Jun 5th, 2021 | Working On Myself: Why I Don't Want To Be Famous.
What I Discovered While Working on Myself.
Many people have either a conscious or unconscious desire of being famous. I don’t think I ever had that desire in any way, shape, or form. I happen to enjoy creative activities—such as writing, vlogging, coming with new research concepts, working on new business projects, et cetera.
Therefore, regardless if I want it or not, I have to take into account that one of my numerous pieces of work—either a research project or a book — might one day rapidly gain in popularity and get viral.
Many content creators treat this eventuality as an attractive opportunity or even as a personal goal. But here, I would like to bring back one situation from a few years ago that made me question whether or not I wish for any recognition. This situation taught me that there is a dark side to being famous. And, this dark side has nothing to do with envy, hate from the public, or the lack of privacy.
The Authority Has Arrived.
I still remember that dark winter day of 2015 when the superstar of social psychology, prof. Philip Zimbardo arrived in the concert hall in the village of Nijmegen where I lived. In the name of working on myself and expanding my general knowledge, I decided to go.
It was despite the fact that I was familiar with his work (it’s a Psychology class 1.0.1!) I think what prompted me to go was primarily my curiosity towards Zimbardo as a person. The day was rainy and chilly, yet, the concert hall—over 1,400 seats—was full of inquisitive students. We all learned about the work of prof. Zimbardo from university classes and we were dying to see our idol on stage.
And there he was—a peaceful elderly man in his eighties coming to the stage to give us what we wanted. He surprised us in the beginning by telling us all to stand up and dance with him. He put on Santana’s hit song “Smooth” and started bouncing on the scene. And so we bounced along.
Well, I have a snapshot of the picture in my memory until this day, so I guess it served the purpose… And then, he started his lecture from talking about his most iconic piece of work happening once upon a time at Stanford.
The Stanford Prison Experiment.
If you ever heard the phrase, “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” he is The Guy responsible for it. The experiment happened on the days of August 14th–20th, 1971. It took place in a 35-foot (10.5 m) section of the basement of Jordan Hall, the headquarters of the Psychology Department at Stanford University.
In the experiment, 24 students were randomly assigned to two groups: the prisoners and the guards. The guards had permission to induce the sense of boredom, external control, and dehumanization to the prisoners. For instance, by calling them by numbers rather than by names.
At the same time, they could not use any form of physical abuse and not to restrict the amount of food. The guards were dressed as typical prison guards and were wearing sunglasses to avoid eye contact with the prisoners. The prisoners were dressed like typical prisoners, and were living in cells, three souls each.
How The Stanford Prison Experiment Ended.
The first day of the experiment was relatively peaceful. However, on the second day the prisoners rose in revolt and got pacified by the guards with the use of fire extinguishers.
From that point on, the violence was only escalating. Almost all the conversations between the guards related to the prisoners. They forgot about the world outside and fully focused on finding new ways to discipline the prisoners.
About one-third of the guards displayed sadistic tendencies. They were taking away prisoners’ mattresses and letting them sleep on the floor, forcing them to urinate and defecate to the buckets placed in their cells, and refusing to empty these buckets, or forcing the prisoners to walk around naked as a form of punishment.
The first prisoner burnt out and left the experiment after as little as 36 hours. The experiment was still continued at that point. Among about 50 researchers observing the experiment, the only person who eventually raised the objections was Christina Maslach, a graduate student and prof. Zimbardo’s girlfriend at a time. Following her concerns, prof. Zimbardo decided to terminate the study after 6 days due to escalating violence. Most guards felt deeply disappointed about the decision.
The Stanford Prison Experiment has become a worldwide phenomenon. It led to highly cited scientific publications and massive following research on human nature and the influence of authority on behavior. The study also inspired Hollywood movies such as the drama/thriller “The Experiment” with Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker (2010) and the docudrama “The Stanford Prison Experiment” (2015).
And The Talk Goes On.
Prof. Zimbardo dedicated the first half of his talk to the experiment. He told us the story that we all knew in every detail. But of course, we wanted to hear the story from the master rather than reading about it in textbooks. Just the same as we use to go to concerts to hear the music straight from the artist rather than from the tape.
After the master finished his story, he turned to talk about his new projects. What I mean by “new” is all his research activities ever since. After all, the experiment took place in 1971, 44 years before the talk—so, quite a while has passed. In the meantime, Zimbardo and his team worked not only on studying the limits of authority and the factors that induce evil in people but also, the opposite of that.
Among others, he founded and chaired the Heroic Imagination Project. This initiative aims to turn people into everyday heroes whose minds are tuned to help others in need. Within the project, he studies how people change their violent behaviors and how one can condition an individual to be sensitive to other people and volunteer to help.
He also wrote a range of interesting books dedicated to the factors that trigger evil in people, such as “The Lucifer Effect” (2008). It all sounds useful to me. After the talk came to the end, the time for questions has come. And this is when all the magic happened.
We Want To Hear What We Know.
Namely, the audience didn’t care about what happened in the last 44 years. They didn’t care about how to become an everyday hero and help people. All they were interested in, was the Stanford Prison Experiment. They were bombing prof. Zimbardo with dozens of questions.
Apparently, they were hoping to hear more juicy stories about what really happened in the basement of Jordan Hall in the summer of 1971. This blood-thirsty audience would probably be the happiest to hear that the study participants started killing each other but the fact was wiped under the carpet. As I once mentioned in the post “Mythology,” we all need idols, role models, iconic elements of popculture, mystery… It doesn’t necessary mean that we need “new stuff.”
And that’s the ugly truth. We want to hear about the things which we have already heard about before—not only when it comes to research lectures. Rock stars have the same problem. Namely, the audience wants to hear their hit songs from 40 years ago rather than their new music. While to an artist, the newest songs represent who they are now, while the songs from 40 years ago represent the past.
Life Is Short… And If I Want to Keep Working On Myself, Fame Is Prison.
And then, I realized one thing. Life is short. Even if you experience massive success with one project, you want to go forward and take on new challenges for as long as you can. No one wants to live on the loop like the character from the movie “Groundhog Day” and dwell on the same topic over and over again for a lifetime. And that primarily concerns creative people.
While fame often means imprisonment as you become a slave to your own audience. I couldn’t even imagine presenting what I do now in 40 or 50 years from now… I spend a lot of time working on myself and on making gradual progress with my projects and my overall outlook on life. Therefore, staying in one mental place for so long is just against my nature. So, this is it. On that very winter day in 2015, I took the decision that I don’t want to ever be famous.
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If you would like to read more about careers (for PhDs and other white-collar professionals) and effective strategies to self-navigate in the job market, please also take a look at the blog of my company, Ontology of Value where I write posts dedicated to these topics.
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