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.
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.
- Meeting many of my now dear friends, including Kevin Rose, Matt Mullenweg, and many others. These are people I hope will be my close brothers and sisters for life. That led to…
- Being able to invest in dozens of early-stage technology deals, the proceeds of which then allowed…
- Helping many causes and organizations that are making a real, positive dent in the world, including education (DonorsChoose, QuestBridge, etc.); scientific research aimed at treatments for chronic depression, PTSD, and other “intractable” psychiatric conditions (Johns Hopkins, UCSF, etc.); and more.
- Launching projects to aid the above (e.g., Trip of Compassion documentary)
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…
One example to set the tone: Back when I lived in SF, a fan on the East Coast thought I was sending him secret, personalized messages embedded in my public Facebook posts. He believed I was asking him to move into my house and work for me. He told his co-workers, who were worried he’d go postal, so they reported him to the CEO, who reached out to me. It was a close call, and I got lucky. This particular employee had already bought plane tickets for the following week, intending to fly to SF to find me. I got the FBI involved, his family staged an intervention, and, lo and behold, he had gone off of his meds for psychiatric disorders. Another example from 2008, a year after my first book came out. That’s when the first person showed up at my door looking for me. I’d just closed on my first home, a cute little townhouse near Sunnyvale, CA. The random visits didn’t happen sooner, as I’d been renting up to that point.
Many more people followed. My little townhouse was cute, but it was totally unprotected: no gate, no nothing. Eventually, one male stalker ended up hanging out in front of my house nonstop, taking pictures and posting them on social media with comments like “Too bad Tim Ferriss isn’t home. I missed him again!” Things snowballed from there, and I had to sell the house and move. When traveling, I’ve also had to stop posting photos to social until well after the fact. Why? I’ve had people triangulate the city I’m visiting, call every hotel in the city to ask for a registered guest with my last name, and then fly to the country to find me and/or my family. I’ve since learned to use pseudonyms, but we’ll get to that later…
- Death threats.
I get regular death threats, and this is common for public figures. I would estimate I get at least one per month via some channel. Sometimes they’re related to extortion (coming later), but they’re most often from people who are mentally unstable. What are they angry about? Once again, therein lies the rub: it is rarely in response to anything that I’ve said or done. That is the scariest thing, and it’s also why the tribe-village-city metaphor is so apt. The people sending death threats are normally suffering from psychotic episodes, and there is nothing you can do to prevent them.
One example: A few years ago, I received a text message from an unknown number with “I know what you did. I’m going to make you pay.” I have no idea how they got my number, but it went on and on in nebulous terms. I engaged and took screenshots, trying to figure out who it was and what the hell was going on. Since they kept texting, I was able to gather that it was a woman (or someone claiming to be), and she said, “You humiliated me, and now it’s your turn for pain. I know you’re speaking at SXSW, and everyone is going to know and see.” Fortunately, I had enough data to get lawyers, private investigators, and law enforcement involved. It also meant that I had armed security at SXSW that year, and I was constantly on pins and needles, waiting for the other shoe to drop. So…. In the end, did I learn who it was? I did. It was a middle-aged mother living in rural Texas with her husband and two kids. I’D NEVER MET HER, NOR HAD ANY CONTACT WITH HER.
Just months before this happened, two well-known YouTubers in Austin, Texas, had a fan drive 11 hours from New Mexico to their house with a car full of guns. He intended to kill at least one of them. He broke into their home at 4am and hunted for them from room to room, .45-caliber handgun in hand. They hid in a closet and frantically called 911. From related media coverage: “They’re a popular Texas couple on YouTube, but they never thought that would put their lives in danger. That is until an Albuquerque stalker showed up at their house in the middle of the night with a gun and bad intentions.” Fortunately, the police arrived, and the intruder ended up dead, but it could’ve easily ended differently. In some cases, the intended target gets blown away before they even realize what’s happening. Ironically, it’s often the diehard fans professing love who kill them, not “haters” of any type.
Given how often I get threats, and how truly dangerous it can be, I decided to get a concealed carry permit and carry concealed firearms. I wanted to avoid this, and I wish it weren’t the case, but here we are (P.S. Thanks for the frangible round recommendation, Jocko).
I also trained my girlfriend to use a Taser, which relates to the next category…
- Harassment of family members and loved ones.
There are at least two categories of people who will want to find you: fundamentally nice people (albeit overenthusiastic), and fundamentally malevolent people. I hate to put it that way, but I’ve learned that there are people in this world who derive great pleasure from hurting or threatening others.
If either group can’t easily get to you—whether to find you or harm you—they will often go after your family and loved ones.
If they’re an attacker, they will go for what they perceive to be your weakest link. This is precisely why I never mention the names of my closest friends or girlfriends, unless they are public figures already.
Of all the issues in this post, this one upsets me the most. In some respects, I invited this upon myself with my decisions, but none of my loved ones asked for it. Even to write about this aspect makes me furious, so I’ll keep this bullet short.
- Dating woes.
As you might imagine, dating can be a quagmire of liabilities and bear traps. It could be someone hoping to write a clickbait article about their date with you (obviously without disclosing such), or it could be much worse. If you’re a female, this is where things can once again become physically dangerous. If you’re a male, this is where things can become legally dangerous. There are many predators for both sides, and it can make you lose your faith in humanity.
- Extortion attempts.
