The Secret to Freedom: Stop Trying to Be Somebody

Virtually everyone wants to be famous, which is to say everybody wants to be somebody, and nobody wants to be nobody.   Or as my uncle likes to say after taking up acting at age 68, “Everyone wants to be a star!”

Upon graduating high school, the main character in the movie Muriel’s Wedding remarks, “I’m gonna get married, and I’m gonna be a success.  I’ll show them all.”  I remember thinking that, didn’t you?  At least the success part.

Put another way, one of our biggest fears, up there with death, carbohydrates and flying squirrels, is being insignificant, or worse, invisible.  So many lonely people silently screaming for attention, longing to be seen.  

At times our desire for fame is brash and obvious, other times so subtle as to slip past our inner radar undetected. Regardless, if you're paying attention, there it is.

Status Can Now Be Achieved

While social position was once reserved for those born of nobility or inheritance, the U.S. upended that notion.  Through accomplishment or display of wealth, nearly anyone could go from being nobody to somebody.  In other words, status could now be achieved or acquired.  

In Los Angeles, a winsome waitress could become a Hollywood celebrity overnight. In Silicon Valley (northern California’s answer to Hollywood), an engineer could metamorphose from faceless geek to billionaire hipster, sometimes within months.  

Better yet, with the swipe, err insert, of a titanium card or tap of a phone, social standing could be purchased today and paid for tomorrow.  A recent American Express ad featuring two attractive, smiling people exemplifies this ethos: “It’s living the dream sooner rather than later."

What is status?  Status is power.  Status is recognition.  Status says, “I’m somebody worth paying attention to”.

We seem to believe “that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month”, writes Joan Didion, as if every one of us were destined for greatness.  When Frank Sinatra sings, “I’m king of the hill, top of the heap…if I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere”, it is as if he wrote those lyrics for us. He did, actually.

I Want to Be Famous So Badly It Hurts

The infinite ways we seek significance is limited only by the imagination of our longing.  

Perhaps America, with its culture of unrivaled individualism, exhibits more creative ways of standing out than anywhere, but of course the following behavior can be found everywhere.

Outward appearance undoubtedly receives the majority of our efforts.  “Everyone, from slackers to yuppies,” writes Peter Thiel in Zero to One, “carefully curates their outward appearance”.

It’s the millennial riding a fixie while sporting a vest, cap and handlebar mustache with a Herschel Supply Co. backpack.  Or the middle-aged man dressed head-to-toe in Nike, ready for a Crossfit workout while drinking a pour-over coffee.  Apparently, nothing speaks health and vitality like the athleisure look, even if our sperm need walkers to get around.

I once went out with a woman who said she worked out three hours a day.  I believed her.  Back at her place she insisted on showing me bikini-clad photos of her on a beach even though the real thing was sitting right next to me.

"We are not only gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows, but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind” - William James

Tom Wolfe (like Mark Twain) in his linen suit, fedora and white bucks once remarked, ”Clothing is a wonderful doorway that most easily leads you to the heart of an individual; it’s the way they reveal themselves.”  In other words, if you want to be known, say like Tom Wolfe or Steve Jobs, be sure to have your manufactured look whenever a camera is raised.

Even the great Einstein knew the power of image.  With his signature shock of white hair, he must be the “world’s smartest man”.  

How many of us bolster our sense of self through identification with race, country, political party, sports team or religion?  I’m African American; I’m Australian; I’m a Democrat; I’m a Green Bay Packer; I'm a Jew.  Or gain status through our partners - trophy wife or rich husband.

How about the beautician who forks over $600.00 after-tax money for an “iconic” handbag with no more utility than a plastic Wal-Mart bag? Such spending can get us behind with our creditors. Or my friend’s uncle surreptitiously adjusting his Rolex while talking to two attractive women at the bar. Or the guy taking undue risk on some triple-leveraged ETF so he can buy an SUV built for climbing Mt. Whitney, which will scale nothing more than the inclined driveway of a suburban cul-de-sac.

Whenever administered a hearing test in school, I expected the attendant to say, “We think you may have something akin to super-hearing. You heard a pitch reserved for one species only:  the bottlenose dolphin. We’d like to fly you to Washington for more testing.”

It seems we all secretly want to share, in detail, what makes us special.

Behavioral economist, Daniel Ariely, found that when placing orders directly with a waiter or waitress, diners were more likely to choose a menu item different from their fellow diners than when ordering in writing.  Translation:  “Great, now I gotta choose something other than the Impossible burger”.

Speaking of food, did you know that vegans are three times as likely to judge negatively vegetarians compared to those whose diets include meat?  Makes you wonder if dieting is more about saving the planet and oneself or self-identification.  

Sometimes our desire to be significant is embarrassing.

A former co-worker once overheard a resort guest saying, “Don’t you know who I am?  I’m Charles Schwab’s brother!”  I know, poor guy.  He’s like Cartman in South Park shouting indignantly, “You will respect my authoratay!”

