This time last year I had landed back into Heathrow Airport after four days in Heiligenhafen; a small seaside town on the Northern Coast of Germany. I hadn’t gone for vay-cay, but to shoot some adverts for a well-known car brand. Heiligenhafen, in October, is absolutely freezing. Add to that some professional and personal stress and I’d fallen a little ill. When I arrived back into Heathrow I was exhausted and looking forward to take-away and bed.
I went outside the terminal to meet my taxi driver and with half a smile and meek thank you, bundled my weakening self into the back seat. The taxi driver was talking animatedly on the phone so I rested my head against the window and switched off. Ahhh.
Until. The phone call ended.
The phone call, as it turned out, was a pretty significant one for my taxi driver. Having managed some junior footballers for a few years, he had just made his first professional deal, worth over £1million.
Now, I don’t watch football. I could name most of the Premier League England clubs and I know who Ronaldo is, but it isn’t something I actively research. So he rattled off names of managers, the club, the name of his player telling me: “Check the news next week, you’ll see!” I also don’t really check the news.
This was the biggest moment in his life, and would have been very interesting to LOTS of people; football (soccer) is a popular game. But to me, it meant nothing beyond the basic human pleasure of seeing someone else happy. I was happy for him, but it wasn’t “cool” to me beyond that.
And I thought, I am sorry that me in this state is the first person you have to tell about this.
I could walk into a bar tomorrow, have one of the most successful players in the world strike up a conversation and I’d have no idea they were “kind of a big deal”, because it is not my world.
Sometimes I’ve found myself wondering what it would be like introducing my fiancé, Michael B. Jordan (he hasn’t asked me yet but I’m sure once we meet…), to my Grandma.
It would be much like this scene in Notting Hill:
“Always imagine it’s a pretty tough job though acting, I mean the wages are a scandal aren’t they?!” – Hugh Bonneville
“They can be” – Julia Roberts
My Grandma would be Hugh’s character in that situation, if that wasn’t obvious. Completely oblivious.
Whether we’re comfortable admitting it or not, there is a part of most people which craves the approval of others. We say we want to make ourselves proud, but the recognition from others is often largely what creates that feeling of pride.
This has always been the case – people have always been interested in fame – but it’s undoubtedly been exaggerated by Social Media. If you’re a writer or in the entertainment industry, your agents will typically offer to buy you followers and likes because apparently that is needed to validate you.
The trouble with this obsession with being ‘known’, is that it is a limiting ambition. There is no-one who is a big deal to everyone. No such thing as Universal fame. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, there will be people who don’t recognise you or know the name of the company you founded.
What is significant, is relative.
There is nothing that means something to everyone.
“when Run-D.M.C.’s Hard Times album came out, with its relentless bass drum, it sent an earthquake through the football team, but not even a ripple through my calculus class” – Ben Horowitz
Then there’s the ironic truth of what it means to feel like a big deal, or feel successful, or even feel attractive. The easiest and quickest way is just to surround yourself with people who are less that, than you. If you want to feel like you’re intelligent, spend time with someone less intelligent. A fish will make a more visible splash in a small pond than a lake.
Often what happens when you do start to do well, is that you move up into a different environment. But then, you’ve moved into a space with other successful people. So by becoming more successful you may start to feel less successful because the people you’re surrounded by are on another level. You’re back at the bottom again.
There will always be someone hotter, smarter, etc than you. Whatever you’re chasing, there will always be someone who can do it better. Even if you’re first in the 200m at the World Championships, you have to retain it at the Olympics. Then four years later, someone else will probably have poached your crown.
You can have a Number 1 Album and even the people who bought it may not recognise you in 10years time.
Now, this isn’t meant to be a depressing piece of writing about the impossibility of achievement. Instead, it’s about finding a way to strip away some of the things you may be factoring into what ‘achieving’ looks like. It’s about realising that the context of your journey is every bit as important as any individual’s external perspective on it.
Some artists have only been really successful posthumously – they must have found a way to keep going mentally. To keep creating without approval.
If you accept that there will always be people who don’t care what you do or what you’ve done, you have more freedom. In addition, once you let go of the need to look successful you’ve removed a massive obstacle to putting your work out into the world: fear of rejection. If you embrace the idea that you’ll never be fully accepted or lauded, and become comfortable with that, you create space to just ask yourself for acceptance. Your focus becomes on what you’re creating, rather than what people think about it.
That, for a creative person, or an entrepreneur, really is liberating.
“I been at this shit for nine years, now they start to call” – Russ