11 Reasons Not to Become Famous (or "A Few Lessons Learned Since 2007")
"If I’m not famous by 30, I might as well put a bullet in my head."
That’s an actual sentence I spoke to one of my closest friends. At the time, I was 28.
Fortunately, unlike during my darkest period in college, I wasn’t serious about suicide. Nonetheless, the sentiment was real. I felt like I somehow needed fame. In retrospect, there was a lot of self-loathing from tough childhood experiences, and I desperately hoped that love from without (i.e., from masses of other people) would somehow make up for hate from within.
As luck would have it, I got to test this hypothesis.
The 4-Hour Workweek, my first book, was published in 2007. It hit the New York Times Hardcover Business bestseller list, where it stayed for an unbroken four years and four months. It was quickly translated into approximately 40 languages, and shit went bonkers. Everything changed.
I was 29.
Soon, I was engulfed in a hailstorm of both great and terrible things, and I was utterly unprepared for any of it.
To kick off this post, let’s start with a real example from 2010. I vividly remember the day I received an email from someone we’ll call "James." James was a frequent commenter on my blog, and we’d become friendly over time. He was a great guy and a huge help to other readers. I’d given him advice, he’d built a few successful businesses, and we’d developed a nice virtual rapport. That day in 2010, however, I actually received an email from James’ longtime assistant. It was succinct: "James learned so much from you, and he instructed me to give you this video." I clicked on the attachment. James popped up. He was clearly agitated and clenching his jaw, making contorted faces and speaking strangely. He thanked me for all of my help over the years and explained that it had helped him through some very dark times. He finished by saying that he was sorry, but that he had to end things. That’s when he turned off the video and killed himself.
This experience profoundly fucked me up for a long period of time.
Suffice to say, I didn’t realize that this type of thing was part of the Faustian fame-seeking bargain.
THE 30,000-FOOT VIEW
Now it’s 2020. 13 years, 5 books, 1,000+ blog posts, and nearly 500M podcast downloads later, I’ve learned a few things about the promises and perils of seeking fame.
And I say "seeking fame" deliberately, because—let’s be honest—I’m not really famous. Beyoncé and Brad Pitt are truly famous. They cannot walk around in public anywhere in the world. I am a micro public figure with a monthly audience in the millions or tens of millions. There are legions of people on Instagram alone with audiences of this size. New platforms offer new speed. Some previous unknowns on TikTok, for example, have attracted millions of followers in a matter of weeks.
If you suddenly had 100,000 or 1,000,000 or 10,000,000 more followers, what might happen?
I thought I knew, and I was naive.
This post will explore a lot of things. Chief among them will be answering the question: if you win the popularity game, what might you expect?
I’ll mention some of the rewards and upsides, which can be incredible. I will also talk about some of the risks and downsides, which can be horrifying.
My hope is that this post will help people better understand the wall their ladder is leaning against… before they spend years climbing towards the top. Or, in a world of TikTok-like acceleration, before they let the genie out of the bottle without thinking it through.
If you’re interested in building a large audience to become rich and famous, some warnings and recommendations are in order. If you’re interested in building a large audience you also truly care about and with whom you are vulnerable, even more precautionary tales are in order.
ON THE BRIGHT SIDE, SOME VERY REAL BENEFITS
Let’s cover some of the great stuff first.
- Meeting many of my now dear friends, including Kevin Rose, Matt Mullenweg, and many others. These are people I hope will be my close brothers and sisters for life. That led to…
- Being able to invest in dozens of early-stage technology deals, the proceeds of which then allowed…
- Helping many causes and organizations that are making a real, positive dent in the world, including education (DonorsChoose, QuestBridge, etc.); scientific research aimed at treatments for chronic depression, PTSD, and other "intractable" psychiatric conditions (Johns Hopkins, UCSF, etc.); and more.
- Launching projects to aid the above (e.g., Trip of Compassion documentary)
And then there are the occasional fringe benefits, like getting tables at busy restaurants, getting free samples of products (although "free" often ends up being the most expensive), and so on.
Many of the things I’m proudest of in life would have been difficult or impossible to accomplish without a large audience. For that, I owe every one of my readers and listeners a huge debt of gratitude.
Using fame as a lever, however, can be tricky.
First off, what type of "fame" do you want? In concrete terms, what would "successful" look like and over what period of time? From 0–100%, how confident are you that you can convert exposure to income? If more than 0%, what evidence do you have to suggest that your strategy will work? Do you have a plan for becoming unfamous if you don’t like it?
During my college years, one of my dorm mate’s dads was a famous Hollywood producer. He once said to me, "You want everyone to know your name and no one to know your face."
Taking it a step further, we could quote Bill Murray:
But how could this be true? It seems like a farce. At the very least, it must be an exaggeration, right?
To wrap your head around what "famous" really means, there is one metaphor that might help.
THE TRIBE, THE VILLAGE, THE CITY — THIS IS IMPORTANT
Here’s an email I received in July of 2007:
What did I do or say that caused this? Was it in response to a how-to article on clubbing baby seals?
Not quite. It was in response to my blog post highlighting the non-profit DonorsChoose.org, which I’ve advised for 10+ years. The explicit goal? To raise money for under-funded public school classrooms. In the introduction, I happened to mention that the founder and CEO of DonorsChoose was my wrestling partner in high school. That’s it.
This same "White horseman" reader proceeded to send me more than a dozen increasingly threatening emails, concluding with "I shall deliver you on judgment day."
Was that a death threat? Was there anything I should do or could do about it? I’d never dealt with such things, and I didn’t know. But I did know one thing: it was very scary and completely out of the blue.
That week, I shared the above story with a female career blogger. She laughed and said soberly, "Welcome to the party." She got an average of one death threat and one sex request/threat per week. At the time, our audiences were roughly the same size.
This brings me to the topic of audience size and the metaphor of the tribe, the village, and the city.
