By Patrick Lencioni

The Danger of Fame

December 15, 2009
Column: Management that Makes a Difference

Fame. A few months ago, prompted by all the news about Michael Jackson’s troubled life and drug-related death and the similarities between him and Elvis Presley, I started to think about the dangers of fame. And when the travails of Jon and Kate (of the Plus Eight television show) became known, I sat down and wrote a first draft of an essay on that topic. But I got busy with other priorities and I set it aside. Well, with the recent revelations about Tiger Woods and his family, I decided it was time to finish that essay.

Now, I have no desire to indulge in any of these real life tragedies, and I have no right to judge the people involved—we all have problems. But I cannot help but think that their fame was related to, if not the biggest cause of, their problems. I get more and more convinced of this every time I go through the check stand at the grocery store and see how many famous actors, musicians, celebrities and athletes experience more than their fair share of suffering. In fact, I’ve decided that fame is actually a very good predictor of misery. This shouldn’t be a surprise.

Fame is ultimately a lonely proposition, fraught with supposed benefits which always prove to be temporary and which seem to crowd out the only thing that really matters, which is love. When people who achieve fame begin to feel the emptiness of their situation, they can’t help but wonder what is wrong with them. Troubled by this, they usually seek to fill their emptiness with greater gusto than ever, starting a spiral that leads them inevitably to misery.

And yet, in spite of the overwhelming evidence of this pattern, there continues to be a universal and growing obsession in our society with becoming famous. This is apparent when we consider the proliferation of reality TV shows, celebrity gossip TV shows, talent shows and 24-hour “news” channels, not to mention all those newsstand magazines at the grocery store. In spite of all the evidence of its harm, fame is as alluring as ever. This is so astoundingly, insanely illogical that it calls for an analogy.

Imagine that a trendy and extremely expensive new car hits the market and that it is known to easily flip over and cause serious injury, even death, to its drivers in far greater numbers than any other car. Now, imagine people doing anything they could—borrowing great sums of money, mortgaging their homes, cashing in their kids’ college fund—to buy that car. And when they are asked why they would do something so self-destructive, they look at you like you’re crazy and say “Do you know how many people wish they could drive this car? Besides, that won’t happen to me. I’m a better driver than everyone else!”

That’s pretty much what so many in our society do when they see the undeniable pain experienced by people who achieve fame and still insist that its benefits are worth the cost. They ignore the compelling stories told by the handful of people who have lived through the nightmares of fame and warn against its dangers, and pay attention instead to those fame-addicted celebrities who keep getting up off the ground and coming back for more misery (e.g. Celebrity Survivor, Celebrity Fit Club, Celebrity Rehab, Celebrity Boxing, you get the point). As humorous and innocuous as this may seem, it poses a very real problem in our society, especially when young people start to believe that fame is itself a goal, an accomplishment worth almost any sacrifice.

So what are we, as a society, to do? We can start by exhorting one another to avoid the temptation of fame and encouraging each other to value those things in life which prove to be real sources of lasting peace and joy. That may seem like a monumental task, I know, but I have one idea about how to get things started. I would like People magazine—and for that matter, all the other publications lining the aisles at the grocery store—to start printing a big disclaimer on its cover:


I’m pretty sure the folks at People won’t like my idea. But maybe we can all do our best to remember it whenever we pick up one of those publications and are tempted to wish we were like the smiley and beautiful people we see and read about. Instead, maybe we will decide to thank God for the enduring gifts He gives us. Heck, maybe we’ll even put that magazine back on the shelf.


Patrick Lencioni is the founder and president of The Table Group, and a prolific author of best-selling books on business management, particularly in relation to team... MORE »