The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

11 Reasons Not to Become Famous (or “A Few Lessons Learned Since 2007”)

November of 2008. I had more hair, a flip phone, and absolutely no idea what was coming.

Let the cymbals of popularity tinkle still. Let the butterflies of fame glitter with their wings. I shall envy neither their music nor their colors.

— John Adams
Letters of John Adams Addressed to His Wife

“If I’m not famous by 30, I might as well put a bullet in my head.”

That’s an actual sentence I spoke to one of my closest friends. At the time, I was 28.

Fortunately, unlike during my darkest period in college, I wasn’t serious about suicide. Nonetheless, the sentiment was real. I felt like I somehow needed fame. In retrospect, there was a lot of self-loathing from tough childhood experiences, and I desperately hoped that love from without (i.e., from masses of other people) would somehow make up for hate from within.

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As luck would have it, I got to test this hypothesis.

The 4-Hour Workweek, my first book, was published in 2007. It hit the New York Times Hardcover Business bestseller list, where it stayed for an unbroken four years and four months. It was quickly translated into approximately 40 languages, and shit went bonkers. Everything changed.

I was 29.

Soon, I was engulfed in a hailstorm of both great and terrible things, and I was utterly unprepared for any of it.

To kick off this post, let’s start with a real example from 2010. I vividly remember the day I received an email from someone we’ll call “James.” James was a frequent commenter on my blog, and we’d become friendly over time. He was a great guy and a huge help to other readers. I’d given him advice, he’d built a few successful businesses, and we’d developed a nice virtual rapport. That day in 2010, however, I actually received an email from James’ longtime assistant. It was succinct: “James learned so much from you, and he instructed me to give you this video.” I clicked on the attachment. James popped up. He was clearly agitated and clenching his jaw, making contorted faces and speaking strangely. He thanked me for all of my help over the years and explained that it had helped him through some very dark times. He finished by saying that he was sorry, but that he had to end things. That’s when he turned off the video and killed himself.

This experience profoundly fucked me up for a long period of time.

Suffice to say, I didn’t realize that this type of thing was part of the Faustian fame-seeking bargain.

THE 30,000-FOOT VIEW

Now it’s 2020. 13 years, 5 books, 1,000+ blog posts, and nearly 500M podcast downloads later, I’ve learned a few things about the promises and perils of seeking fame.

And I say “seeking fame” deliberately, because—let’s be honest—I’m not really famous. Beyoncé and Brad Pitt are truly famous. They cannot walk around in public anywhere in the world. I am a micro public figure with a monthly audience in the millions or tens of millions. There are legions of people on Instagram alone with audiences of this size. New platforms offer new speed. Some previous unknowns on TikTok, for example, have attracted millions of followers in a matter of weeks.

If you suddenly had 100,000 or 1,000,000 or 10,000,000 more followers, what might happen?

I thought I knew, and I was naive.

This post will explore a lot of things. Chief among them will be answering the question: if you win the popularity game, what might you expect?

I’ll mention some of the rewards and upsides, which can be incredible. I will also talk about some of the risks and downsides, which can be horrifying.

My hope is that this post will help people better understand the wall their ladder is leaning against… before they spend years climbing towards the top. Or, in a world of TikTok-like acceleration, before they let the genie out of the bottle without thinking it through.

If you’re interested in building a large audience to become rich and famous, some warnings and recommendations are in order. If you’re interested in building a large audience you also truly care about and with whom you are vulnerable, even more precautionary tales are in order.

ON THE BRIGHT SIDE, SOME VERY REAL BENEFITS

Let’s cover some of the great stuff first.

One could easily argue that the national exposure that accompanied The 4-Hour Workweek and later books was a necessary ingredient for:

And then there are the occasional fringe benefits, like getting tables at busy restaurants, getting free samples of products (although “free” often ends up being the most expensive), and so on.

Many of the things I’m proudest of in life would have been difficult or impossible to accomplish without a large audience. For that, I owe every one of my readers and listeners a huge debt of gratitude.

