Nobody’s Heard of You and That’s Okay
3 Advantages of Anonymity in a World Obsessed with Fame
When F. Scott Fitzgerald finished The Great Gatsby and sent it to his friends, fellow authors, and literary critics for feedback, he received one of two responses. Neither was particularly encouraging.
One group said it wasn’t any good. In fact, this was the majority opinion of the work, which didn’t sell that well in Fitzgerald’s lifetime. H.L. Mencken called it “no more than a glorified anecdote” and referred to the author as “this clown.” A bit more bluntly, Ruth Snyder wrote, “We are quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of today.”
To be sure, this kind of criticism must have been hard to hear. But the second group was even worse — they liked the book. And that was a problem. Everyone in this group wondered what Fitzgerald would do next, and they were disappointed with the response.
After Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s life and career descended into an abyss from which he would never escape. As a prominent writer of the 1920s who quickly rose to fame and success, making ten times the average income of his peers, he was just as soon forgotten. Some would say he continued to write worthwhile fiction, but this was not the opinion of his contemporaries.
By all accounts, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was a sensitive soul who didn’t cope well with rejection. So when the world did not receive his greatest novel with the acclaim he or his publisher expected, his confidence wilted. His personal life fell apart, too. His wife Zelda was admitted to a mental hospital, and he was left to raise their daughter. In need of money, he moved to Hollywood to write screenplays and struggled with alcoholism until his untimely death at the age of 44.
No matter how you look at it, it’s is a sad story. But what I can’t help but wonder is if the pressure to write something even better than Gatsby was what caused Fitzgerald’s short-lived career, and for that matter, his life. This is conjecture, of course, but I think there’s a decent case to be made here.
In a world obsessed with fame, there is a problem we often don’t acknowledge: success can sometimes hurt more than it helps. So why do we continue to strive for it?
Success: It’s a Trap!
As a writer, I sometimes imagine what it would be like to be more successful: to have more people read my books or to have another decade of experience under my belt. I regret wasting so much time before getting started and worry I’ll never “catch up.” To what, I’m not sure.
We writers don’t like to admit we think about such petty things, but we do. As an online teacher, I hear from others who share similar regrets and longings:
- “Yeah, I’d love to write, but who would read it?”
- “Is it too late for me to start now? If only I would have started earlier…”
- “It doesn’t matter how you good I am or how hard I try. Nobody knows who I am.”
Occasionally, I regret how I began my writing career and wonder what it would have been like to publish my first book to universal acclaim, as Fitzgerald seemingly did. We all love the idea of getting what we want now without acknowledging the negative implications of success. The truth is being an early bloomer is overrated.
“We all love the idea of getting what we want now without realizing the negative implications of success.”
The Gift of Being Invisible
As it turns out, there are hidden opportunities to the invisibility and irrelevance we all fear. When you embrace those opportunities, I believe you end up creating better work, but only if you embrace them.
Here are three advantages of anonymity:
When you’re anonymous, you can try new things.
Fame brings pressure to perform, which can lead to playing it safe and not taking the kind of risks that make for interesting work. But when nobody knows who you are, you can experiment without expectation.
When you’re anonymous, you can fail quietly.
This means you can attempt projects that may not work and learn from them without public shaming. You can iterate more easily and less conspicuously.
When you’re anonymous, you can get better faster.
Because you’re not worried about what people will think or trying to live up to your last success, you can use all that energy to practice. It’s often easier to grow your craft in the shadows than in the spotlight.
Granted, we all want our work to succeed, but we forget there’s a shadow side to sudden success: it usually doesn’t last. Fast fame is the quickest to fade. And so perhaps, what we should want more than sudden success is the opportunity to create enduring work.
“Fast fame is the quickest to fade.”
Failure Is a Friend Dressed Up Like an Enemy
Scott Fitzgerald’s last royalty check before he died was for $13.
At the time, The Great Gatsby was practically out of print and couldn’t be found anywhere. What copies had been bought were apparently by Fitzgerald himself. A once-promising writer who was writing movie scripts to survive now considered himself a failure.