Think back to your 5th-grade class. In my case, there were 20–30 kids. Was there anyone totally off the rails in your class? For most of you, there’s a decent chance kids seemed pretty sane. It’s a small sample size.
Next, think back to your freshman year in high school. In my case, there were a few hundred kids. Was there anyone volatile or unbalanced? I can think of at least a handful who were prone to violence and made me uneasy. There were fights. Some kids brought knives to school. There was even a kid rumored to enjoy torturing animals. Keep in mind: this high school was in the same town as my elementary school. What changed? The sample size was larger.
Flash forward to my life in July of 2007, less than three months after the publication of my first book.
In that short span of time, my monthly blog audience had exploded from a small group of friends (20–30?) to the current size of Providence, Rhode Island (180,–200,000 people). Well, let’s dig into that. What do we know of Providence? Here’s one snippet from Wikipedia, and bolding is mine:
The point is this: you don’t need to do anything wrong to get death threats, rape threats, etc. You just need a big enough audience. Think of yourself as the leader of a tribe or the mayor of a city.
The averages will dictate that you get a certain number of crazies, con artists, extortionists, possible (or actual) murderers, and so on. In fairness, we should also include a certain number of geniuses, a certain number of good Samaritans, and so on. Sure, your subject matter and content matters, but it doesn’t matter as much as you’d like to think.
To recap: the bigger the population, the more opportunities and problems you will have. A small, self-contained town in Idaho might not have a Pulitzer Prize winner among its residents, but it probably doesn’t need a SWAT team either.
Now, here we are in 2020.
My monthly audience is larger than the size of New York City (NYC).
For fun, Google "New York City" and click on "News." On some level, those are the dynamics—good and bad—you will need to deal with if your audience is that large.
But let’s assume you only have 100 or 1,000 followers. You should still wonder: At any given time, how many of these people might go off of their meds? And how many of the remaining folks will simply wake up on the wrong side of the bed today, feeling the need to lash out at someone? The answer will never be zero.
ON THE DARKER SIDE, SOME VERY REAL ISSUES
To quote Henry David Thoreau, "The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." (Walden)
With that in mind, let’s look at some very common downsides of exposure. Nearly all of my friends who have audiences of 1M or more have personal stories for every category I’ll describe.
If you’ve ever wondered why many celebrities disappear for a period of time, sometimes years, it’s often in the hopes that the below will fade or go away. Sadly, it’s very hard to put the toothpaste back in the toothpaste tube once you have a large Google footprint.
Best to be aware in advance. Here be dragons…
One example to set the tone: Back when I lived in SF, a fan on the East Coast thought I was sending him secret, personalized messages embedded in my public Facebook posts. He believed I was asking him to move into my house and work for me. He told his co-workers, who were worried he’d go postal, so they reported him to the CEO, who reached out to me. It was a close call, and I got lucky. This particular employee had already bought plane tickets for the following week, intending to fly to SF to find me. I got the FBI involved, his family staged an intervention, and, lo and behold, he had gone off of his meds for psychiatric disorders. Another example from 2008, a year after my first book came out. That’s when the first person showed up at my door looking for me. I’d just closed on my first home, a cute little townhouse near Sunnyvale, CA. The random visits didn’t happen sooner, as I’d been renting up to that point.
Many more people followed. My little townhouse was cute, but it was totally unprotected: no gate, no nothing. Eventually, one male stalker ended up hanging out in front of my house nonstop, taking pictures and posting them on social media with comments like "Too bad Tim Ferriss isn’t home. I missed him again!" Things snowballed from there, and I had to sell the house and move. When traveling, I’ve also had to stop posting photos to social until well after the fact. Why? I’ve had people triangulate the city I’m visiting, call every hotel in the city to ask for a registered guest with my last name, and then fly to the country to find me and/or my family. I’ve since learned to use pseudonyms, but we’ll get to that later…
- Death threats.
I get regular death threats, and this is common for public figures. I would estimate I get at least one per month via some channel. Sometimes they’re related to extortion (coming later), but they’re most often from people who are mentally unstable. What are they angry about? Once again, therein lies the rub: it is rarely in response to anything that I’ve said or done. That is the scariest thing, and it’s also why the tribe-village-city metaphor is so apt. The people sending death threats are normally suffering from psychotic episodes, and there is nothing you can do to prevent them.
One example: A few years ago, I received a text message from an unknown number with "I know what you did. I’m going to make you pay." I have no idea how they got my number, but it went on and on in nebulous terms. I engaged and took screenshots, trying to figure out who it was and what the hell was going on. Since they kept texting, I was able to gather that it was a woman (or someone claiming to be), and she said, "You humiliated me, and now it’s your turn for pain. I know you’re speaking at SXSW, and everyone is going to know and see." Fortunately, I had enough data to get lawyers, private investigators, and law enforcement involved. It also meant that I had armed security at SXSW that year, and I was constantly on pins and needles, waiting for the other shoe to drop. So…. In the end, did I learn who it was? I did. It was a middle-aged mother living in rural Texas with her husband and two kids. I’D NEVER MET HER, NOR HAD ANY CONTACT WITH HER.
Just months before this happened, two well-known YouTubers in Austin, Texas, had a fan drive 11 hours from New Mexico to their house with a car full of guns. He intended to kill at least one of them. He broke into their home at 4am and hunted for them from room to room, .45-caliber handgun in hand. They hid in a closet and frantically called 911. From related media coverage: "They’re a popular Texas couple on YouTube, but they never thought that would put their lives in danger. That is until an Albuquerque stalker showed up at their house in the middle of the night with a gun and bad intentions." Fortunately, the police arrived, and the intruder ended up dead, but it could’ve easily ended differently. In some cases, the intended target gets blown away before they even realize what’s happening. Ironically, it’s often the diehard fans professing love who kill them, not "haters" of any type.