I could write an entire blog post about this topic. One simple example: In 2019, my team and I received a threat. In essence: “Pay me X now, or I will DDOS your site.” Since a DDOS is a technological attack on a website, and I’m confident in the strength of the Automattic hosting infrastructure, we decided not to respond. The extortionist didn’t like our silence and replied with a bomb threat. This was shortly after the Austin serial bombings, which had killed two people, so I escalated to forensic analysis, investigators, law enforcement, etc. I’ve been very good at tracking down extortionists, I don’t negotiate with terrorists, and I’m more than happy to have public battles if I’m in the right, but… it’s all a huge energy suck. The most common form of extortion is some variety of “Unless you give me X, I’m going to say Y about you.” Fortunately, I’ve spent years deliberately talking about controversial topics and disclosing uncomfortable personal stories. In part, this has been to avoid the temptation to create a squeaky-clean public persona. It also robs would-be extortionists of a lot of common ammo.
If you don’t have your own ammo, this category can be catastrophic. In other words, if you have more fame than resources, you paint yourself into a vulnerable corner. If you have fewer options and fewer allies, you’ll be attractive to predators.
- Desperation messages and pleas for help.
This is a sad category, much like the the suicide video story in the introduction to this piece. It’s one thing to get an “I committed suicide and I’m letting you know” note, which is absolutely awful. It’s quite another to get a message with something like: “You’re my last hope. I have no one else to ask. If you can’t help me with X, Y, and Z in the next 48 hours, I’m going to kill myself.” I have received dozens of these. In the beginning, I tried to help everyone and became horribly enmeshed. This never failed to end in misery and countless sleepless nights. Now, the senders of such notes are referred to suicide hotlines (e.g., 1 (800) 273-8255 in the US; a list of international hotlines [alternative link]) and a post I wrote entitled “Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide.” I owe many thanks to Violet Blue for her moral and tactical support with many of these situations. Thank you, Violet. This is very rough terrain. The more you operate in the world of how-to advice, and the more vulnerable you are with your audience, the more of these you will receive.
If you appear semi-famous online, guess what? Even if you’re not rich, it can be assumed that you have enough money to make a nice ransom. There are places where kidnapping is an established industry, and professionals do this on a regular basis. The US is generally safe, but if you’re flying overseas, you should be aware of a few things.
For example, if you use a car service, give them a fake name (and nothing cute like “James Bond,” which will blow it) that they’ll use on the sign or iPad to find you at luggage claim. Here’s why: it’s common practice for organized crime to have an arrangement to buy flight manifests from airport employees. This means that the potential kidnappers, much like a Michelin three-star restaurant, will Google every name associated with every seat to figure out exactly who is who. If you appear to make an attractive target, they will then go to the airport an hour before you land, find the driver with your name on a sign, and pay or threaten them to leave. They then replace your driver with their own driver, who now holds the sign and waits for you. B’bye! This can take other forms too. Once in Central Asia, I had a driver show up at my hotel to take me to the airport, but… he used my real name, and I’d given the car service a fake name. To buy time, I asked him to wait while I made a few phone calls. About 10 minutes later, the real driver showed up to take me to the airport, using the designated pseudonym. The first fraudulent driver took off, and to this day, I have no idea how he knew where I was staying or when I was leaving. But it bears repeating: there are professionals who do this, and they will be very good at what they do.
- Impersonation, identity theft, etc.
The more visible you are, the more people will attempt to impersonate you or your employees. This could be to hack a website, access a bank account, get a SSN, or otherwise. Companies or fly-by-night entrepreneurs will also use your name and face to sell everything from web services and e-books to shady info products and penis pills (sadly, all real examples). This is something that my lawyers deal with on a weekly basis. It’s non-stop. For both reputational and liability reasons, it’s important to track and guard against much of this.
- Attack and clickbait media.
There are a lot of amazing writers and media professionals with rock-solid ethics. Many of my dear friends are journalists in this camp. On the flip side, there are increasingly large numbers of bad actors due to perverse incentives created by the click-baity, fast-is-the-new-good digital playing field.
Remember the tribe-village-city metaphor? Multiply your target audience size by two. Now recall the percentage of that audience that might be angry or off of their meds. Next, double that percentage to include those who will do gray-area things to advance their careers. Last, give all of those people a job—or contributor status—at a media outlet.
What a fucking mess.
If you don’t like shitty Twitter comments, or if nasty Facebook remarks get under your skin, just wait until you get your first hatchet job profile piece. It won’t be the last, so brush up on your Stoic philosophy.
This is particularly demoralizing when a piece is full of misquotes, even after you’ve corrected fact-checkers via phone (oops!). Pro tip: use email for fact-checking, my friends.
Speaking of friends…
- “Friends” with ulterior motives.
Once you have a decent sized audience or “platform,” the majority of people who want to grab coffee, ask mutual friends for an intro, or—especially—offer you unsolicited favors will have ulterior motives. It took me a long time to accept this, and I paid a hefty tax for being Pollyannaish.
To be clear: I don’t mind pitches, as long as they come upfront. What I can’t stand is fakery to get in someone’s good graces over months, followed with a surprise of “Oh, I’ve been meaning to tell you about my new book coming out in a few weeks” and similar shenanigans. This has happened to me more times than I can count, and it feels dirty and gross.
This is one of the main reasons for my ongoing blanket policies, like a commitment to not reading any new books published in 2020. It’s also one of the reasons that the majority of my closest friends are not in the public eye.
Be wary of anyone who just “wants to get to know you.” 99 times out of 100, that will be untrue.
- Invasions of privacy.
For all of the reasons in this post (and many more), if you’re doing anything public, you should never have anything mailed to where you live. If you violate that even once, it’s likely that your name and associated address will end up in company or government databases. Those mailing lists are then rented and traded as revenue streams, and it all ultimately ends up searchable. Remember the story of the Austin YouTubers hunted in their own home? Don’t be them.
For safety, unless you want to take huge risks, use a UPS Store or other off-site mailing address for everything. This is a must-have, not a nice-to-have.
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 people’s 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.”