These days, we love to glamorize failure. But we forget how painful and demotivating it can be, how it sometimes demoralizes a person from ever attempting anything again.
There is, however, a secret side to failure: we can choose to see it as a friend, not an enemy. We can learn from it.
Fitzgerald didn’t have to consider himself a failure — he wasn’t. He’d already published This Side of Paradise to literary and popular acclaim. He didn’t have to make enemies with himself. He could have kept working, kept writing, and maybe lived to see the success of his greatest work. Things, however, did not work out that way. The pressure Fitzgerald placed on himself after achieving early success was too much. The author who introduced us to the man who chased the green light was, sadly, the same whose early fame led to his undoing. But did it have to be this way?
One thing I learned after interviewing hundreds of people who found their life’s calling (for my book The Art of Work) is that those who found meaning in their work had a unique perspective on failure. These successful people failed just as much, if not more, than the unsuccessful ones. But instead of letting their failures define them, they learned from them.
“Successful people fail just as much as unsuccessful people. The difference is in how they interpret failure.”
Failure isn’t fun, and it can even be painful, but it’s also an opportunity. I wonder if Fitzgerald had reinterpreted the “failure” of Gatsby maybe things could have been different:
- Maybe he would not have lived so extravagantly that he was later forced to take undesirable gigs just to pay the bills.
- Maybe he wouldn’t have given up writing novels for screenplays, because people stopped reading his novels.
- Maybe he would have been able to endure the criticism long enough to see people to recognize Gatsby’s genius.
It’s convenient to judge the past with the perspective of the present. But I don’t judge Fitzgerald — I empathize with him. His struggle to produce something great and the disappointment of people who misunderstood it is a battle we all face. This encourages me, though, when I sometimes wish I were a bigger deal than I am. There is a gift in being largely invisible to most people, and popularity can be more of a burden than a blessing.
One way we can honor Fitzgerald’s memory is by making the choices he did not, and perhaps could not, have made. We can embrace our lack of early success and let failure teach us without letting it define us. Because what determines a person’s success far more than any talent or potential is the perspective they choose in any given moment.
The Three Advantages of Anonymity
What does this mean for those of us who aren’t great American novelists? It’s a cautionary tale to not chase fame too quickly. Let success come when it wants to. In the meantime, place your focus elsewhere.
Who cares if you’re a “nobody” right now? Use that to your advantage. Your invisibility to the world means you can move more deftly than Fitzgerald could. It means you can create better, more interesting work before the pressure to perform is full on. And that is an opportunity worth embracing.
When you grasp these hidden advantages anonymity, you can play a different game. Here are three takeaways worth remembering:
1. Nobody’s heard of you and that’s okay — you can get better faster when the world isn’t watching.
Embrace the gift of invisibility and use it to your advantage. Try bold things. Practice without the pressure of having to perform. It will make you better.
2. Don’t disparage being the underdog — it’s your greatest opportunity to grow.
There’s an advantage to being the person nobody expects anything from: many people will want to help you. Embrace this place and let them. Once you reach the top, the same people who helped you get there will now want to tear you down. That’s a hard place to be and an even harder place to stay. So don’t rush it.
3. Enjoy your failures — and quietly learn from them.
Success brings with it a lot of expectation, and that generally doesn’t make for great creative work. So enjoy the opportunity Fitzgerald missed out on. Fall on your face without anybody talking about it, and learn from it. There will soon come a time when such experimentation will not go unnoticed. Use this time to prepare for that pressure.
Most of all, remember that there are special privileges reserved for the unlikely and overlooked that we tend to forget. This is natural, of course, because we all want the success we see other people having. But let’s not forget that there are disadvantages to that, too. So instead of pining for more success or fame, why not use this time?
“There are special privileges reserved for the unlikely and overlooked.”
Here are three steps you can take today if you aren’t as famous as you’d like:
- Don’t avoid the spotlight, but don’t race towards it, either.
- Build your craft slowly, and let the fanfare come when it does.
- Be intentional, but not anxious.
Remember: All great work gets its due, eventually.
Jeff Goins is a writer who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his family. He is the author of the national best seller The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffGoins.
Originally published on Goinswriter.com.