Some of us are willing to risk life for authority.

Shortly after college I walked into my kitchen during a house party and stumbled upon a guy rifling through my roommates’ purses.  Within minutes of kicking him out, he reappeared at the front door, Freddy Kruger style, with butcher knife in hand and came straight at me.  He had reasserted himself, at least temporarily.

In another incident, a fitness instructor at my old YMCA stood up for two girls who were being harassed.  Later that day, as he walked home from work, the harasser rolled up on a skateboard and fired three shots into his back with a .22.  One moment of emotional vindication, years in prison.

Sadly, some tortured individuals seek significance through killing, as in mass shootings.  Not surprisingly, once the media stopped publishing the killers’ names, the killing stopped.  Apparently, without the prospect of fame (or infamy) would-be shooters lost their motivation.

Often our desire for importance shows up in speech.

Like the woman who recently said to me, “I do intermittent fasting.  I know it’s super trendy right now, but I've been doing it for six years”.  Or the guy in school with a 30 MPH wind at his back who yelled across the bike lane at me and another guy, “Fucking pussies!” as we grunted into the headwind.

“I try to be somebody instead of just” - Tupac Shakur

Once while backpacking I had scarcely stumbled out of my tent to find a place to urinate when the serenity of the Lost Coast was disrupted by the sharp tongue of a college-aged woman, “As if his capris weren’t bad enough, check out his lame Mont Bell jacket”.  I felt like crawling up the tree next to her and peeing down on her head.

Just look at all the female baby names gaining most in popularity:  Amoura, Emani, Yaritza, Alaiya, Ainhoa, Isla, Ophelia, Elodie, Imogen, Ottilie, Aurelia, Kiara, Cordelia.  You get the idea:  out with plain Jane, in with outrageous Oakleigh.

Twitter offers a daily parade of humblebrags:  “I’m wearing a ponytail, rolled out of bed from a nap, at the bar w/ my guy and guys r still hitting on me.  Like really??” Or “I just did something very selfless.  But more importantly, it was genuine & I know it means a lot to the person in the long run”.  I can’t tell who’s more lonely, can you?

Sometimes our behavior is so base as to engender pity.  

While eating at a fine Italian restaurant, my cousin’s husband became the object of hostility after intervening between the owner of the restaurant and a fellow patron who, despite “never eating at a restaurant unless he gets to see the kitchen first”, was in fact denied admittance to the kitchen.  “Who the hell are you?  Do you make more money than me?  I didn't think so, so butt out!”  Please tell me his wife wasn’t there to endure the humiliation.

“Lurking behind every chance to be made whole by fame is the axman of further dismemberment”.  - Leo Braudy

Other times our desire to be important drives us to pettiness.

While lamenting to an old neighbor how profoundly lonely it felt dry heaving into my toilet at 3am from food poisoning, she interrupted, “Oh, that’s nothing!  Have you ever had Norovirus?  Now that’s the worst!”

Sometimes we wonder, “Is he for real?”

Like the immigrant Milwaukee taxi driver looking at me through the rear-view mirror while smiling and pointing at himself, “I was the one who drove Jeffrey Dahmer to the supply store and waited outside while he was inside buying a 55-gallon drum [for storing body parts]”

Other times we simply smile and nod.  

“I was at a party at the Playboy Mansion where KISS was playing,” said my friend. “Gene Simmons looked right into my eyes and stuck out his tongue.  It was so hot.”  When asked how she knew it was her amidst a sea of concert-goers, she replied emphatically, “Oh, I could tell!”

Why Do We Want to Be Famous?

There’s a scene in the movie, The Pirates of Silicon Valley, where Steve Jobs’ character played by Noah Wyle says, “For the first time in my life people are coming to me, instead of me going to them.  Man, this is insanely great!”  

That line says it all.

On a deeper level, the desire for fame stems from wounding.  Somewhere along the way, many of us experienced neglect, dismissal or weren’t treated with the respect we deserved.  Thus the thinking goes, “If I can achieve fame, no one will ever hurt me again."

At the deepest level, fame is about wanting to be seen, to be acknowledged for who we are and to know that our life matters.  Unfortunately, as Alain de Botton points out “…fame really just means you get noticed a great deal - not that you get understood, appreciated or loved.”

Nobody Is Special

Scientists now estimate two trillion galaxies, each with billions of solar systems much like our own.  If that weren’t humbling enough, we are 99% identical to the bonobos, those hairy jungle brethren who eat fruit and hump all day.  

And as hard as it may be to admit, every human is essentially an identical clone. There is but a .1% genetic difference between us and the woman who’s eyes are too close together or the guy on the nightly news for setting fire to his mother’s house.

Yet somehow we patently insist on our specialness:  I look different, therefore I am.

