Learning Points: The fame game has more losers than winners

Fame is thought to be a way of becoming more valuable, a way of finding a voice, writes Richard Hogan.

So, when Caesar read about Alexander’s life and achievements he burst into tears. His friends were surprised to see their king’s reaction, a king who had achieved so much in his own life. When questioned about his sudden display of emotion, he replied: “Do you think I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable.”

This is a story I often find myself telling teenagers in the therapeutic setting. Their eyes widen as I recount the words of Plutarch. I generally tell this story to teenagers who come to me because they are putting incredible pressure on themselves to over- achieve. And there is something in this little narrative that resonates with them on this theme.

Because it highlights how we often put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to live up to an unrealistic expectation.

We all feel the pressure at times to live up to the expectations of our parents and friends. And we all want to succeed.

And there is always that one person in our field that we want to emulate, we have an image of their success like a gestalt and it propels us forward in our career. So, it can be a positive thing. However, I have noticed over the last number of years an increase in the number of teenagers coming to me because they want to be famous.

And when I question them around the area they want to excel in, they are generally unsure – like they haven’t considered that as an important part of it. It’s the fame they are after. I often find myself wondering, what is it about fame that is so attractive to young people. Could it simply be affirmation of their talent or attention and adoration or is it something deeper that these young minds believe fame will ameliorate? Or like Caesar is it the legacy they’re after? To be remembered?

Jim Carrey recently said that he wished everyone could be famous for a day so they would see that it really doesn’t bring happiness. But our teenagers are looking to fame as something that can alleviate whatever it is they are going through.

Jim Carrey

I had a conversation with a student, in one of the schools I work in recently, where he described his desire to achieve fame. I was struck by how much this young man believed that fame would make him happy and content. We looked at what fame meant for him, and really what he described was quite shocking.

He delineated how he was never really taken seriously by his friends and that his parents didn’t pay him much attention. He had a brother who was very academic and felt he could never compete with. He sensed his parent’s disappointment, perceived or otherwise.

Fame, for this young man, was a way of becoming someone valuable. It was a way of finding a voice. To prove to everyone in his milieu that he was special. So, what happens if this aspiration does not become a reality? Does this further compound the child’s sense of failure?

I often think that depression in teenagers is brought on by the fact that they find themselves living a fantasy that is not actualised in their real life.

Or in other words depression can be defined as ‘the reality of an expected reality not coming true’. Bruce Springsteen captures this idea when he says, ‘is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?’

And I think it is something worse, something far more devastating for our children’s psyche. They need to be taught to value themselves so that they are not caught in a superficial pursuit, like trying to fill their self –esteem with something as diaphanous and ephemeral as fame.

I’m not suggesting that our children should not dream of big things for themselves.

Of course they should. However, when fame becomes the ultimate achievement in itself, we must ask ourselves – why?

What is it that they believe fame will do for them? When you observe this desire in your child for fame, it should serve as a red flag to the health of their self – esteem.

We all want our children to live good healthy lives, where they feel valued and contribute positively to the world. So, we need to instil in them a sense of self – worth. I know it is difficult as parents not to compare our children but when you do this, you are creating the perfect conditions to destroy your child’s self – esteem. All children are different and they all will learn at different speeds and have different interests. When we give the message in their formative years that they are ‘less than’ or ‘not as good as’, we are setting them up for a very unhappy adult life.

Plutarch leaves us, warning of the dangers of pursing fame for fames sake. Caesar died in his fifty-sixth year. That empire and power which he had pursued throughout the whole course of his life with so much hazard, he did at last, with much difficulty compass, but reaped no other fruits from it than the empty name and invidious glory.

Fame is thought to be a way of becoming more valuable, a way of finding a voice


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