Musings on Being Famous

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I've pretty much given up on wanting to become famous. I think that, like most people, deep down there's a part of me that does want to be famous. I think it's human nature. But when I stop to think about what being famous means, and how famous I can be, I don't see much point to it. And then, from the practical side, people in my profession never really become famous, anyway.

What does being famous really accomplish? People will know your name. If you're really famous, they might even recognize your face. But what does it get you? I guess there are probably a lot of little perks, if you're famous enough, like never waiting in line at restaurants, and getting preferential treatment over all of us normal people. But that doesn't really do it for me. And I'd imagine that that part of being famous is more than offset by the lack of privacy. When I think about being famous, I think about it more from the historical sense. Not so much, how many people know me now, but how well will I be remembered. That's getting into a more intangible aspect of being famous - the glory. I think that's what most people are really looking for when they're looking for fame. But how much glory can you get, and what does that buy you, anyway? So people will remember your name. Big deal. What else are they going to remember about you. It's like saying the names Orville and Wilbur Wright. To most people, this probably brings to mind an image of two men in bowler hats running around a sand dune with a primitive airplane (ed. note- I know the plane wasn't all that primitive, but that's how most people see it), and maybe even have some idea that they used to tinker around with bicycles before they invented the airplane. There are a few of us airplane buffs that know more about them than that, but not a whole lot of us. Most people don't know what type of men they were, what their personalities were like, what they liked or didn't, but just that image I described above. And it's only been 100 years since they accomplished their world-changing feat. In another hundred years, how many people are going to remember anything more than that? These men, who devoted years of their lives to studying aviation, and approached the problem from a very systematic engineering method, are going to be remembered as two tinkerers who bumbled into powered flight. And that's all that people will remember. Do you really think that's really how Orville and Wilbur would have wanted to be remembered?

And what if you go back even farther than that? How many famous people can you name from 200 years ago? What about 500, 1000, or even 10,000 years ago? Sure, we can think of a few, but not very many. And, at least for me, the majority that I do know are either political or military leaders. Neither of those are fields I want to go into, so my chances for long lasting fame have been reduced even further. And of those that we do remember, their memories have fared even worse than those of the Wrights. Plato, Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, just to name a few of the most popular non-rulers/generals. What does the general population know about these people, other than their names and a vague notion of what they were famous for? Is that really glory?

I think this idea of glory faded over time is best summed up in Shelley's poem, Ozymandias:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

To make this even worse, just stop and think about your place in the universe. People have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, though we've only had true civilization for tens of thousands of years. Unless we really screw things up badly, I'd say its reasonable to assume that will be around for a few more hundreds of thousands of years. How well do you think you're going to be remembered 100,000 years from now? And what about other planets? With the billions of planets out there, there's a pretty good chance that a fair number of them are homes to other civilizations. If, like science fiction fans hope, we someday make contact with them, how well do you think you can be remembered over all of those civilizations? So, I guess what I'm trying to say, is that no matter how famous you become, in the grand scheme of things, you'd still be just a flash in the pan.

But let's get back to more modest forms of fame. What about just being famous in our own day and age? Well, I'm an aerospace engineer, and that's what I really like to do. And I just don't think that I'll become famous in this profession. Other than the Wright brothers, and possible Burt Rutan because of his recent successes with Spaceship One and his round the world jet, and his slightly more distant success with his Voyager round the world piston plane, how many aerospace engineers can most people name? First and last name, just saying "Boeing" or "Cessna" doesn't count. And how many people really know the person, and not just the name? So I really don't think that I'll become famous as an engineer, no matter how successful of an engineer I am, even if I help develop a technology that changes the world.

So, I guess fame has quit being a driving force in my life. I still have that desire to accomplish great things, but I don't feel like I need to get any personal glory out of it. Just knowing that I made the world a better place would be enough for me, because hopefully, the knowledge that I help create will become immortal. Like the first man to tame fire, or discover the wheel. Nobody remembers them, but we certainly remember their discoveries, and we're certainly better off for it. And as long as I can touch a few people with my less-technical/more artistic/philosophical ideas, like through this web page, at least I can feel good about that, too.