Using fame as a lever, however, can be tricky. 

First off, what type of “fame” do you want? In concrete terms, what would “successful” look like and over what period of time? From 0–100%, how confident are you that you can convert exposure to income? If more than 0%, what evidence do you have to suggest that your strategy will work? Do you have a plan for becoming unfamous if you don’t like it?

During my college years, one of my dorm mate’s dads was a famous Hollywood producer. He once said to me, “You want everyone to know your name and no one to know your face.”

Taking it a step further, we could quote Bill Murray:

I always want to say to people who want to be rich and famous: ‘try being rich first.’ See if that doesn’t cover most of it. There’s not much downside to being rich, other than paying taxes and having your relatives ask you for money. But when you become famous, you end up with a 24-hour job. . . . The only good thing about fame is that I’ve gotten out of a couple of speeding tickets. I’ve gotten into a restaurant when I didn’t have a suit and tie on. That’s really about it.

But how could this be true? It seems like a farce. At the very least, it must be an exaggeration, right?

To wrap your head around what “famous” really means, there is one metaphor that might help.

THE TRIBE, THE VILLAGE, THE CITY — THIS IS IMPORTANT

Here’s an email I received in July of 2007:

[Your sport] shows that you are a hypocrite to profess helping others with your book. You are showing a grave example of the White horseman to our children. Shame on you. Shame on you… Shame. And Wickedness… It is the most evil war on earth, the one for blood spectacle for those who would entertain by whoring themselves prostituting violence to those who seek and lust to watch inhumanity. You are an evil one who has gained the world and lost your soul.

What did I do or say that caused this? Was it in response to a how-to article on clubbing baby seals?

Not quite. It was in response to my blog post highlighting the non-profit DonorsChoose.org, which I’ve advised for 10+ years. The explicit goal? To raise money for under-funded public school classrooms. In the introduction, I happened to mention that the founder and CEO of DonorsChoose was my wrestling partner in high school. That’s it.  

This same “White horseman” reader proceeded to send me more than a dozen increasingly threatening emails, concluding with “I shall deliver you on judgment day.”

Was that a death threat? Was there anything I should do or could do about it? I’d never dealt with such things, and I didn’t know. But I did know one thing: it was very scary and completely out of the blue.

That week, I shared the above story with a female career blogger. She laughed and said soberly, “Welcome to the party.” She got an average of one death threat and one sex request/threat per week. At the time, our audiences were roughly the same size.

This brings me to the topic of audience size and the metaphor of the tribe, the village, and the city.

Think back to your 5th-grade class. In my case, there were 20–30 kids. Was there anyone totally off the rails in your class? For most of you, there’s a decent chance kids seemed pretty sane. It’s a small sample size.

Next, think back to your freshman year in high school. In my case, there were a few hundred kids. Was there anyone volatile or unbalanced? I can think of at least a handful who were prone to violence and made me uneasy. There were fights. Some kids brought knives to school. There was even a kid rumored to enjoy torturing animals. Keep in mind: this high school was in the same town as my elementary school. What changed? The sample size was larger.

Flash forward to my life in July of 2007, less than three months after the publication of my first book. 

In that short span of time, my monthly blog audience had exploded from a small group of friends (20–30?) to the current size of Providence, Rhode Island (180,–200,000 people). Well, let’s dig into that. What do we know of Providence? Here’s one snippet from Wikipedia, and bolding is mine:

Compared to the national average, Providence has an average rate of violent crime and a higher rate of property crime per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2010, there were 15 murders, down from 24 in 2009. In 2010, Providence fared better regarding violent crime than most of its peer cities. Springfield, Massachusetts, has approximately 20,000 fewer residents than Providence but reported 15 murders in 2009, the same number of homicides as Providence but a slightly higher rate per capita.

The point is this: you don’t need to do anything wrong to get death threats, rape threats, etc. You just need a big enough audience. Think of yourself as the leader of a tribe or the mayor of a city.