Given how often I get threats, and how truly dangerous it can be, I decided to get a concealed carry permit and carry concealed firearms. I wanted to avoid this, and I wish it weren’t the case, but here we are (P.S. Thanks for the frangible round recommendation, Jocko).
I also trained my girlfriend to use a Taser, which relates to the next category…
- Harassment of family members and loved ones.
There are at least two categories of people who will want to find you: fundamentally nice people (albeit overenthusiastic), and fundamentally malevolent people. I hate to put it that way, but I’ve learned that there are people in this world who derive great pleasure from hurting or threatening others.
If either group can’t easily get to you—whether to find you or harm you—they will often go after your family and loved ones.
If they’re an attacker, they will go for what they perceive to be your weakest link. This is precisely why I never mention the names of my closest friends or girlfriends, unless they are public figures already.
Of all the issues in this post, this one upsets me the most. In some respects, I invited this upon myself with my decisions, but none of my loved ones asked for it. Even to write about this aspect makes me furious, so I’ll keep this bullet short.
- Dating woes.
As you might imagine, dating can be a quagmire of liabilities and bear traps. It could be someone hoping to write a clickbait article about their date with you (obviously without disclosing such), or it could be much worse. If you’re a female, this is where things can once again become physically dangerous. If you’re a male, this is where things can become legally dangerous. There are many predators for both sides, and it can make you lose your faith in humanity.
- Extortion attempts.
I could write an entire blog post about this topic. One simple example: In 2019, my team and I received a threat. In essence: "Pay me X now, or I will DDOS your site." Since a DDOS is a technological attack on a website, and I’m confident in the strength of the Automattic hosting infrastructure, we decided not to respond. The extortionist didn’t like our silence and replied with a bomb threat. This was shortly after the Austin serial bombings, which had killed two people, so I escalated to forensic analysis, investigators, law enforcement, etc. I’ve been very good at tracking down extortionists, I don’t negotiate with terrorists, and I’m more than happy to have public battles if I’m in the right, but… it’s all a huge energy suck. The most common form of extortion is some variety of "Unless you give me X, I’m going to say Y about you." Fortunately, I’ve spent years deliberately talking about controversial topics and disclosing uncomfortable personal stories. In part, this has been to avoid the temptation to create a squeaky-clean public persona. It also robs would-be extortionists of a lot of common ammo.
If you don’t have your own ammo, this category can be catastrophic. In other words, if you have more fame than resources, you paint yourself into a vulnerable corner. If you have fewer options and fewer allies, you’ll be attractive to predators.
- Desperation messages and pleas for help.
This is a sad category, much like the the suicide video story in the introduction to this piece. It’s one thing to get an "I committed suicide and I’m letting you know" note, which is absolutely awful. It’s quite another to get a message with something like: "You’re my last hope. I have no one else to ask. If you can’t help me with X, Y, and Z in the next 48 hours, I’m going to kill myself." I have received dozens of these. In the beginning, I tried to help everyone and became horribly enmeshed. This never failed to end in misery and countless sleepless nights. Now, the senders of such notes are referred to suicide hotlines (e.g., 1 (800) 273-8255 in the US; a list of international hotlines [alternative link]) and a post I wrote entitled "Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide." I owe many thanks to Violet Blue for her moral and tactical support with many of these situations. Thank you, Violet. This is very rough terrain. The more you operate in the world of how-to advice, and the more vulnerable you are with your audience, the more of these you will receive.
If you appear semi-famous online, guess what? Even if you’re not rich, it can be assumed that you have enough money to make a nice ransom. There are places where kidnapping is an established industry, and professionals do this on a regular basis. The US is generally safe, but if you’re flying overseas, you should be aware of a few things.
For example, if you use a car service, give them a fake name (and nothing cute like "James Bond," which will blow it) that they’ll use on the sign or iPad to find you at luggage claim. Here’s why: it’s common practice for organized crime to have an arrangement to buy flight manifests from airport employees. This means that the potential kidnappers, much like a Michelin three-star restaurant, will Google every name associated with every seat to figure out exactly who is who. If you appear to make an attractive target, they will then go to the airport an hour before you land, find the driver with your name on a sign, and pay or threaten them to leave. They then replace your driver with their own driver, who now holds the sign and waits for you. B’bye! This can take other forms too. Once in Central Asia, I had a driver show up at my hotel to take me to the airport, but… he used my real name, and I’d given the car service a fake name. To buy time, I asked him to wait while I made a few phone calls. About 10 minutes later, the real driver showed up to take me to the airport, using the designated pseudonym. The first fraudulent driver took off, and to this day, I have no idea how he knew where I was staying or when I was leaving. But it bears repeating: there are professionals who do this, and they will be very good at what they do.
- Impersonation, identity theft, etc.
The more visible you are, the more people will attempt to impersonate you or your employees. This could be to hack a website, access a bank account, get a SSN, or otherwise. Companies or fly-by-night entrepreneurs will also use your name and face to sell everything from web services and e-books to shady info products and penis pills (sadly, all real examples). This is something that my lawyers deal with on a weekly basis. It’s non-stop. For both reputational and liability reasons, it’s important to track and guard against much of this.
- Attack and clickbait media.
There are a lot of amazing writers and media professionals with rock-solid ethics. Many of my dear friends are journalists in this camp. On the flip side, there are increasingly large numbers of bad actors due to perverse incentives created by the click-baity, fast-is-the-new-good digital playing field.
Remember the tribe-village-city metaphor? Multiply your target audience size by two. Now recall the percentage of that audience that might be angry or off of their meds. Next, double that percentage to include those who will do gray-area things to advance their careers. Last, give all of those people a job—or contributor status—at a media outlet.
What a fucking mess.
If you don’t like shitty Twitter comments, or if nasty Facebook remarks get under your skin, just wait until you get your first hatchet job profile piece. It won’t be the last, so brush up on your Stoic philosophy.
This is particularly demoralizing when a piece is full of misquotes, even after you’ve corrected fact-checkers via phone (oops!). Pro tip: use email for fact-checking, my friends.
