Superstardom is Relative

I was called a superstar yesterday. Twice. The first time I was there to hear it and let it go, and, luckily, the second time, it was over the interwebs. I’m glad I didn’t hear it the second time or else I would have been writing this last night or working through it in my sleep.

Every time I hear something like this it simultaneously makes me laugh and reminds me of how far I actually have to go. An occupational hazard of running with, coaching, and presenting with Big Names is that it’s easy to get caught in compare and despair land. By many of the metrics people use to determine whether people are superstars are not, I’m out of my league. In talent, expertise, and heart, perhaps not, but there are plenty of people who have those that we don’t call superstars.

When I give local presentations, I’ll often ask people if they know who Seth Godin is. Given the role he plays in my life (as a mentor from afar) and the lives of my friends, it’s unfathomable to me that people don’t know who he is. And, if there were a small group of true superstars from our world, he’d have to be on the list. Yet, time and time again, only 15-20% knows who he is, unless it’s a group familiar with the Internet world.

I’m just as shocked when they don’t know who David Allen, Stephen Covey, Micheal Porter, Peter Drucker, Dan Pink, or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi are. I’m quite sure this reeks of know-it-all-ness, but that’s not what I’m trying to convey; a decade ago, I could’ve only named three of the above (Allen, Covey, and Drucker) and I’ve always been an avid non-fiction reader and, thus, a certified geek.

When I start creating Venn diagrams of superstars and corralling people in them, those are some of the names that go in there. Were I to add another circle of “Internet Superstars”, I’m still not sure that I would put myself in the circle.

But here’s the rub: I don’t know what it would take for me to put myself in that circle. An interviewer asked me a question yesterday about something that’s happened to me that’s indicated to me that I’ve “made it,” and I told him the truth that I don’t know that I’ll ever have “made it.” I’m constantly making it, but I haven’t made it. Note: this doesn’t mean I don’t celebrate what I’ve done, but my pursuit of excellence renews every day.

To add further to this quagmire, many of the people I’d put in the latter list and some in the former list are a phone call, open door, or favor away. That’s telling.

I’ve spoken with and to a lot of “superstars” in my time, and what’s always served me well is to remember that they’re just people. Accomplished people, but people nonetheless. Treating them like superstars is the easiest way to make it awkward for all parties involved. I know this, of course, but I still have my fanboi moments like when I met Jack Johnson in Kansas City and was starstruck.

All that is what I know cognitively. On an emotional level, there are still these damn Venn diagrams with me not in them, at least not for a while. At least I’ve gotten better about correcting people about me not being a superstar, as that’s just disrespectful to all of us. I now say thank you and move on to the next thing.

I’ve been listening to some new artists lately, one of which is B.o.B. He’s now a fairly big name, but many of his songs still feature moments where he’s struggling because he’s not one of the Big Names of his industry. The same with Lupe Fiasco. David Gray has mentioned something similar, as has Jack Johnson. Superstars deal with this, too, even once they become superstars.

The simple truth is that superstardom is relative. (click to tweet – thanks!) The more profound one, I think, is that the entire label is mostly unhelpful at a spiritual and emotional level, even though there is often practical utility to the use and attractiveness of the term. I’ve yet to meet someone who, at their core, doesn’t want to be one – they don’t want the perceived negative consequences of being one, but that’s a different story.

To say it’s unhelpful actually understates it. ‘Superstardom’, as a concept, is harmful in that it causes many degrees of isolation. It isolates the superstars from the world around them; their social experiences are bizarre as people do the strangest things to get their attention. And it causes us to be isolated from each other and our own unique strengths – we forget that we, too, have power and can be epic in our own way. We spend so much time reading stories about other people than writing our own.

Who knows, though? Maybe I’ll see it differently when I’m a superstar.

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  1. says

    There is so much here that I’m not sure where to start. So, I’ll just go with the one big thing this brought up for me, because at first I thought you should honor the title of superstar. But I agree that titles like “superstar” tend to separate us, instead of bring us together. At the same time, I’ve been talking to a number of women in business about the fact that we are role models — a truth that I only recently discovered when a client called me a role model. Her one comment broke me wide open and brought tears to my eyes (at the restaurant where we were having lunch). So, perhaps the term role model resonates more fully? It still terrifies me a bit, but I want to honor it and it feels much more expansive than “superstar” (which seems to require quotes).

