Phooey on Fame? Yes and No.
Contrary to stereotypes, introverts do seek fame under certain circumstances. When doing so, we may face three distinct psychological challenges.
In a previous post about the helpfulness of success models, I quoted someone’s response in one of my surveys of introverts: “I guess I have assumed that if someone is successful enough for me to know of them, they aren’t really an introvert.” A very long list of well-known introverts – Thomas Jefferson, Bill Gates, Meryl Streep and Eleanor Roosevelt, to name a few – shows that this person was misinformed.
Yet that survey response also hints at a complementary truth about introverts: We aren’t the type of people to jump up and down on a stage or a screen roaring “Look at me! Aren’t I the greatest?” Indeed, if you consider what introverted actors say about themselves, they tend to agree with Harrison Ford, who has said, “There’s nothing good about being famous. I didn’t want to become an actor to become rich and famous. I wanted to become an actor because I wanted to do that job.”
I argued much the same in my post about Greta Garbo. Novelist Haruki Murakami – most definitely an introvert and a household name in Japan – expressed this thought too when he remarked, “I don’t naturally gravitate to the spotlight.”
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Most of the time, famous introverts fall into the sociological category of “achieved celebrity.” They’re not figures who are famous simply for being famous but people who have an exalted reputation for their skills, talents or accomplishments. Introverts certainly do appreciate recognition for our achievements. And we may have sought that recognition, partly for ego satisfaction and partly to make a living more easily. However, when we do land in the public eye, introverts may have difficulty navigating three consequences of fame, particularly in today’s age of social media.
Three Challenges Fame Poses for Introverts
The first challenge develops from the fact that introverts generally don’t value popularity for its own sake. Just as we’d rather have a few close, trusted friends than a large social circle, a huge dose of public attention can feel overwhelming, especially when that attention gets to the point where it feels disconnected from the original basis for the attention.
Jacob Lund Fisker, the introverted author of a book called Early Retirement Extreme that exploded in popularity soon after its publication in 2010, expressed this point when he wrote on his blog, “I hate being a public figure. I want my ideas to be famous and get attention but I don’t like my person to get attention. Unfortunately, the way modern media is, it’s all about the person because this ‘too long; didn’t read’ world doesn’t allow for any complex ideas.”
The second problem arises from the personal judgments by others that often accompany fame. Fisker lamented the fact that some fans of his work on financial independence felt they had a right to an opinion about whether he should accept a job offer that felt to him like an exciting next opportunity in life. This conflict took up much more of his mental energy than he felt it deserved, he said.
Such scrutiny by fans – and non-fans – is bound to strike introverts as unwarranted and intrusive. Introverted actor Megan Fox, who experiences this on a much larger scale than Fisker, has said this feels like “being bullied by millions of people constantly.”
Even when that scrutiny is positive, it can feel like a huge burden. As celebrity chef Nigella Lawson commented about her introverted colleague Anthony Bourdain, the chef/author who had a worldwide reputation from his TV shows and died by suicide in 2018, “Everyone felt they knew him. That’s what television does to you, and his particular form of television. I think it’s very difficult, because you’re dealing with a lot of people who need something from you, emotionally.”
Third, such personal judgments can encroach on the famous introvert’s ability to control their own career and life narrative. For example, author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike novels achieved worldwide success. However, starting in 2020 some controversial tweets she sent out not only led to numerous denunciations of her personally (along with death threats) but also to calls to pull all of her books from store shelves. This backlash achieved momentum in proportion to her prodigious fame.
So what are some healthy strategies introverts can use to cope with these unwanted consequences of fame?
How Introverts Tame Fame
The first is to seek out or create a zone of protective privacy. Of course, with enough money famous people can live behind high walls, hire bodyguards and so on. But consider the example of introvert J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, who in Wikipedia’s words “struggled with unwanted attention” during the decades after he stopped publishing books and stories.
According to an article in the New York Times right after his death, Salinger had settled in a small town in New Hampshire that held to “the code of the hills.” Whether a reporter or a devoted fan, every time outsiders came to town trying to find him, residents gave directions to someplace else besides Salinger’s home. And in the meantime, Jerry, as the locals knew him, attended church suppers, shopped at the general store and exchanged friendly hellos with neighbors. His community protected him.
Second, introverts can cultivate their reputation anonymously or under some kind of alias. In September 2022 the Wall Street Journal reported that quite a few live-streamers on Twitch with thousands or hundreds of thousands of followers were using the guise of avatars or images rather than their real-world identities. Some did so because they found being on camera tiring, while others wanted to avoid the toxic negativity or outright racism often aimed at online performers.
A century or two ago, authors similarly wrote under pseudonyms to keep criticism one step removed from themselves. Even today, perhaps Judith Martin feels less of a sting when readers disparage the advice or attitudes of “Miss Manners,” her authorial moniker.
Third, introverts can aim to keep their renown within a niche. This means you might get star treatment at professional meetings or a hobbyist convention but not get hounded at restaurants or during your daily run. Under this strategy, you should avoid the kind of contentious moves that might spill over to the general public. Stay in your lane, enjoy the respect you receive from a defined circle, and try not to get embroiled in a social-media soap opera.
I got to know introvert Jay Conrad Levinson, for instance, when he was an icon in the marketing profession for his “Guerilla Marketing” series of books. “I’m just famous enough that I get recognized sometimes in airports,” he once told me. “It’s low-level and unintrusive, and it’s kind of nice.”