Speaking of friends…
- "Friends" with ulterior motives.
Once you have a decent sized audience or "platform," the majority of people who want to grab coffee, ask mutual friends for an intro, or—especially—offer you unsolicited favors will have ulterior motives. It took me a long time to accept this, and I paid a hefty tax for being Pollyannaish.
To be clear: I don’t mind pitches, as long as they come upfront. What I can’t stand is fakery to get in someone’s good graces over months, followed with a surprise of "Oh, I’ve been meaning to tell you about my new book coming out in a few weeks" and similar shenanigans. This has happened to me more times than I can count, and it feels dirty and gross.
This is one of the main reasons for my ongoing blanket policies, like a commitment to not reading any new books published in 2020. It’s also one of the reasons that the majority of my closest friends are not in the public eye.
Be wary of anyone who just "wants to get to know you." 99 times out of 100, that will be untrue.
- Invasions of privacy.
For all of the reasons in this post (and many more), if you’re doing anything public, you should never have anything mailed to where you live. If you violate that even once, it’s likely that your name and associated address will end up in company or government databases. Those mailing lists are then rented and traded as revenue streams, and it all ultimately ends up searchable. Remember the story of the Austin YouTubers hunted in their own home? Don’t be them.
For safety, unless you want to take huge risks, use a UPS Store or other off-site mailing address for everything. This is a must-have, not a nice-to-have.
It’s been a wild ride.
Lest it appear otherwise, this is not intended to be a woe-is-me post. I’ve been very fortunate, and I love my life.
That said, all of the above have created heightened levels of anxiety that I didn’t anticipate. I’m lucky to have the support of my family and friends, my girlfriend, and my guardian and fluffball, Molly. I simply couldn’t handle it otherwise.
Would I have listened to all these warnings in advance? Would it have changed my behavior? I don’t know. Perhaps not. Unless you’ve lived it, it might seem like someone is being gifted a Bugatti and complaining about gas mileage.
The entire experience reminds me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. This is a parable that has been told across different cultures since at least the 1st millennium BCE:
It is a story of a group of blind men, who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and conceptualize what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant’s body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience, and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other. In some versions, they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest, and they come to blows. The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true.
Before 2007, I was the blind men.
Here and there, I’d feel the ears (A celebrity in a cover story! Wow! Must be nice!), the tail (Fancy cars in a photo shoot!), or the tusk (Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous!).
Only now do I have some idea of what it’s like to be the elephant itself. No matter what part you grab beforehand, you can’t fully appreciate the scope of experience until you’re in it.
If I’ve learned anything, it is this: fame will not fix your problems.
Instead, fame is likely to magnify all of your insecurities and exaggerate all of your fears. It’s like picking up a fire extinguisher for your pain that ends up being a canister of gasoline.
If you think you have problems that fame will fix, I implore you to work on the inside first. At the very least, work on both in equal measure. I’ve found books like Awareness and Radical Acceptance to be helpful.
If you don’t, you will end up with sand slipping through your fingers, leaving you with the same feelings of emptiness. Only now, along with disappointment, you will have the new challenges described in this post.
I also highly recommend reading Kevin Kelly’s essay entitled "1,000 True Fans." Is it possible that being "famous" to the right 1,000 people could get you to your goals faster—and be healthier—than seeking the adoration and validation of millions? I tend to think so.
But then again…
Does that mean no one should pursue the path of Great Fame or tempt the sirens of the Great Public? I can’t say that. My intention is simply to shine light upon some of the hazards that such a journey entails.
Perhaps—just perhaps—you should give stardom a shot.
After all, as Jim Carrey has said:
"I think everybody should get rich and famous, and do everything they ever dreamed of, so they can see that it’s not the answer."
Related and Recommended
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 600 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.
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290 Replies to "11 Reasons Not to Become Famous (or "A Few Lessons Learned Since 2007")"
Due to all the trauma ive grown up with (such as mental, physical abuse as well as consuming mainstream media) there is this ugly desire within me to be famous as a way to somehow fix all my problems. That im not a ‘loser’ but a ‘winner’ if i have all the shiny bells and whistles.
So thank you Tim for being so real with us so that i can be more real with myself – this article is enormously helpful. I am truly grateful for you and for the work that you do.
I went to med school at UCLA in the 1980s. In those days there were a couple floors for the rich. They got private rooms, better food, and so on. The
medical treatment was the same.
Saw a lot of rich and famous on those floors, Hollywood stars, politicians, and so on.
They were, on average, experiencing the same amount of suffering as the folks on the other floors, and they were dealing with it, on average, just about as well.
My experience with these folks made me realize seeking fame was not what I wanted. It would not get me where I want to be in life.
I have been fortunate to earn enough to meet my family’s needs and to be able, over time, to work less and play more. More freedom, in other words. Much better than being gawked at by strangers.
Wow, you really snapped with this blog. This is such a powerful idea that I feel should be a Ted Talk given to young kids. Our society is so fame driven, this type of writing gave me a new perspective. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I read this article during the Super Bowl it caught my attention that much. Thank you so much Tim! I’m praying for your safety and peace of mind always. —Chris Sumlin
Thanks for the low down and for sharing your thoughts with us. Wow, you always seem so easy going and kinda teflon, y’know, like stuff doesn’t stick to you. I guess it does. Thanks so much for the mention of 1000 true fans – that’s the way of Patreon and a good way for an artist to make a living. I just need enough (to not have to worry about the fare on the taxi meter) – I don’t really need fame or fortune. Thanks for the reminder.
I agree with Chris! This should be another Ted Talk. Tim I’m so shocked at what you have been through, though I shouldn’t be. This also goes for vulnerable young (and often not so young!) women who put their details online and attract the worst!
