Getting Famous Is Not How You Will Change The World

Donald Miller

Since I was a kid I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to change the world. I didn’t know how, and honestly I didn’t know why, but I wanted to have an impact. Or did I?

When I look back I wonder if what I really wanted wasn’t to be famous, to be known and important. Once I got a small degree of that, though, I realized it was fairly empty. The year after I wrote a national bestseller I became confused and depressed.

These days I’d say my motives are mixed. I’ve a sincere desire to change people’s lives along with a seemingly Darwinian desire to stand out and socially survive. It can all be quite complicated and I’m grateful I don’t overthink it. The truth is our motives are mixed all the time and we can lose our sanity trying to “think ourselves” into a purity of intentions.

Still, the evolution from wanting to be famous to wanting to sincerely help people has created positive benefits in my life.

I’d say I’m still experiencing that evolution.

Here’s what I know: Being known by strangers isn’t going to make anybody fulfilled. In fact, it can make life much more confusing and complicated. But finding a role in life that helps others is actually healing.

Every time I speak somebody comes up to me and asks a question about writing a book. Often they just want some advice, but every few times the conversation is different. There’s a desperation in their eyes, a deep desire to be a bestselling author. I recognize this now and it often makes my heart sink. They talk about being a bestselling author the way drug addicts talk about finding their next high. It’s not that they “want” to be known, it’s that they “have” to be known. They believe something magical will happen in their lives if they can only get published and become famous and until they experience it they believe they are living a less-than-fulfilling life.

But this is a sad deception.

*Photo Credit: familymwr, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: familymwr, Creative Commons

The truth is, my life got a lot better when I learned to play small ball. I still write books, but not as often. I like the slow, one-one-one work I get to do helping people live a better story much better. It’s more fulfilling.

Having somebody come up to me and say they loved my book is nice, don’t get me wrong, but having somebody come up and say they sold their house, quit their job or adopted a child because of Creating Your Life Plan is fulfilling to me on a much deeper level.

I wish I would have known that when I was younger.

Here’s a thought: What if our desire to be known and validated and even famous isn’t a misappropriated desire to actually be people of significant impact, which doesn’t require fame at all?

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is a student of story. He helps people live a better story at Storyline through this blog and the Storyline Conference. He helps leaders grow their businesses at StoryBrand, where they get an entire marketing education in 2 days at his Workshop. Donald lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Betsy, and their chocolate lab, Lucy. For regular updates, follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller) and Instagram. To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.

  • Holly Loftin

    I admire that you constantly and openly examine yourself and your motives. If something on this Earth were to completely satisfy, success or fame or human love or acceptance world wide, we’d never look up. Slowly we would trade the eternal for the temporal. Thank God he is always drawing us to Himself. He shares us with the world but we belong to Him.

  • Sandy_TheScoopOnBalance

    Since I can remember–early childhood–I’ve “known” I’d be a published author. Before I even understood anything about fame or the publication process, I was writing things, hoping to see them in print, somewhere–anywhere. I’ve tried to examine my motives. I’ve tried to walk away from it. I’ve tried to run after it. Most days, I don’t know what to do with it, except live my life and keep walking toward it. Your posts always provoke me to deeper thought. Thank you.

    • Hairum M Smith

      There is an old poem that stuck with me. Basically due to quality timing really. The author is unknown but I simply love the ending…Keep Writing Sandy!!

      Things We Just Know

      that the FIRST STEP
      towards getting what we want
      is KNOWING what we want.

      That only experience
      can teach us the F I N E B A L A N C E
      of courage and caution,
      of dreaming big…
      and starting small,
      of living up to our abilities
      and leaving behind our mistakes.

      That we can TRUST
      our Hearts. And
      CHANGE our MINDS.

      And above all
      CHOOSE our Attitudes.

      That we are made
      out of STARDUST
      each one
      A different light.

      How brightly we shine
      depends upon

      the heat of our passions,
      the energy of our ambitions,
      the intensity of our love for life.

      That’s when we decide that
      we make it so,
      for ourselves and others. ~anonymous

      • Sandy_TheScoopOnBalance

        Thank you. I am and I will. :) Love this poem.

  • Josh Collins

    YES. THIS. A resounding YES to THIS! A friend recently challenged me to pray for a life of anonymity full of influence. May the story that’s to be told about my life be more about the fame of the Father, than me. And may that story influence those I’ve already been given permission to love.