    • says

      Role model resonates much more and I don’t have nearly the reaction to it. ‘Leader,’ teacher’, ‘mentor,’ and ‘guide’ are similar – all roles I’ve worn for years, especially since the relationship, in these cases, is self-selected; if I’m your mentor, you’ve selected me. Granted, you may select me for the same reasons that would make you say I’m a superstar, but the relationship is different, methinks.

      Also: thank you for being a role model, Erica.

  2. says

    Hey Charlie,

    Thanks so much for this post. It’s something that I think all of us in the online world tend to lose of sight of because we get so caught in the illusion of “celebrity status.” A couple of weeks ago I got to interview Robert Greene for my show. I thought “wow, this guy is so big and famous. He’s written books with 50 cent. Everybody knows who he is.” He turned out just to be a normal guy like the rest of us and incredibly nice. WE get such a filtered version of people’s lives in the online world that it’s easy to place them on a pedestal. If you look at my instagram feed you’d think that I live under a life guard tower, surf all the time and I’m like Zen Buddhist on ecstasy (far from the truth) We fill in the picture they’re painting with our assumptions and as a result get caught in the vicious trap of comparison. Given that my entire platform is built around interviewing “superstars” I was really guilty of this. Then Jennifer Boykin told me something brilliant “Don’t compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides.” It was such a smart way to make a point.

    On the idea that you’ve made it, this is a brief excerpt from an upcoming Manifesto that was inspired by conversations with people like you :):

    “Achieving something extraordinary is a long term project. There is no moment when you’ve arrived. There is no finish line. People who achieve something extraordinary have an insatiable appetite for challenging the status quo and making dents in the universe. The minute they make one dent, they’re looking for an opportunity to make the next. It’s why entrepreneurs start multiple companies, authors write multiple books, and great artists produce multiple masterpieces. The pursuit of extraordinary is a journey not a destination.”

    Thanks for this post. It’s the best thing I’ve read this week.

  3. says

    Charlie,
    I like how you can get really down and dirty in the theoretical and philosophical realm.

    Very good point about the isolation that can come with being super popular and loved by many. At the same time, it saddens me when I meet a popular blogger or teacher and they think they’re too good to smile or be personal to the average Joe after they get off stage. I think the best scenario is when someone can think larger than life, live larger than life, lead lots of people, and still live in real life. After all, if a natural disaster hit us all, no-one would care what we do for a living.

    To me, the goal is to continue to be able to connect at a deeper personal level with people. To remember why people love in the first place – because they feel a connection and in some way we are helping them. Then, superstardom is satisfying … and of course, relative!

  4. says

    There is so much insight in this post. Stardom is not only relative, it is also impermanent. I love the reminder that “Whatever rises up is impermanent and is bound to fall down.” Instead of aspiring to be a star, I find it much better to make your mark in every moment with kindness, clarity, and love.

    • says

      Instead of aspiring to be a star, I find it much better to make your mark in every moment with kindness, clarity, and love.

      I totally agree AND would add “without rejecting, avoiding, or sabotaging the attention you’ll attract by doing so” to the mix.

  5. Karen says

    >The more profound one, I think, is that the entire label is mostly unhelpful at a spiritual and emotional level, even though there is often practical utility to the use and attractiveness of the term. I’ve yet to meet someone who, at their core, doesn’t want to be one – they don’t want the perceived negative consequences of being one, but that’s a different story.

    I suspect people who are really really clear about their INFPness might be pretty clear that “superstar” has associated challenges that are unavoidable. I’m going through a similar rap right now as our powerball hits $250M and I debate buying a ticket… but what if I DO win? There will be problems… Different problems than today’s, for sure, but still problems.

    BTW, those aren’t “perceived” negative consequences–they are very very real. See below:

    > they think they’re too good to smile or be personal to the average Joe after they get off stage

    Why is it that you get to decide what they are thinking? Did they tell you “they think they’re better than you?” Perhaps they’re short sighted. Perhaps they’re exhausted. Perhaps they hate the whole game and want to get away; perhaps someone is waiting naked in a bathtub for them and you’re not that person…

    Arguably one of the greatest superstars of all time was known for spending time with little children, although his advisers wanted him to act more importantly. That says more about the advisers, but we don’t remember them now, do we?

    Something I heard the other day: If you envy, you have it in you to achieve what it is you are envying. You don’t ENVY what you have no ability to achieve, you simply admire it. I suspect the reason some people fall into “superstar worship” is that the notion of achieving anything themselves is scary and hard, and it’s easier in the short term to project “other” on to someone else.

