I’d like to start by describing a scene. You, a hypothetical 30-ish-year-old, have a job. This
job makes you successful, in that
you’re making your own way. You generally enjoy the people you work with. You’re
qualified for your position. You can eat out and enjoy time off. But something
is missing. Something about your day job smacks of capitulation—you feel as
though you’ve somehow given up.
So you try to fill the shapeless void that this notion of surrender has carved out of you. You start up a side hustle, or a hobby. Maybe you start a blog. Whatever it is, it’s aimed at plugging that void. What is the void? One part of it—the part that you understand—is the unspoken belief that you have more to give than what your job affords. You could be somebody, if people would just give you the chance.
Alright, it’s me. You caught me. I’m that person. But perhaps, was there a shade of you in it? Just possibly?
In a word, that hypothetical (me) person is looking for recognition.
And that’s the topic of this post, understanding recognition: why I want it, why I shouldn’t, and what to do about it. So to dive right into the cognitive weeds I want to go back in time.
The year was 1999. I was in junior high and it was nearly impossible to avoid Total Request Live. TRL—as it was called—was ostensibly a music countdown show, in which A-list celebrities stopped by to literally just be famous around other people. The music was beside the point. I can still remember kicking back on the couch in my knobby Adidas sandals, watching host Carson Daly and some famous person get screamed at. TRL, to me at least, was about the heady scent of fame. It was about imagining myself in the position of Carson + Guest—as the object of adoration at which all those pubescent howls were directed. The airy reaches above Times Square were a modern ur-Valhalla, in which warriors did not do battle but endlessly congratulated each other in front of millions—a mutual grapple of camaraderie in stardom. TRL brought the spoils of fame to bear. Of course I never said this out loud, but it stuck with me.
Minds like mine have been misled by the constant glorification of transient, purposeless fame—the Ho Ho of the spotlight to actual valor’s filling sirloin.
Whether I wish to be or not, I am part of the Britney Spears Generation, the Adherents to the Road Rules, Heralds of the brood Kardashian. And I think that growing up amidst the birth of true, 24/7 attention-mongering made it hard not to lust after some scrap of fame, even if you can understand—through watching a cumulative four minutes of TMZ ever—the captivity of true stardom.
The world of TRL was, of course, not reality. Neither Carson nor his guest were in a state of bliss. We all saw Britney’s public and painful transmogrification from a singing set of cleavage into a sneering mannequin (she’s better now, but still locked in the limelight). Regardless of how I see that sort of fickle, transient fame now, it left an impression on me, as I think it could have on you.
For better or for worse, I, like many, grew up with my parents reassuring me that I could be whatever I wanted. And I wanted to be someone. Anyone.
Now, in my thirties, the TRL notion of perfect fame has developed a haggard-looking patina. I don’t want to get harassed by fans while walking into CVS to buy some Pepto. No thanks. However, the concept of recognition is still a hulking part of our culture’s—and my— interest. Recognition is the hoary, time-hardened, misguided notion that the satisfaction we seek in life comes from a simple domino of events: put yourself out there, get noticed, get respect, get happy. Badda bing. You ARE someone.
There’s actually a Maori poem about the birth of the universe that deftly lays out our inescapable want of *something*.
“From the conception the increase,
From the increase the thought,
From the thought the remembrance,
From the remembrance the consciousness,
From the consciousness the desire,”
I understand that a need for recognition isn’t humanity’s only option when it comes to desire—there’s sex, power, etc. However, since this desire for recognition is the one I’m currently most intimate with, let’s stick with it. I will add that the internet—as a portal through which one cannot help but constantly stumble upon the success of others—gives me more than enough justification to imagine that some of you out there might also lust after a little recognition. Everyone can count likes, followers, and shares, even if they wish they couldn’t.
Anyway, one particularly virulent example of this “notice me!” impulse is our awards culture. Advertising has a particularly nasty strain. Have you heard of a Cannes Lion? An Addy? A One Show Pencil? No? Well, many advertising people have and good lord do they want them.
Have you ever bought a certain brand of toilet paper because its ad won some Creative Director a One Show Pencil? Didn’t think so.