This post was absolutely compelling and scary on so many levels. You have been through a lot, Tim. You’ve obviously created strong boundaries and learned how to protect yourself but I found this an absolute eye opener. My vote for turning this into a Ted Talk too…
Great article! Thanks Tim for the reminder to be careful what we wish for! Would love to "meet" your girlfriend, though (via the Tim Ferriss show, of course!)
I’m glad you wrote this after checking about it on Twitter (and/or elsewhere). It’s informative to those who might be jumping at fame without thinking about why. The idea might be that fame will lead to all kinds of strangers providing good energy toward you, but that’s not balanced, and it’s just as likely there will be a lot of negative and energy-absorption coming from outside.
Your details help cement the actual way things would turn out, as you have seen it firsthand.
Jay-Z once said in a lyric about reaching for fame that "[people are] brainless, to unnecessarily go through these changes".
Fixing one’s internal issues on their own is the only way, and the external is external, so it has no way to repair the internal.
I have a small YouTube channel (3k subs) and I’ve noticed that my most popular videos are the ones with the most dislikes and negative comments. I actually kind of like it because I know that if a video gets a lot of negative comments that it’s going to get seen by a lot more people, and that means more subs/views. Can’t say I’ve gotten death or rape threats though, but in a weird way I actually wouldn’t mind.
Why would I tell you after reading that?
I received my first threat of physical violence, had my property vandalized, and filed my first police report within three months of starting my first real blog. I’m not even "famous" in the sense of the term we’re talking about here, but still–when you put yourself out there, you’re risking all of the above.
Thankfully, that may have been the worst experience I’ve had, and since that time I’ve gone on to make a living as a writer and editor for the last decade or so. But even though that may have been the worst of it (so far), the drama never ends, and the negativity and negative side effects never cease. Even small amounts of "fame" come at a cost.
Wow! This was a fascinating read. No one talks about fame. I read Justine Bateman’s book and it reminded me a lot of this post.
Totally sucks that you have to deal with insane people. I was on a TV show last year and it was seen by millions. The YouTube comments (500+) were almost all sexual even though the subject matter of the shows was not. Perils of being a woman. The comments bothered me not because I internalized them but because my kids and family read them.
Thanks Tim, I remember going out to dinner years ago with Brian Wilson and some industry back ground people ( managers, publicity people from the label etc and realized that I NEVER wanted to be famous just happy to go out to a nice dinner with friends and have nobody bother me for pictures and autographs.
Thank you. I Hadn’t read one of your post in a while Tim. The podcast taking most of the attention.
This has been especially helpful since I’ve started to build a decent sized audience and I always wonder about that.
So business wise you get a po box for all the official mail?
Cheers and keep it up! What an unexpected adventure.
All mail, including bills and personal letters.
It’s surprisingly easy to get your address from public records if someone has your name.
What about when banks etc want proof of address from e.g. a utility bill?
P.O. Boxes are helpful for mail and packages. If the entity you are receiving from does not ship to P.O. Boxes, give them the street address of the post office your PO Box is located at with Your P.O. Box as the Unit Number. For example: J. Smith, 9876 Main Street, Unit 1234. There could be a bit of a delay, maybe 1/2 a day depending on the arrival time of the item. You can also pick up at UPS or FedEx locations/stores as well.
Thank you for this post, Tim.
If you were to start your writing career again, would you use a pen name for your book to protect your identity?
I’m curious what you think about using pen names for writing, business and everyday life. It’s clear to see that there are many dangers of fame, but at the same time, it could be hard to accomplish anything big in life if you try to stay anonymous. For example, it’s difficult to promote your book without showing your face, giving interviews, etc.
"The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life, which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately, or in the long run." — I love this thought and propose to expand on it: instead of thinking just about cost – how about value? "The VALUE of a thing is the amount of what I will call life, which is required to be exchanged for it, NET the amount of I will call life, which it will create, immediately, or in the long run".
The last part of the quote is very critical – considering "timing" which is foundational to "ROI". As an example: My first extravagant car cost a lot of life when I purchased it when I was 28; but now, 20 years later — I still love it and RECEIVE real life force whenever I drive it. I so much prefer it to the car that sits next to it in the garage which cost much more.
Maybe "life cost" is equal for the two cars, but "life value / ROI" is so much higher for car #1…
I’m working on my own internet company (inspired by 4 hour work week). When I was consulting I used a PO box and hid my name on the company listing. But now I realize that isn’t enough.
The last time I was on a dating site, I got a stalker. She found me on facebook and asked to be friends which I agreed to against my better judgement – then she started contacting my ex-girlfriend’s family (we are still friends) trying to get more info on me, while accusing me of still being with my ex and cheating on her.
This woman used to be a school teacher.
Thanks for writing this Tim.
Thanks for sharing. My best friend and I were just talking about something similar—how being a billionaire would only be fun if you were anonymous.
You’d think fewer people would want fame these days, since so much shallow social media fame is really more infamy than anything. Have you read Jon Ronson’s "So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed" or William Storr’s "Selfie"? Both touch on this issue in different ways.
Sorry you’ve had to go through so much bullshit. Nobody deserves to be treated the way you have. I’m glad you have developed systems to stay safe.
Take care of yourself!
Whoa, Tim. I knew you got a lot of inbound craziness, but never knew how much or to what extent. I’m sorry that you have to deal with all that. I’m admittedly guilty of asking a few of our mutual friends to connect us for coffee etc when I’ve been in Austin or you’ve been in Israel, so I’m sorry if I’ve added to that stress. Though, to be clear, I actually don’t want anything from you but to thank you for the impact you’ve had on my life (and perhaps develop a casual friendship like those I maintain with many other people in our industry). In any case, I now see why you can’t let much of anyone through your filters these days – friend of a friend or otherwise… it’s just too risky!
Anyways, you rock dude. Stay safe.
Tim: I’m so sorry for all that you’ve gone through. I greatly appreciate what you do though and wanted to add one positive of you being famous to your list:
That your podcast adds fuel to the fire for millions of businesses and entrepeneurs around the country.
