“Don’t underestimate just how badly many people want to fit in. We say we want to root for the underdog, but actually, we want to be seen as rooting for whomever everyone else is rooting for.” – Seth Godin, 1/5/2012
I don’t want to be famous.
I only realized this a few weeks ago. I said it aloud, probably for the first time, in a conversation with a friend and fellow blogger over the phone. She concurred.
In the beginning of our separate pursuits, popularity, fame and acclaim were end-goals for each of us: stuff like making it onto The Today Show and reaching the New York Times Best-Seller list.
In fact, from early on in our journeys it was as if “being popular” was indistinguishable from dreaming big, finding true purpose and creating something meaningful. Being popular was entwined and entrenched with our idea of success, fulfillment and value.
We never thought to question it, because we didn’t realize that these two concepts could even be separated from one another.
But as time goes on and you begin to make genuine strides in the right direction — a direction in which destined fate pulls, exactly where you ought to be heading — you might find, as we each did, that once-dreamed glamour of becoming popular and famous is, actually, a far cry from your now-evolved goals, values and aims.
The more you start to succeed for the right reasons — the reasons that resonate with your own morals, personal values and wishes — the more that “popularity” starts to show its true colors.
Popularity, you grow to realize, is callous infatuation, dictated by a peculiar (and often ugly) mob mentality.
It’s a surging river of attention and obsession that rushes vainly from one momentary interest to the next like a listless child: from skin-deep beauty and sweeping diet trend, to one crazy television show and another nouveau pop culture icon.
And, most of all, this surging river of attention and obsession is dictated by popular belief — as the Seth Godin quote above references — that everyone else seems to be doing it, or believing it, or wanting it, or loving it.
I don’t want to be popular. Early on in this journey, I thought that I did. But to be honest, I don’t want to be unpopular, either.
And, one day, when you accidentally peek at your book’s average rating on Amazon.com — standing, as of this writing, at a paltry 2 out of 5 stars — suddenly, being popular doesn’t seem so terrible, after all…..
When 1.3 Percent of Customers Define Your Life’s Work
Yeah, when see a piece of your life’s work being rated at 2 out of 5 stars — even when it’s from 4 reviews, or, just 1.3% of your total customers over the three-plus months — popularity doesn’t seem so bad at all!
You’d love to personally email the other 98.7% of your book’s buyers with incentivized offers: “In exchange for a raving review, I will clean your house, wax your car, pay you $5, become your butler and/or do a silly dance that you can upload to YouTube for the world to laugh at. Deal?”
But, of course, you don’t.
I learned a long time ago that the only change that’s worth pursuing is divisive: it will be contested and is certain to polarize. If the change is really necessary, it means upsetting a status quo that most people subscribe to. And upsetting the status quo will naturally upset some people: those who enjoy the way things are — or those who simply never thought to question what is.
I should know by now.
From the get-go, people really don’t understand what it means — a totally justified reaction. Our society defines leadership as being predicated upon the presence of followers. And so, we ask, “But, without followers, who is there to lead?”
In response, you begin to craft essays. You pour hundreds of hours into a blog. You stand in front of rooms full of people and talk. You write a book. You tell stories — some personal, some very personal, and some otherwise — in hopes of gently persuading these complete strangers online and in person that you are not only, in fact, sane, but maybe even onto some idea worth listening to.
Beyond all else, you hope to remind them that all of the human emotions, traits and qualities that we lump into the word “leadership” can only come from within, and thus, that we are all leaders by our choosing — and by our choosing, alone.
Some heads start to nod; yes, you tell yourself, they remember.
But, in others, walls start to go up.
You are, after all, trying to create “change.” Change is uncertain and scary. What we’re familiar with is safe: it’s comfortable, familiar. And even if you’re hoping to change something that you (and others) see as completely backwards, the comfort of the status quo — or, “what is” — is what maintains its stagnancy. Creating change means upturning what is safe, comfortable, and familiar.
Creating changes means you need to be willing to become a heretic. An outcast. A renegade.
To create genuine change means to self-segregate yourself as a trouble-maker. You stand out from the crowd. You step onto a soapbox and speak from the heart. Some — those grateful few — relish in what you have to say; others — most among the crowd — point, laugh, curse, and shame. This is creating change.
Why is it so tough? Because no matter how you slice it, creating meaningful change means telling a lot of people that they are wrong.
But people don’t like to hear that they’re wrong.
Side note: I base Lead Without Followers, my alternative leadership philosophy, on unconscious and subconscious factors — that the majority of us have all inherited assumptions, beliefs and behaviors from our environments. It’s not about convincing people of their “wrongness” and my “rightness” (or, in other words, for the sake of my ego), but because the circumstances of our social and cultural environments quietly dictate that we never consider “leadership” in any other way.
So you encounter friction.
Among those who instinctively resist the change you discuss, there’s the lifelong cynics and crossed-armed status-quoers who seem to take pleasure in attacking you. Resistant to the idea that they are being told that they’re “wrong,” they dig in. Online, they fire bullets of derogatory anonymous comments, backhanded jabs in blog posts, and scathingly-negative Amazon reviews.