    I know who Seth Godin is. He fails to move me and I don’t understand in any way why he has the cult status he does. YMMV.

    • says

      BTW, those aren’t “perceived” negative consequences–they are very very real. See below:

      Perhaps I wasn’t clear here or maybe we just disagree. They’re perceived for the very reason you mention later; they’re often projections of someone’s current state onto another’s. “If I were them, I’d have these problems” becomes “they must have the same problems I would.”

      Everyone is fighting a battle of some sort. We’re usually terrible at figuring out what someone else is going through because of our own assumptions and projections.

      You don’t ENVY what you have no ability to achieve, you simply admire it.

      I like this one and will think about it more.

      I know who Seth Godin is. He fails to move me and I don’t understand in any way why he has the cult status he does. YMMV.

      I totally get this, and the beauty of resonance is that it creates opportunity for a lot of different people and perspectives. You could say something conceptually similar but stylistically or emphatically different and it be received well by a tribe that Seth – or anyone else – fails to move.

  6. says

    Charlie,

    Yes, I struggle with this a lot. For example, I was having lunch with Jon Morrow and Danny Iny. Just like in your example, someone said something that indicated I was a A-list blogger. I shook my head and said, “But I’m not. I think of myself as a mid-list blogger. Now these people are A-listers…” and I rattled off a bunch of names. They told me that only 1% of bloggers ever get more than a 1000 subscribers. Crack that, and almost by definition, you’re an “A-lister.” Of course, there are so many blogs out that, that 1% of the total is still a really big number!

    The point is that I think we humans always tend to focus on what we haven’t yet accomplished. We take our successes for granted. To help me deal with that (and as part of a course I teach on career change), I came up with a way to define success for myself. The result is that now I have definitive things I can point to that make me feel successful and have nothing to do with what anyone else is doing or achieved. Those urges and longings don’t go away, but it’s great to refer back to my own definition and remember what really matters (hint: it’s not the number of subscribers!). :)

    • says

      They told me that only 1% of bloggers ever get more than a 1000 subscribers. Crack that, and almost by definition, you’re an “A-lister.”

      Thanks for the teaching moment. I didn’t know that. I started PF back when there were many, many fewer blogs that had much higher numbers and I’ve never gone back and done the assessment of where reader trends are.

      Those urges and longings don’t go away, but it’s great to refer back to my own definition and remember what really matters (hint: it’s not the number of subscribers!).

      At the end of the day, it rarely does. :)

  7. says

    Superstar. A-list blogger. Meaningless terms. Any term that separates us and says that this person is good and this person is not as good, well, that doesn’t seem to serve much purpose other than to propagate the illusion. I’m not saying that those that are called superstars aren’t amazing people, but we so easily put them in a box created out of one or two skills or traits. Thank you for bringing light to this.

  8. says

    Charlie –

    I am glad I stopped by and stumbled across this old (but evergreen) post. It is revelational to read a post like this from you because I suspect everyone feels this way. Even those who have “made it” (and in our eyes you know you have). They are just too busy to think about it or articulate it like you have.

    Another revelation that came to me recently was that there are some people who will continue to place musicians and authors on pedestals. I have never had the “groupie” mentality. Instead I have been in awe of the their creativity and productivity. I spoke to Gretchen Rubin at an event recently that underscored my belief that stars are really just extraordinarily creative people. Ultimately what matters is whether you are living by your values and creating your art in this world. In which case I will be content with being a superstar in the eyes of my kids or my few clients/readers.

    I love B.o.B.and these lyrics from his song “Airplanes”.

    Yeah, somebody take me back to the days
    Before this was a job, before I got paid
    Before it ever mattered what I had in my bank
    Yeah, back when I was tryin’ to get a tip at subway
    And back when I was rappin’ for the thrill of it
    But nowadays we rappin’ to stay relevant

    Perhaps we shouldn’t aspire to become superstars. No one wants to create their art to stay relevant.

    • says

      B.o.B. is one of my current favorites, so thanks for the add.

      Everyone but Prince puts their pants on one leg at a time, despite what they’ve created. I would include Prince in there, but who knows what he does. Him and David Bowie.

      That said, I met Seth earlier this year and was more nervous than I’ve been in a long time. It was an interesting experience for me.

      By the way, thanks for commenting. This is your first, right?

  9. says

    My pleasure, I really do like that song by B.o.B; the Eminem remix is a punch in the gut.
    Yes, this is my first comment here. I never was much of a commenter until I started my own blog.