The Joy of Irrelevance and Anonymity

A few days ago, an old acquaintance made national headlines for the wrong reasons. She tweeted a joke about the new president’s youngest son, and she got suspended from her job as a writer for Saturday Night Live.

I don’t know her well anymore. We haven’t interacted in 15 years. But in college she was in a four-person improv comedy troupe with two of my best friends and my best friend’s girlfriend.

She was very talented, as were the other members of the comedy troupe. But unlike the others, she had a deep resolve to make a name for herself. She was the most ambitious. And now, all those years later, she was the one who “made it.”

For those of us, myself included, who never “made it,” the natural instinct is to feel some sort of envy or at least wonder about those who do. To think that fame or external recognition would enrich our lives. About how great it would be to tell a joke and know that it made millions of people laugh. To be mucking it up with many of the most recognized comedians on the planet. To be important and famous; I’m sure that would be a very exciting thing.

But to see her get blistered in the national news the last few days, the pitfalls of importance and fame now seem obvious, too.

It makes sense and it is not controversial from an evolutionary perspective that we should seek high status. Still, the data do not seem to show that fame makes people happier. For one thing, famous people are four times likelier to commit suicide. That’s not a great sign. And there’s plenty of evidence that goals tied to extrinsic approval of others are not great for our well being. Just one more example of why what we think we want for happiness is not what makes it so.

It occurred to me that I rarely stop and appreciate the ways in which anonymity and irrelevance can be a blessing. That our instinct to think things would be better or easier if we were famous might not be correct. It might be fun to have coffee with Tina Fey, but it’s also nice to be able to say something stupid without the world questioning your character. It’s probably more exciting to be famous, but it’s probably more peaceful and calm to be irrelevant.

I’ve never been famous, so I can’t say for sure. But my best guess is that famous people are much like non-famous people. Being famous probably doesn’t change of satisfy the cravings of our billion-year-old brain. Each day they wake up and deal with a series of problems, worries, and concerns. And they deal with them the best they can.

That isn’t to say that being somebody few people know is better than being somebody lots of people know. It’s just to say that it’s different. No better and no worse. When you go from being anonymous to famous, you trade one set of problems for another. Seeking fame is just another way of looking for a new set of problems.

My instinct is to trust that I already have enough problems. No need to go searching for more.