Of course, not every reader will love your work. Simple, obvious fact. But when 1.3% of your total customers represent such a visible, critical mark? Well, it’s tough:
- It partly hurts: you might not want to be “popular,” per se, but you sure as hell don’t want to be unpopular, either.
- It partly doesn’t matter in the least bit, whatsoever: Talk about #FirstWorldProblems. What, two or three people out of 6 billion don’t like my book? Boo hoo. Plus, we all read books that others have loved and that simply don’t resonate with us.
- It partly means I’m doing something right: great work is contested; change naturally provokes resistance and disagreement. A reaction proves, to a vital degree, that the issue is worthy of discussion, debate and exchange. In the end, I’d rather be a catalyst of criticism than indifference. And that makes me so very grateful.
Yes, it’s true: creating great work will always mean creating what’s both loved — and hated.
Nearly three years into this journey, I’m far too familiar with this.
Creating work that is both loved and hated began for me in high school: writing essays for the student newspaper that prompted dissenting students to key my car four or five times, stuff my locker with hate notes, and so on.
I had a high school teacher call me a Nazi in class. I was once sued in college — a case that was thrown out, ultimately — and online alone I’ve been slandered as a hypocrite, a bullshit artist, a wanna-be, a self-help conman, a guru with a chin-strap (that one was awesome), a narcissist, a kid with no way of knowing “how the world works,” and just flat-out wrong.
If the only aim of change-making was popularity, I’d have caved and gone into hiding by now. And dissent is a worthy wall to break through when it’s your heart that calls out to you to create it.
How do you react?
For me, I’ll tell you how it feels: from within the walls of your skin, your defiant spirit lashes out. You want to curse and scream and yell. You want to prove how wrong the haters and critics are. You want to tell them all to f*ck off, to crawl back into the holes where they came from, to just leave you alone or to try to say it to your face, for a change… but, instead, you bite your tongue.
You remain quiet.
Because that’s the only choice you have, really, when your life’s work is to genuinely help people…
…and when that help is rooted in beautiful ideals that you so believe in, like patience, forgiveness, selflessness and compassion, indiscriminate love and natural human goodness.
In the end, the only loving defense you can embody is choosing to become quiet. The strength of defenselessness. Ultimate trust. Unshakable faith.
Ironically, when you choose to remain quiet — siding with compassion and understanding, not your anger and insecurities — some haters become emboldened. They feel incited to attack you harder and harder, taking your quiet stance as a sign of weakness and vulnerability.
But, you stay quiet.
In quiet, you let go of the anger, the jealousy, the hurt. You press your lips up into the corners of your cheeks, and force a slight smile instead. Before long, the haters disappear. Their attacks wash away.
And you’re left there, still smiling.
In the end, your work to speak for itself — to whomever may come across it some day, 2-star rating and all, with the faith and trust that what you put into your work is exactly what others — the right readers, the right customers, the perfect people who genuinely need to discover your words — will reap.
What you put in is what you receive.
And that, my friends, is how you define your life’s work.
I really do understand that leadership, in general, and leading without followers, more specifically, can be completely gut-wrenching.
It’s even moreso in moments when no one is watching; when there’s no one there to reassure your insecurities or pacify your fears — even when it’s something small like a meaningless “rating” number that crushes your heart because it looks to the world like your book is, quite simply, disliked, disagreed with, flat-out unpopular.
It’s beyond tough. Certainly challenging. But in the end, so worth the effort:
- If popularity is the only aim, unpopularity will crush your spirit and compel you to quit.
- If followers are the only goal of you being a leader, then not having them — or not having enough of them, or some day losing them — will drain your fight, cripple your willpower, and crush your ability to lead.
- But if the goals of your life’s work manifest themselves as loving kindness, trust, positivity, selfless giving… and if those goals manifest in others… then success is already yours.
Yup. I don’t want to be famous — it feels good to admit that. And although I wouldn’t ever want to be outright unpopular — or, if, according to 1.3% of customers, my book appears to be — such an unwanted appearance is a small price to pay for what I know my book inspires:
Life-stoking, liberating, empowering personal leadership — a leadership rooted in love.
That’s why I do what I do. It’s why I’ll keep writing, speaking, working and sharing. And, no, 1.3 percent of customers defining the popularity of my book is not going to crush my spirit, compel me to quit, or make me believe that my path is wrong.
As you can tell by now, this entire blog post was one long-winded story to share with you a single, solitary, but important lesson:
The force that drives how you live, work and create is exactly what you’ll experience in effect. What you put in is what you receive. Where love is sown, it is reaped. Where naught but anger is exhaled, only more itself is breathed back in.
As for those reviews? I’d love great ones, obviously. It’d be wonderful if you wrote a supportive and honest one (only if you’ve read it, of course, and liked it :). But outside of that, haters will keep hating, and you know that I won’t go much further to ask for any help.
I won’t because I know that I don’t need to convince you of anything: you’re one of the few who understand what this journey of ours is all about, and why we’re working away to, hopefully, and in the quietest of ways, show someone — if even just one soul who really needs to see it — that embodying these sometimes distant-feeling ideals is a genuine way to realize our individual purposes, to discover a true sense of meaning, to calmly breath in and exhale pure contentment and, of course, to reap and share the light of our Being in our everyday lives.
And you just can’t put a rating on that.