (which made the top of my worry list later on) and maybe about another risk I’ll get to in a bit, but the possibility that I might slide into adulation addiction was what made me sweat and nearly run offstage.
Jordan Peterson probably doesn’t have to worry about that trap – different brain chemistry, insofar as I can judge from a distance. He does have to worry, possibly more than I do, about a third kind of risk.
Every public presentation of the self is a mask that partly expresses your model of your audience’s expectations and partly hides from them your private self. You show them what they want to see and what you want them to see. For people who put a lot of intention into this sort of masking over a long period of time, there’s a risk, subtler than adulation addiction, that your mask will eat your face.
When your mask eats your face, you lose the ability to tell the public myths about yourself from the reality of who you were before people invented them around you. Steve Jobs was a famous case of this.
I’ve written before about haterboys and fanboys. What I didn’t explain then is why people with what-you-are fame find can fanboys irritating. It’s because fanboy behavior is implicitly a demand: never fail me, do the adulation loop with me, be the mask I need to see, walk on the water for me.
At an extreme, you can find yourself surrounded by fanboys and starved for actual friendship – for people who see your feet of clay and like you anyway, people you can drop the mask with. Fortunately, this one of the easiest risks to mitigate.
Which brings us neatly to the general topic of how you avoid these various traps.
The most basic mistake to avoid is having fame as a terminal or near-terminal goal. A Simon Phillips doesn’t become what he is by having a goal of being the world’s most famous drummer, he becomes famous by wanting to be the best drummer in the world.
One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten in the course of being Mr. Famous Guy was from a photographer for People magazine who came to my home to do a spread on me. So we spend almost twelve hours planning shots, doing them…and near the end he said “It’s nice to work with somebody who isn’t a face person.”
I said “Huh? What’s a face person?”
He said “Face people are all those shiny pretty people you see in magazines [‘like People‘ hung there unsaid] who are sort of vaguely famous for being famous.”
And I understood. No. No, I’m not a face person, nor do I want to be. And, oh gentle reader, it is a condition you would be well advised to avoid. Unless, that is, you have a positive craving for the kinds of damage I’ve been writing about. Face people as a group have a reputation for self-destruction, often oscillating between short marriages and drug/alchohol rehab; only some of that is due to tabloid oversampling. They’re vulnerable to the exact extent that achieving and maintaining fame is the only drive of their lives. It hollows them out.
More generally, I strongly advise dodging out of the way of fame unless you have a specific terminal goal other than fame – something you’re about when the crowd isn’t roaring.
You may decide you have a mission requirement to become famous. I did, because it’s hard to talk people into changing their behavior or beliefs if nobody knows you’re there or cares who you are. I felt a duty to succeed at that persuasion.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, I have some harm-mitigation strategies to recommend.
One: Hold on to the friends you had before you were famous. They’re anchors. If they’re really friends, they’ll call you on your bullshit.
Two: To avoid being surrounded and isolated by fanboys, do not hang out socially where your fans are. Instead, make friends where peoples’ interactions with you are not heavily distorted by your fame.
I know of two ways to do this. One is a vertical move; hang out with other famous people, not excluding people in the same field or subculture as your fans. The other is horizontal; do your socializing in some community or subculture where your fanboys aren’t.
Actually, the most satisfying horizontal move can be to hang out in an adjacent subculture where enough of your cred leaks through to earn you some status, but not enough of it to induce frequent fanboyism. This is me and competitive strategy gaming or SF fandom. I strongly suspect it’s Linus Torvalds and scuba diving.
Three: you can keep the mask from eating your face by cultivating some ironic distance between yourself and your public persona. When I talk about being “Mr. Famous Guy” as though it’s a kind of hat I put on and take off, this is what I’m doing. You’re supposed to read “Mr. Famous Guy” and think of some vaguely Dr.-Seuss-like cartoon character, or those parodic “Real American Heroes” beer commercials.
Try saying this to yourself in a cheesy TV-announcer voice just before you walk onto a stage: “And now…it’s Mister…Famous…Guy!” If someone overhears you and laughs, you’re doing it right.
Four: Duty is a really excellent brace against the snares of fame and fans; keep yourself reminded of what you owe the future. Make this self-reminder a mental ritual every time you put on your Mr. Famous Guy hat. I think this habit is a particularly good preventative against adulation addiction.
Five: Cultivate Stoic indifference. Believe neither the fanboys when they praise you nor the haterboys when they mock and attack you. Neither kind can see much past its own preconceptions and needs.
Six: You’ll be tempted to find even your non-rabid fans a bit silly for projecting all over you, but don’t despise them for it. Instead, respect the fact that they’re aspiring, trying to improve themselves by mimesis. Try to actually befriend them as equals; that’ll be good for them, and for you.
Finally, a sober warning: if you seek fame and fans, you will know pain. The stresses that often ruin face people will have a go at you, too. You will get scars that are no less real for being intangible. This is not just me – I can see traces of it in the behavior of other people who are or have been famous. I’m not a combat veteran, but I sense among them a similar community of old trauma and mutual knowledge that I’m part of too, and that is very difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t been there.
So don’t go there unless you know what you want from being famous, have your eyes open, and are ready to pay a high cost. Whatever mission success you’re after can be worth it – it has been for me – but it sure won’t come for free.