Monuments to Ourselves

Are we chasing fame or greatness? And why are we chasing it at all?

The Apotheosis of Homer by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1827

"I would much rather have men ask why I have no monument than why I have one." — Cato the Elder, c. 184 BC


In the 1986 comedy Back To School, the oldest freshman, played by Rodney Dangerfield sat in English class, confident of his ability to pass the course because of his budding relationship with his professor.

The professor, Dr. Diane Turner, still expected mastery of the material when she called on him:

"Mr. Melon," she began. "How would you characterize The Great Gatsby?"

Clearly out of his element and caught unprepared, he replied:

"The Great Gatsby? He was…uh…great!"

This scene stays with me not only because I was an impressionable teen when I first saw it (and repeated it to myself not long thereafter when I read The Great Gatsby for the first time), but because it raises a number of questions: What is greatness? What is fame? How do they differ? And how does reputation factor into this?


"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em." — William Shakespeare, 1601


Who personifies greatness to you?

You may have a personal hero—someone close to you whom you admire who has achieved something or influenced you in some intimate way.

But most of us conjure up images of distant heroes from chapters of the past when we consider greatness. Leaders like Lincoln, Washington, Martin Luther King. Jr. Artisans such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael. Industrialists like Rockefeller, Edison, Ford.

If we go back a couple of millennia, we find leaders who were able to achieve greatness, slowly and gradually over time (greatness is not for those who crave instant gratification), and who had the means to leave monuments to themselves. Triumphal arches in Rome to various Caesars; the terracotta army buried with Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China; pyramids in Egypt left as burial chambers for the pharaohs.

If a leader was respected and revered enough, he might even be deified. Some attempted to deify themselves in the process (in ancient Egypt, the pharaoh was considered part god), while others were treated as such after their passing. Consider the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial as examples approaching this.

And yet, aren't these temporary? They wear away with the sands of time. Nature takes a toll and topples them, like the Colossus at Rhodes (felled by an earthquake in 226 BC), or thieves raid the tombs of ancient kings.

Shelley wrote of this notion of fleeting greatness and the arrogance of leaders in his classic poem "Ozymandias" in 1818:

I met a traveller 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 on 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.”

But today? Today we don't have time for greatness. We need everything now.


"Two centuries ago when a great man appeared, people looked for God's purpose in him; today we look for his press agent." — Daniel Boorstin, 1961


Boorstin wrote of the "Graphic Revolution" — newspapers, radio, television, and all associated media — that gave us the ability to manufacture fame. Mass media gave us the ability to share the same message, the same voice, and the same face across vast amounts of the population.

What does that get us, though? Not greatness, but fame.

He was clear that fame was different from greatness:

"We can fabricate fame, we can at will (though usually at considerable expense) make a man or woman well-known; but we cannot make him great. We can make a celebrity, but we can never make a hero."

Another 50 years beyond Boorstin's writing drops us square into the Digital Revolution (same concept, new technology). Now our monuments are likes, clicks, views, and follows as we build monuments to ourselves under the auspices of our "personal brand."

It's a race to online celebrity (perhaps weblebrity? or cewebrity?) as we take a shot at digital immortality. And yet, the meme mausoleum is littered with viral stars that have since gone supernova and have burned out.

Being an executive at Ford leading digital communications and social media during its rise to popularity thrust me into the spotlight. It was a byproduct of the work I did, not the goal. But I used my position to share what I learned working within a Fortune 10 company, building my expertise along the way.

And yet, I saw (and still see) the self-styled "gurus" online who are hustling their hearts out, attempting to convince you that they know how to run a global enterprise because they can push buttons, buy fans, or make bots in their attempt to achieve fame and build their personal brands.

And who can blame them? Shortcuts to fame would seem to be preferable to actually doing the work. Lewis H. Lapham wrote, "Celebrity is about being, not becoming," and that sums it up the skewed priorities that the world seems to reward.


"Possessions, outward success, publicity, luxury—to me these have always been contemptible. I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone, best both for the body and the mind." — Albert Einstein, 1931


Social media gives us our fair share of Hollywood celebrities, and their legions of fans. But it has also birthed thousands more YouTubers, Instagrammers, TikTokkers and the like, who dazzle us with their creativity nonstop.