  • Ryan Thomas Neace

    I like this – really, I do, and it’s very challenging to my own little inner addict. Someone could argue, “Of course he says that – he’s famous.” I wonder what your response would be there. Thanks for posting this!

    • Phil

      Don, being famous gives this credibility, in my opinion. If somebody writes this and is not famous we a) wouldn’t be discussing this right now because only their mom and aunt would be reading their blog, and b) we would dismiss them as downplaying the feeling one receives from being known. I think this is helpful coming from somebody who has tasted both sides.

  • Caitlin McCoy

    Yes, thank you. Thank you.

  • Tracy Martin

    This consideration immediately made me think about a recent TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert
    The connection is pretty self explanatory (so I won’t explain)..

    What strikes me as very interesting though is that perhaps when people want to experience fame what they really want is to experience their greatness and somehow have that attached to how other people perceive them rather than how they perceive themselves. Perhaps what they should focus on is whether or not they are doing what makes them feel valued and worthy of the title “great”…and I wonder if your preference now to help others one-on-one brings that tangible feeling of yourself as awesome rather than the empty feeling fame brings (i.e., other people thinking you are awesome).

  • Karen Heppner

    This resonates so deeply with Ben and I right now Don. As Ben announced last week that he is setting aside his singing / stage career, there was a new realization that the desire was never to be “famous”. His desire was always to give people the best experience possible with the gifts he had been generously given. And the comments and tributes being paid to him this week are his humble, generous spirit. (The side story, to begin with, was simply to make a living for his family – it was a sense of responsibility – never to be world renowned in his field! Pragmatic maybe!)

  • J. Michael McDade

    Great blog Donald Miller. I want to thank you personally for all you do. I played the fame game a long time. It almost cost me everything. This blog is spot on!!

  • Vincy

    Don, this is food for thought! I’ll be honest, there is a part of me that’s wanting the attention, and needing to be known. Blogging has been a fantastic experience so far. I think I got caught up with the fame game too – blog hits, larger readership and more subscribes. But somewhere it has also made me realize how empty fame is. I’m only beginning to realize what you mean. So, this post comes as a confirmation to that. Thank you!

  • foregtablename .

    This resonates with me. I’m sure anyone born in a world with the Academy Awards and presidential election nights could feel this one.

    Having said this, however, (and this is selfish on my part), Don’s books have made a significant impact, in my life at least.

    This likely equates to having someone say “Hey man, liked your book, rad stuff”, but I guess its a way to reach people without seeing them. If its done for fame, well, like Don said, it will be hollow for the writer.

    But not necessarily for the reader. Of course, if someone doesn’t want to do something, I have no write to imply they should; I am not entitled to a writer’s work or the product of their mind.
    I do, however, look forward to anything with “Don Miller” written on the front, because it will be a read that makes me feel less alone as a human, less alone in the struggle of fame vs. impact, and even in my murkiest spiritual crises, its a voice calling me back to try living again, not in my head, but in an active and engaging way.

    Not sure if I am arguing a point here or not, but I hope one does not underestimate the impact of what they do because its been equated with fame, and fame is hollow.
    Fame is an effect, like steam off a life giving meal, so I hope to buy more from what Don Miller creates. Compliments to the chef and the One who gave him the tools.

  • Michelle Watt

    Oh thank you, I loved this so much! There is an older couple in my church, my spiritual mentors. They are completely precious. They both live on a farm and he is a carpenter. And on the weekends, they spend their time coming alongside teens at DJJ. This Sunday, they were happy to report 6 of the teens had decided to follow Christ. Our tiny church cheered. All 17 of us. Heaven erupted in celebration, the sweetest fame of all. Imagine the clapping. When two hands meet, one with need and one with hope, in the quiet of a prison, this is the clap that matters. I’m sure the heavens know my mentors’ names. And I often think of the fun fame that must be for them as they live and work among their nameless chickens. Praying for us all to clap well and bask in that kind of fame. And the best part? 6 kids’ lives are getting ready to get terribly exciting.

  • Hairum M Smith

    “Real. Oh concrete?
    Are you not just man with a beat?
    Real. Oh heart and soul,
    Are you not Life within a wind blow?
    Real. Oh snow and shine,
    Are you not just time aline?
    Real. Oh ground,
    Are you not just clay found?
    Real. Grace; Mercy; Love;
    Are you not given from Above?
    Real. fear. mistrust. proverty,
    Are you not smaller, than His Sovereignty?”