Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

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.

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  • Great, great thoughts Josh! Create for the sake of creating……thanks for keeping us well centered!

    • Joshua Irby

      Thanks Bruce!

  • This is great food for thought, Josh. Fame, in and of itself, is powerless to bring fulfillment. The pursuit of fame for fame’s sake is a selfish pursuit. It is only when we seek to use our lives to bring joy to others that we find true joy for ourselves. That’s just how God made us. The sad thing is, I think a lot of creatives start out creating for the sake of truly contributing something worthwhile to the world, but then lose their bearings somewhere along the way chasing stardom. Their focus shifts, maybe even imperceptibly, and that shift changes the end game.

    I think a lot of politicians fall into this trap as well. They start out with grand ideas about changing the world for the better. They want to be elected so that they can make a difference. Then, once elected, they get sucked into the cesspool of political self-perpetuation. Their focus shifts from making the world a better place to simply staying in office. Their original big dream of making a difference gets swallowed up by other people’s agendas. Or the power goes to their head. Or their altruistic ideals get trampled in the muddy reality of “politics as usual” and they gradually become simply part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

    I’m still naive enough to believe that a person can achieve fame, or stardom, or political success, or wealth, without automatically losing sight of what’s really important – contributing to society and blessing other people’s lives – it’s just more of a challenge. We need to be reminded of the principles you’ve shared here: that fame isn’t really the prize; that it’s not the trappings of success that validate us, it’s the genuine contributions that we make.

    God bless you, my friend!

    • Joshua Irby

      I completely agree Paul. I believe it is possible to carry the weight of fame without being crushed beneath it. But, it starts with recognizing fame as a weight and not “the promised land.” It also means we need to spend energy NOW becoming the kind of person who can handle fame/influence/expectations. My next couple of posts will focus on what I think it takes to prepare yourself to carry an increasing weight.

      • Really great post.

        Interesting you’re talking about the “weight of fame.” This article reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ essay the Weight of Glory. The need for affirmation is a real, intrinsic need, but how we get that affirmation can be healthy or not. In the Trinity, glory is always given, never taken. Similarly, in community, healthy glory is given away, not taken.

        It also reminds me of a talk on glory by Malcolm Guite….but I can’t quite remember what he says. Guess I’ll need to listen to that again:

  • Peace Love

    This is a great topic and well done. You speak from your experience as a musician in “obscurity”. I’m a singer/songwriter guitarist. Many people have complimented me on the songs I write and my guitar playing ability. Then they ask “why haven’t you tried out for one of the TV shows that puts musicians on the map”? To which I usually reply something like this: “I enjoy knowing that people are moved by my music, I enjoy the connection with the audience members who have supported me as a local musician. I’m just not interested in fame. In fact it scares me. Sure you gain some things, among them, most attractive to me would be large groups of people being moved by and singing the words to my songs. However, what you lose with fame is far more valuable than any of the gains IMO. I may be unknown but I’m successful because I’m doing what I love and supporting myself and my family by doing it. Therefore I am happy.” Honestly I’m quite content at the club, restaurant, private party and local festival level. You are absolutely correct that there is happiness in obscurity. That’s not to say that all famous people are unhappy. Obviously, famous or not, happiness depends largely on the choices we make in health, love, and life. John Mayer is a brilliant songwriter and talented guitarist too. It’s obvious in the lyrical depth of some of his songs that he enjoys creating. I think it’s safe to say he would agree that fame certainly has negative aspects now that he can speak from both the obscure and famous perspectives. Thank you for the article.