"I wish I was special" - Colin Greenwood

Sure, in relative terms, you are special.  No other person looks or acts exactly as you do.  You are a singular expression of human form and personality.  Yet in absolute terms, you are no more unique than a snowflake.  I mean a silver spoon. Never mind, you know what I mean.

Put it this way.  If you were a deer, would you have a sense of self and compare yourself to other deer?  “Has she looked in the mirror lately?  I wouldn’t be caught dead looking like that, let alone grazing.” Or “I don’t know, Winnifred, her ears are just so long and elegant while mine are, well, short and frumpy”.  

Here’s the sobering reality:  when we die, sure our friends and family will be sad, but after a few minutes of mourning they’ll all just go back to eating their hot dogs and hamburgers.  

The Cost of Fame

All this elevated thinking implies it’s not okay to be ordinary.  We are expected to stand out, otherwise we are a failure and there must be something wrong with us.

“The desire for fame,” writes Alain de Botton, “is a sign that an ordinary life has ceased to be good enough”

In other words, we have come to believe the myth that it’s not okay to be ordinary. Ordinary is just, well, ordinary.  And who wants to settle for anything less than fabulous?

Our incessant thirst for attention, admiration, and approval seems to stem from having little sense of who we are apart from how we’re viewed by others.  And so we reach to fill what is fragmented and inadequate attempting to complete the story of “me”.

We get entangled in believing in a fixed identity and the hard divisions between people, which only serves to drain our energy and vitality.  Such a heavy and dreadful burden.

We diligently craft our identity ensuring the impression we make is a “good” one. People are mirrors, useful insofar as they reflect back the special view of ourselves that we so desperately long to see.

Riddled with envy, many of us only see how much less we are compared to others. We exhaust our money, agency and spirit chasing a chimera only to end up exactly where we are.

Like a crutch comforting us amidst flagging self-esteem and imagined mortality, instead of relying on others, we rely on feeling better than others.

“Western culture, by contrast, is organized around the individual. We see ourselves as self-contained units; our destiny is to express ourselves, to follow our bliss, to be free of undo restraint, to achieve the one thing that we, and we are alone, were brought into this world to do.” - Susan Cain, Quiet

Yet any identity we can latch onto is iffy and transitive at best, a mere play of patterns.  To the extent that we grasp a false sense of self, we continually fear its loss while defending and bolstering that which is limited.  

“I just sort of realized I’m so used to being somebody," Iggy Pop says to the journalist. "I might be nobody if I retired, you know. I was going to be more a nobody in comfort—probably not a good dynamic for me.” What would happen? “Alcoholism. Sloth. Depression, probably."

Fame is perhaps the most unstable drug on earth.  At least heroin is faithful.  

The Truth of Life

Giving up our craving to be unique can be uncertain and frightening.  What will happen if I surrender the sense of self I’ve spent decades building and defending?  

In truth, there is nobody to defend.  That which is most essential to us cannot be gained or taken away.  Real significance comes from within, not from the external validation of strangers.  

"Eventually we must give up trying to be something special." - Chögyam Trungpa

In fact, you are far more unique, intelligent and interesting than any contrived sense of self.  You are a remarkable and singular patchwork of wisdom and blindness, resilience and frailty, victories and failures, and all the grace and chaos that is uniquely yours.

“The effort expended creating and defending that persona is exhausting” Gail Sheehy writes in New Passages.  “Once we stop being ruled by the need to prove ourselves to the world and begin to relax our vigilance around maintaining the false self - what a relief - we can start stripping back down to what is real, not false or copied, to uncover our own authenticity.”

Where are you trying to stand out and be more than you already are?  What is driving that desire?

Are you willing to forego your fixed identity to see what’s there when you relax your preoccupation with future, the anger the protects you and the busyness that keeps you distracted from the truth of your existence?

“Having no view of self, one is always peaceful.”  - Avatamsaka Sutra

Freedom of Being Ordinary

Genuine connection with oneself and others tends to dissipate our obsessive preoccupation with self.

In my experience, through many years of dedicated practice getting to know who I am and what I’m about, the impulse to please and have others like me has largely dissolved.  Today I’m regularly surprised by the kindness afforded me and that people even gravitate toward me.  

What great irony that when we are least preoccupied with ourselves, we most stand out and are most attractive in the eyes of others.  

"True freedom comes when we no longer need to be somebody special in other people's eyes because we know we are lovable and good enough." - Peter Scazzero

Writer Sally Kempton shares a story, which illustrates this point:  “Sometimes one of my students will invite me to dinner, and they'll have invited their friends to meet their teacher, and I won't have anything to say.  A few years ago, I'd have forced myself to hold forth for them, to perform.  Now I can just be there, be as dorky as I am in that moment, and feel fine about it.”

Being nobody and resting in the great, timeless, ordinariness of life is sublimely liberating.  When wholeheartedly and unapologetically ourselves, there comes a tremendous sense of ease knowing that we are okay just as we are.