I am a carpenter/cabinet maker and have my own small business just working by myself. It is nothing grand or complicated but I have learned so much from your podcast that I have been able to apply to my business and it has helped me greatly in becoming successful and making a pretty decent living as a carpenter. Listening to your podcast while working always sparks new ideas and gets me excited about my business and helps me look past the more stressful parts of running your own business.
Anyways, Thank you for all you do.
Great article, really informative.
Despite being less than 1/1000 famous than you I got into some of the same issues you mentioned, this is why I started to separate my social media life to my real life in order to protect my family but I definitely got inspired by next level
This post is great and should be approved reading for all those great kids that are seeking "fame" as a cure to all there issues around low self-image and self esteem or putting down "famous" as their major life goal. I have zero interest in fame but a massive interest in financial rewards so I think ill take part of the advice on offer here and go for the money.
What a comprehensive virtual walk across the tight rope of fame, Tim. Such an interesting blog post! Thanks for sharing the wise words of warning. One of my mentors and friends is a music celebrity and I’m so thankful he consistently advised me to focus on artistry and not be motivated by fame. So sorry to hear of those nerve-rattling experiences you’e been through and glad you have a support system that appreciates you for who you are and not what you have or can do.
Great article thanks Tim. Indeed fame is a numbers game and those incredibly dark stories cannot be avoided at a certain number of fans.
But don’t you think the world has also become a darker place over time? Are the numbers of people who lose their minds, are addicted or have other type of psychological problems increasing?
Leveraging the reach and visibility through the internet is obviously a new dimension of being famous and humanity is currently testing how it is getting along with it.
Most of the time I feel that exorbitant fame is unecessary. It’s great that artists and great people can inspire millions. But it would be enough if people would just be happy about their idols contribution rather than using their idol as a all-in rolemodel.
Once you own yourself you don’t need other people anymore but you appreciate good work. This type of advanced fame should become the new standard. Just live and let live and instead of aming at fame, produce value without virtue signaling and without manipulation.
Keep on going searching for truth, Tim and don’t take the world too serious
As a journalist for a longish chunk of my life and a guy who ran a reasonably large conference for several years, the tiniest brush with the sort of things you’re talking about has come here and there–having someone go ballistic about an article or threatening violence if I didn’t give them a press pass to the show. Each incident, even when small, took an outsize emotional toll. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t trade places with you, even though I’m fascinated b what you do.
>If you’ve ever wondered why many celebrities disappear for a period of time, sometimes years, it’s often in the hopes that the below will fade or go away.
I had an in law that was (arguably) one of the most popular celebs around the time you got started. The invasion of privacy, threats, etc became too much and they opted to disappear from the limelight. We never spoke about the issues, but I did experience some (with and without them) and it was truly anxiety inducing. This article helps me fully understand and appreciate what they went through, so thank you for sharing.
Great stuff. As usual, Tim, your insights are raw and yet pensive! I particularly love that you provide all this insight while simultaneously realizing that in some sense, complaining about all the "bad" stuff one has to "endure" because he is famous is likely a bit out of perspective. The one-eyed man complains about not having both eyes, yet is king in the land of the blind. Or something like that. Anyway, have always enjoyed your work and will undoubtedly continue to do so. (And I see your point as well.) Keep doing you!
Actually, just wanted to thank you for blogging again. I read them for your thoughts/experiments/screw-ups, and enjoy that more than a podcast. Nothing wrong with the pod, I just would rather deep dive instead of listening to you interview someone else.
Thank you for this post. What I have appreciated most about your podcasts and posts is your ability of being open, honest, vulnerable…well real. This very much comes across in your interviews. These 11 reasons really put into high awareness of checking that "grass is always greener" mentality. I came across your podcast in 2014 and have been a listener ever since. Thank you for the work you do. It’s also exciting to see your evolving work surrounding mental health. Thank you for continuing to share with us while navigating all the bullshit.
Nicky from Sydney
Your blog post reminded me so much of Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear which I first read about 20 years ago – I’m not at all fearful (living in Australia, a country without too many guns probably helps). Nevertheless it gave a startling insight into the world us non-famous mere mortals almost never see – the sad and sick people who gravitate to the famous. We never hear about them because people like Gavin clearly advise against it.
It must be awful to be approached so often by people at their wits end.
Thanks for this Tim. An unusual and really fantastic post showing the pleasures and the pains of fame.
Thanks for the honest and open write up. Eye opening to say the least. I always thought that being famous would be kind of annoying, but these things are beyond annoying.
I know a few relatively famous content producers who’s home addresses are very easy to find (like it’s at the bottom of their emails easy to find). Now, I’m kinda worried for them and will probably share this article with them so that they can protect themselves.
One of the most important parts of this to me, and one I have followed as much as I can, is NEVER GIVE OUT YOUR HOME ADDRESS. Everyone needs to have a separate mailing address from their home, one like Virtual Post Mail, or google "virtual mail address", and use that. That’s the #1 rule in some kind of protection. Don’t link your drivers license, credit cards, bills, and — sorry, don’t get home deliveries –. Follow JJ Luna’s thoughts on this from over 50 years ago. It boggles my mind people put their real address on their drivers license, or car insurance, or have Uber pick you up from your actual address, etc. Follow that rule as much as you can (well, first you need a virtual address….and then move) and then follow
This was a great read. Thanks Tim.
I have benefitted from your work (and I continue to do so), so personally I’m glad that you have your platform, but I’m sorry that it comes at such a high price.
If it helps you at all, please know that you make a positive difference in more lives than you can easily count, and that this positive difference reverberates even further, like the ripples in a pool of water.
Currently, I am especially glad to be reading about the positive effects psychedelic treatment have in helping those with certain mental illnesses like depression, etc. I first learned of this from you, and then saw this on the recent 60 Minute broadcast.