The unending parade of content is an assault on our senses that doesn't allow us to recover. The infinite scroll keeps our thumbs moving while our brains are at rest, passively consuming whatever is presented to them. Lapham observed: "Perceptions of the world furnished by the camera substitute montage for narrative…the camera doesn't think." 

It's what allows us to have celebrities who are famous for being famous. Zsa Zsa Gabor was probably the first of this kind who eventually gave way to the likes of the Kardashians and Paris Hilton. [Incidentally, Zsa Zsa was Conrad Hilton's second wife (he was the second of her nine husbands); Paris Hilton was Conrad's great-granddaughter. The circle is complete.]


"Men are more generally pleased with a widespread than a great reputation." — Pliny the Younger, c. 110


So we have online personalities (I refuse to call them "influencers") who see the fame, think it's easy to achieve, and chase after it with willful disregard for how they're perceived by those who are paying attention. Or at least by those who are paying attention and can understand the difference between aspiration and raw, greedy ambition.

In pursuing their unbridled passion for digital dominance (followers, likes, views), they may be sacrificing their reputation along the way. Or perhaps they'll simply further demonstrate who they are — they'll have a reputation, alright.

With so much content out there and limited space on the platforms, it's harder to get noticed. In an age of content deluge, it's all about reputation. Rather than pursuing fame, perhaps we should pursue excellence. Or competence. Or helpfulness.

The best leaders know how to focus on today versus constantly worrying about their legacy. The Stoics knew that in the end, all of the fame, money and trappings means nothing.

What you have to live with every day, and the legacy you leave to those who care most about you is your integrity, your character, and your reputation.

Put your efforts into leading with integrity and character, and greatness will follow.


Special Offer

"All people have the common desire to be elevated in honor, but all people have something still more elevated in themselves without knowing it." — Mencius, c. 330 BC

My friend Laura Gassner Otting (author of Limitless) is taking what she wrote about and putting it to practical use in the Limitless Course.

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Timely: Present Tense

"What will history say of me a thousand years hence?" — Cicero, 59 BC

Facebook is forever entwined with Mark Zuckerberg. The social network is like an extension of him, and he cares about it too much to leave to anyone else. (The New York Times)


Stéphane Bourgoin is a bestselling author of books about serial killers. And his reputation is now in tatters as he was discovered to have lied about having a wife and training with the FBI, among other things. (The Guardian)

“Ronan Farrow is on line 1” is a phrase no one wants to hear. The young investigative journalist made a name for himself as the #MeToo movement took off, thanks in part to his work. But media critic Ben Smith takes a closer took at this resistance journalism, finding some gaps, and wonders Is Ronan Farrow Too Good to Be True? (The New York Times)


Timeless: For the Curious Mind

“Si monumentum requiris, circumspice." ("If you would seek my monument, look around you.") — Christopher Wren, 1723

What is it about the remnants of the past that captivates our attention? They’re a glimpse into our past, a vision of what once was, and a memory of aspirations achieved and forgotten. Our fascination with ruins. (Lapham’s Quarterly)

John Keats keenly observed a Grecian urn at the British Museum in, and out of it came one of the most iconic poems of the 19th century, “On a Grecian Urn.” This ancient piece of pottery speaks volumes. Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty: Revelations from John Keats. (Faena)

David McCullough, poetic in his prose, said that the Statue of Liberty, America’s modern Colossus, is "not a warrior, threatening. Nor a symbol of power. The Statue of Liberty is an act of faith." Faith between nations, and faith in its designer, who had a different plan for Lady Liberty's arm. (Smithsonian Magazine)


Recommended Listening / Reading

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." – Oscar Wilde

🎧 You Must Remember This is the podcast that dishes dirt on old-world Hollywood. It is dedicated to exploring the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood's first century. Created and is written, produced and narrated by Karina Longworth. It’s okay. Binge on some good old-fashioned Hollywood celebrity dirt.

📘 Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life by Laura Gassner Otting is the permission slip you've needed to get yourself unstuck. It provides insight on how to break free of others' expectations of success and to focus on what makes you tick, to redefine success.
Bonus: I'm included as a case study.


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