Once while waiting tables in New York, I observed how a fellow server handled being questioned about success. Her table found out that she was an actress and they approached her the way one would a bearded lady or an albino. They’d heard of actors, but never seen one up close. They asked what work she’d done and she rattled off a list of Off-Off Broadway runs, soap opera spots, student films at Columbia University, and so on.
“How long ‘til your big break?” they asked.
“I don’t break ‘til we close,” she quipped. She was seasoned at this line of questioning.
“No, when do you think you’ll be famous?” they persisted.
“I don’t really care,” she replied.
“Don’t you want to be famous?” they pushed.
“I just want to be a working actor,” she answered.
Watching from my station, I felt two things: One, admiration for her love of the work itself, not notoriety. And two, I felt really crappy because I did want to be famous.
It started when I had Scarlet fever in junior high. I had just flung “Little Women” across the living room, having read that Beth March dies from none other than Scarlet freaking fever. Bored and thoroughly annoyed by Louisa May Alcott, I reached for the closest reading material, the “K” encyclopedia, and opened it to Kennedy, Jacqueline. I settled in to what would be an adolescence of extreme interest in people who were watched and beloved. When it came time for a senior thesis that would grant me my college degree, I chose to investigate what I had wanted to know since I picked up “K.”
Why are we drawn to celebrity? What is it about the life of another that warrants more investment than we give ourselves?
Fifty pages and twenty sources later, my conclusion was simple. We see ourselves in their story. We are investing in ourselves, but through them. It has less to do with their craft and more to do with a hope that maybe, just maybe, we might be known someday too. I had to admit that while there were personalities whose craft and expertise inspired me, there was an entirely different sensation with other people whose lives I simply wanted to experience myself.
I wrote that thesis 18 years ago before social media, and before fame, celebrity, and notoriety became available to the masses. Since then, we’ve managed to exploit a very innate human trait: the need to be beloved. Even the most humble of us succumbs to this need on occasion. Nowadays, we’re tested daily.
I admit to posting on social media sometimes less for keepsake and more for self-esteem. Do I need to share how I looked at a fancy downtown event, or is it that I want you to see me as something more? I also admit to refreshing my screen often to see the response. I’m basically my own follower. It’s celebrity for the ordinary. I guess I finally found fame.
Only here’s a sobering thought: When I remove the value I place on attention for a post, how much actual value remains?
Am I baking a cake in the shape of a unicorn for my daughter so that I can feel adulation, or am I spending five hours covered in rainbow frosting and flour because I want my daughter to feel special? You in that all too orchestrated selfie, what’s your real motivation behind that post?
As for professionals, those who must share their life’s work for business, you’re getting screwed. It’s not enough to produce meaningful work. Today, it’s not just celebrities who must be visible to be considered successful. We all carry that pressure. You could design the interior of a living room with such smart style that it reminds you why you got into design to begin with. I could write the most beautiful piece of prose. However, if it tanks when shared, our hearts sink and we wonder why we didn’t just go to med school and practice something far less self-loathing like heart surgery. But even the heart surgeon can be prey when she shares an article about a revolutionary transplant she did or just her kid’s Little League win.
This begs the question: Do we want to be famous, whatever that means now? Or do we want to be seen – recognized for what makes us proud to know ourselves, for the things we think we do well whether it’s a pretty cake, a fabulous selfie, or a damn good think piece?
Is that so egotistical?
In this ever-changing world can we still remove our ego enough to find our work itself fulfilling? Therein lies my challenge.
The reality is that I know enough to know I won’t be famous, not like Jackie Kennedy. I will have done good things—great things even. I will have work that some consider good, three children, who hopefully do good work, too, and I will have loved passionately and formed meaningful relationships. I will have done a great many things that most will never know about. But I’d like to think I will have done them regardless.
My friend, the waitress, with the Yoda-like wisdom is still a working actor – one of the best in the business. You’ve probably never heard of her.