Thank you for all you have done to increase awareness, and for all your very generous donations to this research. Again, more lives will be bettered and more lives will be saved.
So I will conclude with your work is wonderful and life altering.
Wow. Scary and interesting. Gives you perspective. Hmm a bit of a dilemma for me. I do not care about fame but as an up and coming speaker I know that the more famous I get the more speaking gigs I get + the more I can charge per gig. How would you balance this? I want to build my speaking business but scared of the downside that Tim just shared..
This goes double for anyone with a serious identity thief. These will libel you, steal your CV as well as your credit, and go to any lengths to destroy your public identity.
OTOH, a fraudulent guardianship that was filed in an adjoining state was thrown out of court because the nonexistent address the thieves used was itself proved fraudulent by a drivers’ license check.
TED talk: hell, yeah! Go for it, Tim.
I’m a micro, micro, micro influencer and I’ve felt some of the effects of being it. The other day, I was thinking what it’d be like if my audience exploded to the millions… the words that came into my mind was "more responsibilities."
It took me two years to get to where I am and I’m wondering what’s next for me since I don’t want to be rich and famous. I’d like to be anonymous and rich.
Light and friendly as 4HWW may seem, it actually grips people who suffer because they don’t feel in control of their lives. Free spirits with no way to break free turn into monsters. That may not have been his problem but the book does tend to provide light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel effects.
Hate to post off-topic, but it seems like the only cust support option. For some reason I’ve stopped getting 5-Bullet Friday emails. I’m still getting the newsletter, so I’m clearly on the list. But I’m not seeing the Friday notes, and I miss them. Possible someone could check and make sure I’m getting those? Thanks!
Tim, I don’t know what to say. This was painful to read, but I am grateful to you for sharing and opening my eyes on yet another subject that not many people are talking about.
Thank you so much for everything that you do in this world; you are a force for good, Tim!
What an excellent piece. About ten years ago I had a goal ‘to be famous’. I got really close with one of the UK’s biggest broadcasters about to make a prime time show with me as the main contributor. Then the head commissioner changed, the idea stalled and was eventually scrapped. I was gutted at the time, but I now think that was the best thing ever.
I have some very well know friends and I am in awe of how they deal with fame. Even having a meal with them is extraordinary; from the constant staring and hearing their name whispered to the ‘can I just have a selfie?’ in the middle of the main course.
My famous friends always smile, say yes and pose for the pic. I have so much admiration. I couldn’t do it.
We were hovering around 1000 subscribers on YouTube when I got my first threat of violence. Seems like a small and insignificant audience in the grand scheme of social media popularity, right? A comment saying that I should be stuffed into the storage bay of a motorhome really changed how I felt about sharing information to the general public. I don’t want to have to hide where I am or what I’m doing in fear. It’s just not worth it. We quit blogging, quit making videos and recently I deactivated all my personal social media. YouTube people are downright scary.
Thanks for being real about this, Tim. You actually (and unintentionally) help me decide long ago that I didn’t want to be famous. After being highlighted on your blog (an honor for which I’m grateful), it brought more fame than I’d ever had. But this ended up being a huge time suck for me, and also inspired other entrepreneurs to create competing products which eventually came back to bite me.
I’ve vacillated over the years on seeking influence to grow certain businesses, even promoting myself as an "expert" who can "help" others. But now I’ve realized that’s not how I want to make my living, though I do enjoy supportive friendships. And I’m trying to play it more low-key in my businesses, operating from behind the scenes where possible. Thanks again for sharing this openly, and for giving regular food for thought.
Thought provoking blog there Tim – and as I’ve witnessed via various clients over the years, you could not pay me enough to be famous!
There’s also a lot of "tall poppy syndrome". People love to knock you down. Your approach is good, you’re honest, you do what you think is right, but you take sensible precautions.
(Needless to say, you are on my fantasy dinner party list, but don’t worry – not knocking on your door any time soon!)
Hats off to you Tim!
It’s great work that you’re doing in the world and It’s touching to hear what you have to deal with behind the scenes. I sense that your desire to be of service in the world and make it a better place allows you to power on despite the unwanted challenges of fame. In that sense, I see you as a kind of "Karma Yogi", and the more of them we have in the world, the better!
Wow scary! Nevertheless I saw you walking in Montreal with Molly by a beautiful morning and we chat for a minute. I was impressed by how accessible you are without an once of arrogance or seem annoyed by my "omg you’re Tim Ferriss!" Keep up the good work Tim! Pura vida
This is absolutely the best blog post or article I have read in at least five years. This should become required reading in public schools and colleges. People becoming instantly famous online without the financial resources to protect them are playing a dangerous game.
I have always wanted to to know you since reading 4-hour work week and your blogs etc. I am a 45 year-old housewife with a bunch of kids and I am married. I like this post because I have always thought it would be awful to be famous. I have noticed lately that even being relatively financially successful means I don’t always know who my real friends are. Anyway, I am always cheering you on, from down the street in Half Moon Bay. Hope we will cross paths one day. I just like the way you think.
Tim that was an incredibly interesting read for me. Thank you for sharing. I have a question about the "Friends with alterier motives" section. How do you suggest one reaches out then to people who are more wealthy/famous/knowledgeable etc without it coming off as strategic?
For instance, I’ve been following your work for years and I legitimately think are personalities are such there could be a bromance. I just never was in your area and am not the stalking/extortion type.
So if not over coffee, how does one reach out to someone with more fame, power or status simply to explore if there is an opportunity for friendship?
As one to follow and even chase shiny objects hoping the next thing will bring me happiness it’s good to get a helping of the flip side. Wherever you are is where your at in the end and there are unintended consequences to everything. I appreciate the honesty.
Wow, just wow. The Internet and social media have amplified exactly what my dad, who was relatively famous in his field, warned our family about. He taught us to keep a low profile. I didn’t understand the potential danger until I was an adult. And now your story drives it home even more. Thank you.
