What is more important, the contribution of an individual, or the fame that follows?
Fame and social recognition are often the unspoken catalysts for why people try to do anything at all. Why am I writing this article, if not in the hope of eventually being recognized alongside Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway? Do people really want to change the world, or do they just want to have their name be known? Many of us both worship fame and tirelessly seek it. If we take a long hard look in the mirror, we will all eventually adopt a distant gaze that's suitable for a magazine cover.
Even people with the most noble goals eventually seek fame. To do something great is one thing; to do something great and be known for doing it is another.
A recent Guardian article by David Cox explores our love of fame through our appreciation for one of the most notable intellects of the 20th and 21st centuries: Stephen Hawking. I'm currently working my way through Hawking's bestseller, A Brief History of Time, and as I've slowly read and digested each chapter, I have become well aware of the deep rabbit hole of thought that is Hawking's mind. The modern picture of our cosmos at both the subatomic and the galactic levels would not be what it is today if it were not for Hawking's work.
But, Cox wonders, are Hawking's contributions to science enough?
Over the past 20 years, Hawking has not been as camera shy and reclusive as we often expect our scientists to be. He has been on The Simpsons and Futurama, joked with Jim Carrey on The Conan O’Brien Show, appeared on The Big Bang Theory, and is currently in the process of making a documentary about his life called Hawking. Thus Hawking, like others before him, has become a man unafraid to acknowledge his fame. He knows both that he has done something notable, and that his name is a brand. Why not relish it?
Hawking isn't the only person to feel a gravitational pull toward promoting his name, personality, and ideas. Fame in all of its forms, and across it’s entire vast spectrum, comes down to a very simple human desire to be noticed, from the people we sneer at (Donald Trump), to the ones we feel are well-deserving (Oprah), to the notorious (Anthony Weiner), to the person getting their 15 minutes (William Hung), to the people who died because of it (Kurt Cobain). Fame is something that we all seek, and that we all respond to. After all, many people will disregard an idea unless a name is attached to it.
In a (dated) New York Times article, Benedict Carey explores our fascination with fame. He discusses the work of Jeffrey Greenberg at The University of Arizona, who found that when people are made to focus on their own mortality, they hone in on the personal characteristics that they feel define who they are. Fame plays into our efforts toward self-preservation, and our desire for immortality.
The work we do while we live, and the things and ideas we create, all flow into a society that keeps them alive, whether for a short time or a long time. The desire to be bound to our creations has a strong pull over what we do with our lives. Not all people seek fame up front, but as with Stephen Hawking, what begins as a quest for knowledge often grows into the pursuit of fame. It is a familiar story that ends in a variety of familiar ways, which we are all, in some way or another, in the process of writing.