The utility of these Advertising awards, like all awards, goes beyond the hardware itself. A Cannes Lion on your shelf raises your status in the ad industry, thus allowing you to demand more compensation or move to a better job. Few are the people who’d state that they want the award for itself. But, then again, most of the people going after these awards have pretty fine jobs and salaries (or as close to fine as they’re likely to get). So the lust for recognition is probably more central to their award hunting than they’d like to admit.
I’m going to put it out there right now: public accolades are toxic. They create a hunger that, if fed, only becomes more acute.
Before you decide, “oh that’s sour grapes talk. He just wishes he’d won an award.” I won a couple awards in ad school. They were dumb awards, but I tasted that ambrosia and it did my long-term happiness no favors. To go further, I’d say that awards are an awful indication of true value. Ads are supposed to make you purchase stuff. Have you ever bought a certain brand of toilet paper because its ad won some Creative Director a One Show Pencil? Didn’t think so.
To bolster my assertion that awards don’t denote quality, we need only turn to the list of Best Picture winners in the Academy Awards. Who can forget Marty, that classic winner of 1955? You know, the one that came out the same year as Night of the Hunter and Rebel Without a Cause. Or how about 1941’s winner How Green was my Valley, beating out the forgettable Citizen Kane? Equally, do you think that anyone is going to remember Ben Affleck’s Argo in 2049? Do you even remember Ben Affleck’s Argo?
Don’t get me wrong, not all awards are unwarranted. Amadeus got best picture. Kramer vs. Kramer got best picture (over Apocalypse Now, I might add). Deer Hunter got best picture. All amazing movies. But what I’m trying to put out there is that accolades are a crapshoot way of determining quality, let alone self worth.
I know what you might be thinking: but don’t you write? Isn’t the basis of your job looking for recognition from others? Isn’t this entire post just a way of justifying why you shouldn’t feel like the failure you are because your book hasn’t been published yet?
Probably. Yeah, I guess so.
jealous of those who remain away from it.”
But I think this method of thought—prying self-worth apart from popular recognition—is useful for a lot more people than myself (even though it is VERY useful for me). That’s ultimately why I dove into this topic.
At their core, then, what do recognition, TRL, and awards have in common? They put the wellbeing of the individual under the control of others.
So what do we do?
I believe Joseph Campbell, polymath and general badass, described a nice counterpoint to the hunt for accolades. He said, “society is jealous of those who remain away from it.” Meaning, the less you look for and care about recognition, the more you’re bound to receive.
C.S. Lewis—of giant cats, powerful women, and bedroom furniture—also talks about this phenomenon in his essay, “The Inner Ring.” The essay is just incredible, and I suggest you go and read it in full. However, the part that’s pertinent to us today is his description of breaking ourselves of the yearning to be part of the “Inner Ring.” The inner ring could be anything. It could be an exclusive guild. It could be the faculty of a prestigious university. It could be a group of recipients of a certain award. The Inner Ring is pretty much always hard to get into, because it took everyone in it a long time to get in and they don’t want anyone else sharing their prestige, not because it's necessarily a worthwhile place to be. However, as he explains,
If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it.
Work hard, he says, and you will get the right sort of recognition. But let’s go further, since this path to happiness still has the musk of “needing approval” all over it. I’m trying to wean my need for recognition, here. (Let me state that I know I wrote that last sentence in a public blog post, so I understand the irony. Baby steps here, folks.)
Glory isn’t in front of an audience; it’s behind their backs.
There’s an epic passage in David Foster Wallace’s unfinished mishmash novel The Pale King that hits my need for recognition right in—as he would say—the solar plexus. To set the scene: it is the last class of Advanced Tax. A substitute teacher has just shown his voluminous knowledge of tax law. It appears that he even spent some time in the IRS, a place these students dream of working. Right before the bell rings—instead of expounding on how the students should best prepare for their upcoming exam—the substitute teacher launches into a panegyric on true heroism.
“The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all—all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience. An audience… Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you, Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested…
True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.”