Alexander J Lewis
Very enlightening and well-written post. Thanks for sharing, Tim.
I liked your reference to "1,000 True Fans." It’s almost like applying your question, "What would this look like if it were easy?" to the topic of fame.
Instead of needing to become a true public figure, finding and connecting with the right smaller audience can give you most of the benefits of fame, without most of the risks or challenges.
Thank you, Tim, for writing this in such graphic detail. I am sorry you (and many others) have had to deal with humanity in this way.
I have two young teenage boys who, like all their peers, are enamored with YouTubers and their fame and the "easy money" it brings. I forwarded the article to my 13 year old. Thank you for giving me and other parents a tool to help bring fame into a more realistic and balanced perspective for our kids who are so wooed by the excitement of the culture in which they are growing up. It is much appreciated. Stay safe!!
I don’t often read your blog posts, but the odd one catches my eye. Well said. Know that I have a tremendous amount of respect for what you are doing in the world. Thank you for sharing.
A final thought. If happiness and personal security comes prior to fame, I believe fame can magnify our internal joy as well.
Success = Happiness.
1. Thank you for raising awareness – in the times of "personal branding as a currency" it seems invaluable to warn aspiring internet celebrities (including kids) about the potential risks.
2. I deeply wish you re-experiencing the comfort of anonymity without losing the impact.
3. I am personally grateful to you for warning me about the downsides of maximising popularity in our conversation in Denver back in 2017. I have made great use of it and probably avoided some of the risks/discomforts. Thank you!
I have always felt that fame was not a place I would want to or even realistically COULD live. i’m just too trusting and open, and also that’s not the kind of fulfillment I crave. I’m a technologist. I love to build things. That’s where I find joy. Be respected and earn a high place in my field? You betcha! Be famous? Not for all the tea in China, and this article elucidates why perfectly. Thank you for writing it. That act in itself is very brave.
Tim, read in one of your email dispatches you were looking for a decent decaf coffee. Try Daz Bog. It’s available in the rocky mountain states, particularly Colorado. Not sure if it’s nationwide or not. I have to drink decaf as caffeine gives me major migraines but I’m Finnish so I love my coffee. 80 oz. a day of it. Try Daz Bog decaf, particularly the French Roast but they have other flavors. Daz Bog was founded by two Russian brother immigrants that emmigrated to the US and settled in Colorado.
Great blog! The dream to be rich and famous is definitely not a new one – it’s been around for as long as I can remember- and that’s a long time! But worse so these days with the tv reality shows, social media and the crazy display of wealth everywhere you look. Thank you for revealing the truth of it with your personal experiences. The "famous"part of the dream is especially problematic because it seems to me that it comes out of a desire to feel better about oneself. Your truths show that fame comes with a hefty price – maybe being rich would be enough! Of course wealth comes with its own set of problems and won’t fix your internal issues either. But certainly appears to be a safer bet than fame.
Really good article Tim, thanks. I actually have been thinking about this, do I want to shoot for the limelight in my career or try to get my work out there but still remain mostly unseen? I’ve read a few places that artists really only need 1000 dedicated fans. That sounds ok to me right now.
I think I sometimes equate being "famous" with being "special" and it gives some sort of validity. But really, a sign of maturity is not needing that external validity. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences!
Hey Becky – I truly think when one has done inner work and understands how much they need to live a comfortable life whilst being able to help others in need, then none of what Tim describes will manifest. In a metaphysical sense, what you attract to your life is a reflection of you. We are all part of a whole and our human condition/persona construct is made up of emotionally unstable parts and we are all maybe an incident, a chemical rush away from psychosis ourselves.
contrary to the majority of your posts, this one doesn’t hold any actionable information for me since I will never be famous nor I wish to be (wouldn’t mind being rich though). It was still a very interesting read. Yet I disagree with the "toothpaste out of the tube" concept: delete your social, stop blogging, close your website and rest assured that in six month’s time you will be comfortably anonymous again. The interwebs travel too quickly to remember those not constantly feeding it new material. While you are not being hypocritical about it, you are clearly renewing your choice on a daily basis, that works for me because I find lots of valuable information here.
I never really leave comments online however i wanted to let you know that this post is outstanding. One, because you never really hear this side of the story. instead, we see the lifestyle of the rich and famous advertized as gospel, as the only way to live that is worthwhile, and children idolizing images that are not real and then be disappointed with their own lives. Secondly, because, as long as we seek happiness outside of ourselves, we will never find it. I have made my own mistakes in this arena so I understand where this comes from. For this reason, thank you for this post, it truly is value-adding.
Thank you. Please reconsider you multiple references to people off their meds. Reinforcement of stereotypes against people who need medication does not help anyone. These people are seen as violent when the vast majority are not, even when off their meds. They are considered scary when the vast majority are not. They are often scared and victims of their circumstances and need help and support. They do not need to be villainized. I am sorry that you have had bad experiences.
Given that we are all alienated from nature, our emotions, in most cases meaningful work, there is a mental health crises.
I’ve seen examples of very "normal and successful" people get hospitalised or commit suicide when knocked off kilter by an incident that triggered trauma from their past or by a relatively small dose of legal and illegal substances.
This could’ve been a great platform to raise awareness for mental health and management of it as Lady Gaga has gone public and is providing support to fans who need it through her foundation. Tim’s awakening is now at the "poor me, haunted by the very monster I’ve created and nourished" stage, give it time :)))
Hey Eda…With all due respect, this article IS raising awareness of mental health issues. The fact that it isn’t bogged down in political correctness is even better.
Being empathetic is good, but sugarcoating issues is not.
Love this! Even if you’re not famous, in the age of social media, always sharing, unfortunately there are people looking for targets. Being famous, as Tim states, only magnifies all of it exponentially. Tim…thank you for being brave all these years and sharing the lessons learned.
Holy crap, that was amazing. I’ve listened to you and read your stuff for years with appreciation. This is the best of your work.