Enjoy your obscurity, fame will most likely ruin your life

For about a decade, I was in a band. I played guitar, wrote music, and performed shows. My band mates were talented and creative—my wife was one of them. We made some good music. We thrilled a few crowds. But we never made it out of the shadow of obscurity.

To some people we were something. But to most people we were nothing. We never felt the warm spotlight of fame.

However, we experienced something better—the joy of creating.

Photo by Nicoleleec (Creative Commons)

Photo by Nicoleleec (Creative Commons)

For millions of creatives in the blogosphere—writers, musicians, speakers, philosophers, theologians, artists, leaders—fame is the bright star that pulls them forward. Most of us wouldn’t put it that way, but the longing for fame throbs through the LAN lines.

We want to be read.
We want to be heard.
We want to be noticed.
We want to be respected.
We want to be famous.

We long to pull ourselves out of the dark shadows of obscurity into the light of . . .

the best-sellers list,
Late Night TV,
magazine covers,
high-paid speaking engagements.

We want people to memorize our lyrics and quote paragraphs from our tome and spend hours watching our youtube channel. If we are honest, we not only want people to know our name, but to name their kids after us.

This is the allure of fame. But be warned: fame is over-rated.

A Case Study in Fame

During my music days, we used to play the open mic competitions at Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta. One night we lost to two guys who called themselves the “Lo-Fi Masters.” John and Clay had dropped out of Berkley school of music to pursue success in the music industry. They had a real chance to make it.

They were regulars at Eddie’s so we saw them off and on during that year. I remember one show attended by 50 or so people and we sat so close I propped my feet up on their floor monitors. When they came out with their first EP, I bought one right away. It was four songs they had pressed themselves at the CD reproduction company where they worked. The song titles were handwritten with a sharpie on the disc.

They were always looking for gigs, so we asked if they wanted to open up for us at one of our shows the next month. We traded numbers (John had a beeper, it you remember those) and planned to play together the next month. Then we lost touch.

That summer I graduated from college and moved overseas. When I returned, two years later, John was headlining festivals and filling auditoriums. He was a rising star, and the name John Mayer was a constant on the radio stations.

Since then, he has won seven Grammys, dated half of Hollywood (for example, Jennifer Anniston and Jennifer Love Hewitt), and made enough money to trade in his beeper for a real cell phone. John Mayer is famous. But is he happy.

Here is what a recent Google search for “Is John Mayer happy?” turned up:

JOhn mayer 1 JOhn mayer 1

What? In Hawaii with Katy Perry? He must be really happy, right? And it looks like they will go the distance. I guess my theory about fame is off. Let me just scroll down the search results a little.

JOhn Mayer 2

Well they almost made it two months. Looks like he wasn’t very happy.

John Mayer 3

Now he’s dating Taylor Swift? again?

Well, maybe he is happy apart from his dating life. Not according to this interview in the Guardian a few years ago:

“I bought a Ferrari and drove it to Las Vegas on the day I bought it . . . You don’t buy a Ferrari when you’re happy: you buy a Ferrari when you’re sad. You buy a Ferrari when there’s a piece missing inside of you. All of these things are absolute tickets out of the game: you have to enjoy your life without indulging so much that you lose it.”

The John Mayer I knew back at Eddie’s Attic was a happy guy who spent his nights writing songs to perform for free to fifty people. Now, he has to lock himself up in a friend’s basement, just to get the privacy to make an album he hopes will beat expectations.

This seems to be the normal experience of famous people. You’ve seen the “Behind the Music” episodes and read the headlines. It seems fame has a dark lining. So why do we fight and scrape to get it?

Bottom line, we desire fame because we think it will validate us. 

But fame is not the place to seek validation. So what should we—the non-famous creators of the internet, the folks who count their page views in the hundreds and not the millions—do about this?

Enjoy your obscurity.
Enjoy the freedom to create without consequences.
Enjoy the truth that if your song/book/post/speech sucks, not that many people will know.
Enjoy creating for the sake of creating.

Enjoy where you are right now. Because I believe it is the only way to prepare yourself for whatever comes down the road.

Maybe you should quit

We love to multitask. At work we manage a matrix of projects, partners, and priorities. At home we Skype with a friend while chatting with another, cooking dinner, and answering questions from the kids. We are expert jugglers and the world is our circus.

No wonder we end up running around like clowns. Maybe we should quit.

Rocky Lubbers (Creative Commons)

Rocky Lubbers (Creative Commons)

The word “priority” made it’s way into the English language from French and Latin in the 15th century. As my Oxford American dictionary defines it, a priority is “a thing that is regarded as more important than another.” A priority is so important it takes first place. But the word speaks to more than importance, it also speaks to timing.

