We all secretly covet a life of fame and fortune, we all want people to appreciate our work or talent, we all want to be known or recognized by history. This is true for everybody, including me and you.
But how many of us actually end up getting all of this in life? Only a very few. If we somehow do, how many of us are remembered by history? Even fewer.
One great reiterating theme in Stoicism and Buddhism is about recognizing our desire for fame. It may not always be a good idea to suppress it, say the many stoic philosophers especially, but we also need to soak in the hard fact that not many of us will make it – in this way, our expectations do not run amok from realistic odds.
This is not saying you shouldn’t dream big. You should always try and strive for greater things, but without being blinded by the fruits of the end, while also keeping in mind the thorns the means can come with.
There were many great noblemen, poets, playwrights of their time and region. Some are known and may seem evergreen to us, but what happened to the then-great ones whom we haven’t ever heard of today? We remember some of them, but we forget most of them. For every person who knows William Shakespeare, there maybe someone in a rural village in India who doesn’t. What happened to the legacy of many Princes, Lords, or Barons of old who built forts and carved out statues in their honor? Looking closer to our home, Bir Shumsher established the first hospital in the country and named it ‘Bir Hospital’ in his honor, but how many of us even think of him when paying the resident doctor a visit? Maybe only few. The point of this is to say that human legacies are always transient, no matter their scale; it’s only a matter of time before they’re forgotten, and this is why it seems so futile to only be motivated by it.
And we can see this natural human desire for fame and recognition with greater frequency today. It’s only because we have become more in number, less poorer and more idle relative to history, with easily accessible technologies that have the potential to shoot us up into fame overnight for even a silly video we make in the bathroom. We know this as ‘going viral’, of course. And many use the quick fame to their advantage – to promote a cause or to speak out against injustices; many don’t and may even perish eventually. Some are even destroyed by the covetousness of fame or their brief stints of popularity – because they think this is what they were ‘meant to do’ and were somehow denied.
Enduring the other side of success without being complacent is a core philosophical argument of many Stoics like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. Most highlight that the first step for doing so is to accept the greater possibility of failure. It also helps us if we understand the fact that no matter what we may do, we will always be on the lookout for fame, unless we belong with those rare personality types who are not; we need to recognize this quality in our nature, sincerely, without denial. When we are able to achieve this mindset, we may then focus our energy or effort into what matters to us the most or into what we are good at.
Desiring success or fame is like rolling a die: you should always be on the lookout for a number face of your liking, but also be aware that five out of six times you won’t be seeing it. But just because of the unlikely odds, you also shouldn’t stop rolling the die altogether. If we fail to be recognized for the work that we love, we will at least be fulfilled with the mere fact that we’re doing a labor of love for ourselves. And if, on the off-chance that we become famous for it, we should consider ourselves lucky, without forgetting about the odds that brought us here.