November 18, 2018

So, you want to be famous?

A thought for the new year.

The Talmud has a profound, almost amazing, statement: “Whoever denies all false gods is considered as if he observes the entire Torah.”

That’s how important denying false gods is.

So every Jew who cares about Judaism needs to ask: What are the false gods of our time?

We can all name a few. But here’s one to consider — especially if you are raising a child:

Fame.

For decades, I have asked young people what they want to be when they get older, and more and more of them now respond, “Famous.”

I then follow up with a second question: “Famous for what?’

Most have no answer. They don’t care about “for what.” 

Presumably, it doesn’t matter if it’s for becoming a reality TV star or conquering cancer.

And not only young people. It seems that most Americans ache for fame. To be on TV — or radio, or to have even a tiny part in a movie, or see one’s name in print or on screen — is to validate one’s worth.

Before explaining why the pursuit of fame is a bad idea, it is important to acknowledge that the desire to make a name for oneself is not in and of itself a bad thing. Wanting to be known for achieving a worthwhile goal is often a spur to pursuing one. And as long as a person is focused on that goal, becoming well known is not likely to distort the person’s values.

But when the primary goal is to be famous, fame is a god. And like all false gods, it can be dangerous — because a false god, by definition, is something higher than morality. Therefore, a person might do anything to become famous.

Now aside from theological and moral considerations, here’s why the pursuit of fame is pointless and often self-destructive:

First, in almost every case, whatever fame a person achieves will die with him — if his fame even lasts that long. Take, for example, the presidents of the United States. To the vast majority of Americans, most of their names mean nothing. Yet to Americans living during those presidents’ lifetimes, those presidents were the most famous people alive. 

You don’t need to go back in history to see this. We can see it in our own lifetimes. As we get older, we all come to the often unexpected, and always sobering, realization that almost every person who was a “household name” when we were younger is completely unknown to the next generation. 

Second, fame is fleeting for the vast majority of those who attain it. It is almost guaranteed that those who are famous at 30 will not be famous at 60.

Third, when people who have pursued fame lose it, they often end up emotionally and psychologically depressed. The more you value fame, the more you lose your purpose for living when you lose that fame.

Fourth, even if you do achieve fame, the more you value it, the more you will devote your life to keeping it. And few things are more pathetic than watching a person trying to stay famous.

Fifth, unlike other things people desire, fame is available only to an extremely small number of people. Theoretically, almost everyone can be rich, healthy and happy. But by definition, only an infinitesimally small number of people can be famous.

Sixth, other than mind-altering drugs, nothing seems to distort a person’s thinking, values and even personality as much as fame. Most young people who become famous become almost entirely different people.

Seventh, the greater the fame, the greater the inclination to think that one is better than others. That’s one reason the more you value being famous, the fewer friends you will have (though you will have many sycophants).

Given the powerful appeal of fame, is there an antidote?

One obvious antidote is to realize how pointless, fleeting and self-destructive the pursuit of fame is.

Another is to take religious faith seriously. Then God becomes more and more important — and the more important God becomes, the less important fame becomes. A real faith in God puts things into perspective like nothing else.

Finally, and most important, the key is to remember this rule of life: The famous are rarely significant, and the significant are rarely famous.

The caretaker of an invalid is very significant — but hardly famous. On the other hand, many of the very famous are hardly significant.

The vast majority of us, therefore, have to choose which we would rather be — significant or famous.


Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).