The averages will dictate that you get a certain number of crazies, con artists, extortionists, possible (or actual) murderers, and so on. In fairness, we should also include a certain number of geniuses, a certain number of good Samaritans, and so on. Sure, your subject matter and content matters, but it doesn’t matter as much as you’d like to think.

To recap: the bigger the population, the more opportunities and problems you will have. A small, self-contained town in Idaho might not have a Pulitzer Prize winner among its residents, but it probably doesn’t need a SWAT team either.

Now, here we are in 2020.  

My monthly audience is larger than the size of New York City (NYC).  

For fun, Google “New York City” and click on “News.” On some level, those are the dynamics—good and bad—you will need to deal with if your audience is that large.

But let’s assume you only have 100 or 1,000 followers. You should still wonder: At any given time, how many of these people might go off of their meds? And how many of the remaining folks will simply wake up on the wrong side of the bed today, feeling the need to lash out at someone? The answer will never be zero.

ON THE DARKER SIDE, SOME VERY REAL ISSUES

To quote Henry David Thoreau, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” (Walden)

With that in mind, let’s look at some very common downsides of exposure. Nearly all of my friends who have audiences of 1M or more have personal stories for every category I’ll describe.

If you’ve ever wondered why many celebrities disappear for a period of time, sometimes years, it’s often in the hopes that the below will fade or go away. Sadly, it’s very hard to put the toothpaste back in the toothpaste tube once you have a large Google footprint.

Best to be aware in advance. Here be dragons…

IN CONCLUSION

It’s been a wild ride.

Lest it appear otherwise, this is not intended to be a woe-is-me post. I’ve been very fortunate, and I love my life.

That said, all of the above have created heightened levels of anxiety that I didn’t anticipate. I’m lucky to have the support of my family and friends, my girlfriend, and my guardian and fluffball, Molly. I simply couldn’t handle it otherwise.

Would I have listened to all these warnings in advance? Would it have changed my behavior? I don’t know. Perhaps not. Unless you’ve lived it, it might seem like someone is being gifted a Bugatti and complaining about gas mileage.

The entire experience reminds me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. This is a parable that has been told across different cultures since at least the 1st millennium BCE:

It is a story of a group of blind men, who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and conceptualize what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant
s body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience, and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other. In some versions, they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest, and they come to blows. The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other peoples limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true.

Before 2007, I was the blind men.

Here and there, I’d feel the ears (A celebrity in a cover story! Wow! Must be nice!), the tail (Fancy cars in a photo shoot!), or the tusk (Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous!).

Only now do I have some idea of what it’s like to be the elephant itself. No matter what part you grab beforehand, you can’t fully appreciate the scope of experience until you’re in it.

If I’ve learned anything, it is this: fame will not fix your problems.  

Instead, fame is likely to magnify all of your insecurities and exaggerate all of your fears. It’s like picking up a fire extinguisher for your pain that ends up being a canister of gasoline. 

If you think you have problems that fame will fix, I implore you to work on the inside first. At the very least, work on both in equal measure. I’ve found books like Awareness and Radical Acceptance to be helpful.

If you don’t, you will end up with sand slipping through your fingers, leaving you with the same feelings of emptiness. Only now, along with disappointment, you will have the new challenges described in this post.

I also highly recommend reading Kevin Kelly’s essay entitled “1,000 True Fans.” Is it possible that being “famous” to the right 1,000 people could get you to your goals faster—and be healthier—than seeking the adoration and validation of millions? I tend to think so.

But then again…

Does that mean no one should pursue the path of Great Fame or tempt the sirens of the Great Public? I can’t say that. My intention is simply to shine light upon some of the hazards that such a journey entails. 

Perhaps—just perhaps—you should give stardom a shot.

After all, as Jim Carrey has said:

“I think everybody should get rich and famous, and do everything they ever dreamed of, so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

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