By this metric, my chosen profession is none too courageous (nor was David Foster Wallace’s for that matter). Being a writer necessitates at least some sort of exposure if the scribe wishes to eat something other than dirt and their own hair. But the sort of courage, valor, he’s describing can still exist behind a pen.
The real world that David Foster Wallace alludes to flips recognition on its head. Recognition, he explains, is the antithesis of heroism. Glory isn’t found in front of an audience; it’s behind their backs. And then the Substitute Tax Professor goes further, “the less conventionally heroic or adverting… a labor appears to be, the greater its potential as an arena for actual heroism, and therefore as a denomination of joy unequaled by any you men can yet imagine.” True joy, he’s saying, comes from within.
When have you washed all the dishes in the sink—especially the ones your roommate left there for five days—and not felt like some sort of honorable saint? When have you finished a big project ahead of schedule and not enjoyed some internal glow of pride? When have you sat in silence and simply worked, only to not feel as though you’ve conquered something of substance? Minds like mine have been misled by the constant glorification of transient, purposeless fame—the Ho Ho of the spotlight to actual valor’s filling sirloin.
That old bromide, “the satisfaction of a job well done,” exists for a reason.
Heroism is the work of adulthood, that weighty thing people like me are buckling under.
What I mean here is not that going to war isn’t somehow brave. There are plenty of faceless and nameless soldiers who have given their limbs, minds, and often lives for a better version of their country. David Foster Wallace simply shifts valor’s source from its traditional haunts of the battlefield, gridiron, and the big screen. He extends glory to your classroom, your cubicle, your home office. Heroism is the work of adulthood, that weighty thing people like me are buckling under.
(I’m not going to get into the caveat of the nobility of different types of work—since my employment in the alcohol industry puts me at a bit of a moral hazard. Sure, we can make distinctions between diligent, silent work for Philip Morris vs. the American Cancer society, but I’ll assume that you know whether or not the work you do is causing cumulative benefit or harm.)
So if true glory is out of the spotlight, will I quit writing? Probably not. The pertinent thrust of DFW’s and C.S. Lewis’ ideas were to point out the folly of playing the game of life for recognition alone. The essay should be written for the purpose of writing an interesting essay. The table should be built for the purpose of building a fine table. The song should be played for the purpose of playing it well, not for the applause it will generate.
And maybe these are all just the words of a sucker whose resignation from an outright search for recognition has caused him to bitterly look for solace in other realms of human existence?
But aren’t we un-famous, dung-smeared masses allowed some form of happiness? What I am—and many of us are—looking for isn’t a world-ending moment of glory, anyway. I'm really looking for satisfaction. Peace.
I hope that I’ve at least pulled back Oz’s curtain a little bit. Maybe you saw Oz’s sock.
Lucky for me (and you), Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his weighty book “Antifragile,” describes a pretty powerful version of what he calls true wealth:
“…True wealth consists [of] worriless sleeping, clear conscience, reciprocal gratitude, absence of envy, good appetite, muscle strength, physical energy, frequent laughs, no meals alone, no gym class, some physical labor (or hobby), good bowel movements, no meeting rooms, and periodic surprises…”
You’ll note that almost all of these items involve nobody but yourself. Only the eating of meals—which people tend to like—and the absence of meetings—which people tend to dislike—directly require the agreement of others. All of these sources of significant joy, Taleb writes, are achievable through individual effort (unlike recognition). So maybe I should be chasing those ideals, rather than some foggy version of achievement.
Let's be honest, I still have a problem with recognition, one that I won’t vanquish any time soon. But I hope that I’ve at least pulled back Oz’s curtain a little bit. Maybe you saw Oz’s sock. If nothing else, I hope you can see that recognition and happiness are not linked—no matter how many times our culture tries to punch the notion down our collective throat. We can be satisfied with our own efforts—happy even. So that’s what I’m going to try to do.
Like the common Cheeto, divine at first before disintegrating into a feeling of hollowness. Also addictive.
Self respect, morals, self worth, or none of the above.
People adore me, what a glorious utopia/nobody cares, I hate this rock.
You want it? You can’t have it. You don’t want it. Here’s a bunch. Either way you're screwed.