I Wonder If You’d Miss Me

In South Africa, I meet a man who tells me he’d rather commit seppuku than live in Los Angeles. I ask him where he lives and he says he doesn’t live anywhere in particular, but he spends most days along the Florida Panhandle. Drinking in dive bars, staggering into all-nighters that sell fried chicken, Nikes, and Jim Beam, and living as though he could die at any given moment. He’s straight out of a Chuck Palahniuk novel with his flame hair, rejection of societal norms, and a penchant for self-destruction as a path to self-actualization and enlightenment. And he’s got the war wounds (and smartphone photos) to prove it. Save for the photos of bar fights and paunchy, aging men toasting to last call, he says he spends his life off his phone rather than on it.

I notice in all his photos he looks as though he’s been stabbed in the stomach a couple of hundred times. Eyes pressed shut, mouth widened to a large, gaping hole, and the remainder of his body a mess of pain. Smiling, he points to the pictures and tells me that this is real. That the rest of the world is manufactured and fake — obsessed with follows, clicks, and likes. Desperate for adulation and devoid of any primal emotion and connection, no one feels anything anymore except for their superficial wants. The validation that only a screen could provide. We’re the shiny new appliances on reset. Returned to manufacturer settings. And this is why, he says, he could never live in the capital of it all — Los Angeles, a place built in sepia where everyone preens to social media perfection.

I laugh and say I’m the furthest thing from preened or perfection, to which he replies: you’re from New York though. And I say, yeah, we’ve got phones and social media there too.

That same week an influencer on social media bemoans the fact that her child doesn’t garner as many likes as his siblings, that somehow the algorithm has smitten him. An Instagram “fitspo” star ridicules her followers on Twitter and then issues a Story tirade, on the level of a telenovela, wondering why more people don’t love her. More, more, more, how do you like it? How do you like it? Andrea True Connection crooned in 1976. And that more, more, more, morphed into Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” monologue, which inspired legions of investment bankers and hedge fund managers decades later, to the nihilistic-fueled vision of Bret Easton Ellis where even the most is never enough, to the housing bubble in the early aughts where everyone was promised more than their means, to the here and the now where we’ve fallen prey to the biggest pitch of them all: more money, more clients, more followers for the low, low price of $997.

It’s your late-night infomercial dressed up in a better outfit. Like vegan leather or White Castle.

Everyone wants that McMansion life and they’ll write as much in their social media captions, which read as the tripped-out love child of Gary V and Tony Robbins. And I get it to an extent. I used to want the finery, the fancy title, a life pointing north, and the zeros at the end of my paycheck. But once you get those things, you never feel whole and complete. What you have is never enough and you want more of it until it occurs to you that you’ll never become full. You’ll never fill the depth that is your emptiness.

Wanting things drove me to debt and bad decisions. It never made me feel the way people do.

Here’s the thing — big ruins everything. Focusing on the size and weight of things was nearly my ruin. And it’s important to learn from one’s mistakes. The masses are merely noise. Volume is only a unit of measure, not an indication of one’s worth or happiness.

An acquaintance recently complained that he only had 800 people on his mailing list. But what if those 800 people were standing in a room? 800 people who cared about what you wrote enough to give you something valuable in return — their email address and attention. Do you know 800 people? I asked him. Because to me, 800 is a lot of people who care and their attention is worth fighting for. Size doesn’t make you significant — it only feeds your ego. And does your ego take the time out of their hectic day to write a stranger an email saying how much your words affected them? That what you wrote and how you think puts their heart on pause? That you matter. That they look forward to what you put out into the world?

Does your ego give you that level of empathy and kindness?

Today, I listened to an interview with Seth Godin, a marketer and a man I respect and admire. I started following him in 2002 and was floored by the simplicity of his message. He speaks plainly and passionately about creating things that matter. He’s measured, thoughtful, reflective — the antithesis of the speed-talking hustlers and their laundry list of hashtags. Listen to the interview — it will alter you. He talks about redefining what it means to be successful. It’s not about clicks, conversions, or conversation volume. You used to be able to buy attention, and to a certain extent you still can, but you’re short-selling yourself and your message. You’re not playing the long game. There will always be someone with a bigger budget, a better body, a beautiful photo, and a covetable life.

Seth defines success in the simplest terms: who would miss you if you didn’t show up and what change are you making in the world? Sure, this sounds lofty and possibly idealistic, but think about it. Think about the brands and people you love. You’ve cultivated a relationship with them — some more significant and intimate than others, obviously — and you’ve come to love them, quirks and all, because they’ve given you something tangible. Memorable. Something of value beyond what can be measured. Something real to which you can hold on. Something that is larger than all of us. The change they make could be anything from holding up a sign at a rally to living their lives with empathy and compassion.

You don’t need to wrap your arms around a globe to be significant.

However, what you need to do is commit to yourself, your work, and your tribe in a way that’s real. Because let’s be honest. There’s so much mediocrity out there you could drown in it. Bloggers who dial it in and cash out. Instagrammers who pander to clicks. Writing just to put something out there. Why not pause and focus on creating the best work you can do at that moment in a way that puts someone’s heart on pause? Make the thing that will leave an indelible mark. Respond to people who are giving you time out of their life to read your work — even if it’s just a simple word of thanks. Because these are your people, and they are the mighty that will miss you when you’re gone. Whatever happened to…They are the sacred few who will be moved enough by what you’ve put out in the world to do something for themselves or potentially for others.

Don’t bother with appealing to the masses because it’s nearly impossible. You can’t be all things to all people — if you were, you’d be generic, a carbon copy of everyone else on the block. It’s okay to be polarizing. It’s okay for people to say no to you — it’s a gift, really, because you immediately know, without any hesitation, that these people aren’t part of your tribe. Move on to the next.

Instead of more, more, more, why not put out the work that matters most for the people who matter most. You can be successful and significant and still play small.