At the root of the word is the latin prefix “prior”, meaning before. A priority is something that should be done before other things. It comes first.

Okay, enough etymology. Here’s why this is important to you whether you are an entrepreneur or a stay-at-home Mom or a student. Until recently, the word priority was always singular. You had one priority—one thing that must come before all other things. I mean, how could more than one thing be first?

And yet, how do we use the word today? We talk about priorities. We make lists of them. We are not satisfied with only one first thing. At some point in the 20th century, the word priority became plural.

The result: we are multi-tasking clowns in the circus of life.

The Heath brothers give a good example of this phenomena and it’s result in their book Switch: How to change things when change is hard. There was a hospital director in San Francisco who was determined to decrease medication errors. The error rate was already low—only 1 error in every 1000—but each error was harmful if not fatal.

The nurses administering the medication were hard-working and conscientious. They read the doctors’ chicken-scratch prescriptions, collected the correct medicine from the distribution center, and administered it correctly almost every time. So simply telling the nurses to be more careful would not result in any significant change.

After observing the process, the director noticed mistakes were most often made when nurses were distracted. And a hospital is a distracting place. A  nurse must juggle patient care, doctor requests, and the general operation of her unit, while administering life-saving (or life-taking) drugs.

The director, determined to help these nurses focus and avoid distractions, developed an idea. She purchased bright orange safety vests and asked each nurse to wear this “medication vest” while administering drugs. She then informed the rest of the staff they could not talk to a nurse if he was wearing the vest.

At first, the staff were reluctant to accept the change. However, in the first 6 months, the error rate dropped by 47%. All because the nurses were able to focus.

Our world has never been more distracting. Mankind has never been pulled in so many different directions. Not a minute passes without a ding or vibration or billboard or advertisement demanding our attention. It is harder than ever to focus on what takes priority.

For the past two months I’ve not written on the blog. I’ve stayed away from social media and cut back on my non-essential communication. While I missed writing and interacting in this space, the break was refreshing. With focused intention I was able to give myself to a priority issue for the summer.

I am glad I wasn’t afraid to put on the orange vest.

For two months I said “No” to writing in order to say “Yes” to my priority. I quit one battle in order to win a more important one.

Maybe you should quit too. Maybe you should put on the orange vest and focus in for a period of time. Or maybe you should quit something permanently. Don’t let secondary goals distract you from your priority objective. Even the most talented clown has a limit of balls he can juggle. Which balls will you let drop?

What is your priority? What are you willing to do to keep it in first place? 

Five Characteristics of High-Grit People

During the presidential campaign of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest by a would-be assassin while leaving his hotel in Milwaukee. Before lodging in his chest, the bullet passed through Roosevelt’s metal eyeglass case and a 50-page speech folded in his breast pocket. When he did not start coughing up blood, Roosevelt concluded the bullet had not penetrated his lung. He continued on to the auditorium and delivered his speech.

His address began with these words:

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. … The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”

His speech lasted 90 minutes.

JBrazito (Creative Commons)

JBrazito (Creative Commons)

Theodore Roosevelt was a bull moose of a man. He had Grit—an indomitable spirit. A bullet in the chest was a minor setback. What separates high-Grit people like Roosevelt from others?

Here are five characteristics I’ve noticed in high-Grit people that allow them to face life’s challenges with courage:

1) They have a long-term perspective

Gritty people are not near-sighted. They are not enamored with immediate return on investment. They are willing to wait before they cash in. They know today’s effort is an investment in the future. They accomplish great things because they are willing to work on them for a long time.

This reality is often hidden behind our 24-hour media cycle. When we see a director on Letterman talking about his new hit film, we envy his fame and influence. We long to switch places. However, we don’t see the decade he labored to bring the story to the big screen—

writing the script,
shopping for investors,
giving up hope,
rewriting the script,
seeking investors a second time,
risking his own reputation and financial solvency,
filming 18 hour days,
editing from sunset to sunrise.

We don’t see what he gave to get on Letterman’s couch. We only see the end result. It took James Cameron 15 years to create Avatar. But high-Grit people know that’s what it takes to succeed.

2) They don’t quit

Behind every success is a moment of doubt—a point when quitting appears the best option. The difference between the Bull Moose and average Joe is the Moose keeps charging.

Even though it costs to keep going in the face of failure, high-grit people recognize cost of quitting too. They will push through thorns, suffer insults, and ignore exhaustion for the value of tomorrow. They won’t sell the future for an easier present.

Gritty people face the same temptation to quit we all do. They just don’t listen it. [tweet this] They keep going. They would rather die trying than stop trying. And that’s why they usually reach the finish line.

3) They delay gratification

High-grit people are immune to the power of “now.” As two-year olds, we are not able to wait more than 5 seconds without crying out, “Give me now!” Some of us grow up. Some of us never change.

