The freedom of going unnoticed
Getting by in a world obsessed with attention
My cousin got married 5 years ago, and within a few months, she and her husband were quietly filling for divorce. Unfortunately, I knew their fate was sealed, the night of the wedding.
At the reception, something was off. My cousin and her new husband, began mingling throughout the ballroom separately. She came to hang out with me and our family, and her husband with his friends.
But the strangest thing of all was, they didn’t share a first dance. I asked her about this, and she told me, he’s embarrassed of dancing. He doesn’t think he’s very good, and doesn’t want to look stupid in front of his friends.
As the celebration wore on, she would venture up to him, begging him to join her on the dance floor. He’d wave her off, and continue drinking and sharing laughs with his fraternity brothers.
From all accounts, the years they spent together before the wedding were happy. He was always respectful of her and her family. He clearly loved her. But that night, I came to realize just one problem. Despite his love for her, he in fact loved someone else more—Himself.
Attention is hard to come by
Howard Aiken, the inventor of one of earliest general purpose computers, was never worried about people stealing his ideas. “If your ideas are any good” he’s quoted as saying, “you'll have to ram them down people's throats.” And yet, we think that the moment that we hit the dance floor, all eyes will be on us. The moment we hit publish, everyone will take notice. That everyone with an internet connection will read, listen, and tune into our every action.
We believe that when we start a new business or creative endeavor, it will begin with a bang! However, the far more likely outcome is that after we hit publish, the only thing we’ll hear is the deafening sound of indifference.
There are, after all, entire industries dedicated to puncturing the wall of apathy that surrounds us.
Although the names may be misleading, the purpose of record companies and book publishers, are not in fact to produce records, and print books. Rather, their only job is to solve the enormous problem of getting people’s attention, and breaking the spell of indifference.
In 2020, Taylor Swift gave us a perfect case study of the powers of publicity. That year she produced two separate albums. The first was released traditionally, with the backing of her label. The second was a surprise release. There was no build up, no press tour, nothing. At midnight on December 11th, 2020, she pressed publish on Evermore. The record was, of course, a hit—she is Taylor Swift after all—but it would go on to sell half as many units as Folklore, the album she released just five months prior.
Taylor Swift needs marketing. She needs teams of people, working around the clock, to make us care.
Yet, for some reason, we believe that the moment we put our work out there—the moment we step on the world’s stage—everyone is going to spit out their coffee in rapt attention.
The truth, however, is far more liberating.
Obscurity is a blessing fame can’t afford
After serving a brief four-year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard, Richard Bachman published his first novel Rage. The book “achieved obscurity almost immediately” observed one Washington Post reporter. For another seven years, Bachman would produce novels of similar result. It wasn’t until his fifth publication, Thinner, that anyone took notice.
In 1984, the book had sold just 28,000 copies. A small, but respectable sum for an up-and-coming author at the time. Later that year, the book would go on to sell more than ten times that amount when it was revealed that Richard Bachman was, in fact, Stephen King.
King manufactured his Bachman persona for two reasons: The first was so that he could publish more frequently, in a time when the industry believed overexposure would tarnish your brand. The second was to give King a low-stakes playground to experiment with his craft.
J.K. Rowling did the same thing. Just seven years after the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, she started writing military fiction as Robert Galbraith. She created the new persona because she was “yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career”. She wanted to “work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback.”
She created Galbraith, to give herself the freedom that we take for granted every day. The freedom of obscurity.
You’re free from expectation
We’re not Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. We don’t have to go out of our way to create fake identities to liberate ourselves from expectation. That’s the beauty of being unknown.
No one is expecting you to be a great dancer at your wedding. No one is expecting your first business to be a billion dollar behemoth. No one is expecting you to be a great writer after your first article. No one….except your ego.
As the old saying goes:
When you’re 20, you care what everyone thinks.
When you’re 40, you stop caring what everyone thinks.
When you’re 60, you realize no one was ever thinking about you in the first place.
The fact that no one knows, or cares, about you means that you are free. You can create, build, and explore under the radar. You can take your time. You can take risks. You can incorporate feedback from your closest friends, family, and teachers—to become better. You can iterate, and rework, and polish. You can fall on your face when the stakes are at their lowest.
You can dance like no one is watching, because they aren’t.
PS. If you’ve made it all the way down here and don’t feel that you’ve just wasted five minutes, consider hitting the Like button on this essay.
It helps others find it. And it makes me happy.