Our dominant culture is propelled by instant-gratification—at the bank, in the kitchen, at work, in the bedroom. “Drive now, pay later!” The ethos of this generation is “Why wait?”

Well, gritty people know why. Because an investment today becomes a fortune tomorrow. Pain today becomes power tomorrow. Those who limit themselves “now” have endless possibilities “then.” [tweet this]

4) They view failure as progress

Because gritty people take on the most difficult challenges, they have an intimate knowledge of failure. The Wright Brothers crashed plane after plane into the sands of Kitty Hawk. Thomas Edison filled Menlo Park with the smell of burnt, broken, and useless filaments. Abraham Lincoln perfected the art of the concession speech. They knew failure.

But they did not view failure as an obstacle or a finish line. Failure was progress. Each failure became a step in the staircase to success. They fell forward.

And so, today, you can fly to Washington D.C. and visit the Lincoln Memorial, lit with incandescent light. Gritty people don’t run from failure, they use it. [tweet this]

5) They face their fear

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the strength to face it. Even the grittiest warrior feels fear. We all do. But every time we face a fear, it loses some of its power.

This is what high-grit people understand—fear exerts as much control as you allow it. If you nurture fear, it will grow. If you face fear, it dissipates. Even the Bull Moose Teddy Roosevelt agrees:

“I have often been afraid, but I wouldn’t give in to it. I made myself act as though I was not afraid, and gradually my fear disappeared.”

How did he become the kind of man who gives a 90 minute speech after taking a bullet to the chest? He faced his fears.

What about you? What will you do?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

—Teddy Roosevelt

A life of action (step out and start changing)

[This is the eight post in the series Plan2Change, about the possibility and process of personal growth. Check out parts  1 2345, 6, and 7]

“A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.” Laozi

Every journey, every project, every mission starts the same—the first step. A lift of the foot, the extension of the leg, the propulsion of the body forward. One step in the right direction.

No journey begins without it. No goal is reached apart from it. Many dreams die in its absence.

Now is the time to step out.


I am an idea guy. I can postulate and theorize from sunrise to sunset. However, ideas don’t produce change. Ideas don’t feed my family. Ideas don’t make me the kind of person I want to be.

Ideas are cheap. Action is priceless. [tweet this]

If you’ve followed this series, you have, by now, identified and clarified the problem, set goals, and developed a plan. Now is the time for action.

As you step out towards your goal there are two forces you will have to fight—fear and fog.

Fight the Fear

Imagine this scenario. A man works his whole life, fastidiously saving to ensure an enjoyable retirement. The day after his retirement party he moves to Miami and purchases a 60 foot sailboat. Every day he goes to the harbor, swabs the deck, checks the gauges and inspects his craft from bow to stern.

A year later, two work colleagues fly to Miami for a visit. After settling into the hotel, they head to the marina where the man awaits, smiling from the deck of his boat. The man gives his friends a tour, describing each element of his yacht with meticulous detail. Eventually, one of his former colleagues asks, “So when can we take her out for ride?”

The man stares back blankly. “What do you mean?”
“When can we sail this beautiful vessel? The sun is out and wind is just right.”
“Oh,” replied the man, “I don’t sail. There are too many dangers out there in the ocean. What if the boat is damaged or destroyed? I find it’s safer to keep her here in the harbor.”

The next morning the man returns to the marina to clean and inspect his ship and his friends return home confused and disappointed.

What do you think of this man? What do you think about his choices?

He is right about one thing: the yacht is safer in the harbor than it is out in the ocean. At sea there are rocks and barnacles, storms and waves. To leave the harbor is to face danger.

But what was a boat created to do? It was made to unfurl it’s sails, embrace the wind, and fly through the water. It was made for the sea.

So were you.

You weren’t made for safe harbor but for life’s adventure. Don’t let fear keep you anchored. [tweet this]

Forget the Fog

Another force warring against action is lack of clarity. Often when we start to move in the direction of change we become aware of all the questions we have yet to answer. Maybe we can see two or three steps in front of us, but beyond that is a wall of fog. So, instead of moving towards the fog, we stay put.

Here’s the truth: there will always be fog. You will never see the end of the path from the beginning. But that does not mean you shouldn’t start walking.

If you have followed the steps laid out in this series you have enough clarity to start. There are unanswered questions. There are unseen twists and turns to the path. There are unknown dangers ahead. But you know enough to take the first step.

Walk towards the fog. Do what you know and don’t worry about what you don’t yet know. In my experience, the fog clears as you approach it.

What will you do?

Now that we’ve exposed our enemies, it is time to clarify action steps. You’ve thought about people to ask for help. You’ve considered areas of growth in learning. But these alone won’t get you to your goal. You need to act.

Write out your action steps. Will you . . .:

Write 500 words a day, five days a week.
Exercise 4 days a week for at least one hour.
Take my spouse on a date every week.
Create a detailed personal budget and review it every Sunday night.

Your goal will determine your actions, but your actions will determine your success. What do you need to do to reach your goal? Make a list.

Look back over your list. Are your tasks clear? achievable? Now you know where to start. It’s okay if you don’t know how to reach the finish line, just get started. Things will become clearer as you get moving.

And once you take that first step, there is no limit to where it can lead you.

Three Facts about Gavrilo Princip (and Why it Matters Today)

On June 28, the world will remember a single event that affected nearly every person on earth. One hundred years ago, in Sarajevo, a nineteen year old University student pulled a trigger and propelled the world into war.

June 28, 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand during his visit to Bosnia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He wanted to free Bosnia from the yoke of foreign occupation. In doing so he triggered a world war.

Princip Street Corner
Many historians have written about Gavrilo Princip over the last century. He is portrayed, alternately, as a hero, a terrorist, a patriot, a villain. His name has been used to unify and divide, to evoke Slavic pride and justify the horrors of war.

Who was this young man who changed Europe one summer morning with only two bullets?

There are many reasons I am intrigued by Gavrilo Princip. I live in Sarajevo. Everyday on my way to and from work I pass the infamous street corner where he pulled the trigger. For the past 15 years I’ve worked with university students and I can’t miss the choice of one teenager and its residual consequences. Add to this my interest in the history of the Balkans.

I recently read a fascinating book on Gavrilo Princip. In The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War, author Tim Butcher retraces Princip’s life to uncover what motivated this young assassin. Mr. Butcher weaves the past 100 years of Bosnian history with his own contemporary journey to create a compelling narrative.

[Read my interview with Tim Butcher about Gavrilo Princip and his book The Trigger]

The Trigger clarifies why Gavrilo Princip is a lightening rod of division here in the Balkans.  However, without making any moral or historical judgements, there are at least three truths about Princip everyone can agree on.


Gavrilo Princip was a teenager

When Princip was 15 he returned home from Sarajevo for the extended summer break. On a rock behind his house he carved his initials and the date—Г П 1909. When a friend asked why he was doing it, he answered, “One day people will know my name.”

Who knew his boast would be fulfilled four short years later.

As a teenager, Gavrilo Princip moved nations. His one violent act propelled emperors onto a path of destruction. I wonder if we, today, recognized the power of young people to change the world? Have we forgotten that most movements—political, spiritual, and social—begin on the college campus?

We forget to our own detriment. The youth of the world are not the future, they are the present. [tweet this] Time spent shaping young minds is time well invested.

Gavrilo Princip made a choice

According to Princip’s school records (published for the first time in The Trigger), he was an A student his first years in Sarajevo. He was bright and motivated. However, as he became more involved with the political society Young Bosnia (Mlada Bosna) his grades worsened and his interest in education faded.

Tim Butcher does an excellent job showing the influences at work in Princip’s life. He was a product of his time—the annexation of Bosnia by Austro-Hungary changed him. He was a product of his upbringing—the impoverished son of a peasant farmer.

But at some point, he made a choice. He decided to pursue the path of violent rebellion. What if he had chosen differently?

Do we attribute to our choices the weight they deserve? Do we recognize the residual affects of even our smallest decisions? If we did, would that change the way we live?

Gavrilo Princip triggered world change

Whether Princip is a villain or a hero, he made a difference. Within a month, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia and Germany then entered conflict. And soon, the whole world was at war.

The 20th century—the bloodiest hundred years in history—started with one individual.

What will trigger a different, better, more hopeful next century? Do we give too much credit to the decisions of governments and bureaucrats? Do we underestimate an individual’s power to transform society?

It wasn’t the United States Congress that broke the bonds of segregation in the American south, it was the tireless effort of a young preacher, Martin Luther King Jr.
It wasn’t a well-funded non-profit organization that brought attention to the dismal conditions of lower-class Indians, it was the sacrificial life of an Albanian nun, Mother Theresa.
It wasn’t the work of the United Nations that sowed peace and reconciliation throughout divided South Africa, it was the character and forgiveness of a former prisoner, Nelson Mandela.

My hope for the next 100 years is not found in the decrees and alliances of nations, but in the work of God-fearing individuals dedicated to the good of others.

The story of Gavrilo Princip leaves us with one clear question: What will I trigger with my life?

81HsiL6LBUL._SL1500_Want to read more? Check out Gavrilo Princip, Weaponized History, and the Role of the Historian. An Interview with award-winning author Tim Butcher about his new book, The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War.

« Previous Entries