I fell in love for the first time when I was 16. It wasn’t with another person. It was with the theater. You may have heard the phrase “the acting bug.” Well I got bit particularly hard by it. From the moment of that initial discovery, I never stopped — school plays, college improv troupes, summer theater apprenticeships. Acting was my passion, my obsession, my motor, my mistress, and eventually my wife.
My plan following graduate school was to be a New York stage actor who did the occasional “Law & Order.” But circumstances led me to Los Angeles and when I was 29 I filmed a pilot for a television show called “How I Met Your Mother.” Until that point I had been an intermittently employed though relatively successful actor. Then the pilot got picked up to series, the show went out into the world… and everything changed.
The strangest and most disorienting of those changes was that suddenly a lot of people I had never met knew me. Or rather, I should say, they knew my face. They didn’t know me, they knew this character I was playing (by some strange coincidence the character and I looked a lot alike). So suddenly I had this new weird, vertigo-inducing dimension to my reality. People had been spending a lot of time with me… even though I was unaware of having spent time with them.
As the show continued to grow in popularity, I realized that if I wasn’t careful, if I didn’t cultivate a strong group of friends I could trust and a life philosophy I could lean upon, I was going to get into some trouble. So I had to ask myself: Given that this “public” thing was now, at least for the time being, a feature and fact of my life: What kind of “public” person did I want to be?
An answer didn’t immediately announce itself. I was clear though — given the menu of options — about what I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be an alcoholic or drug addict. I didn’t want to be an impossible-to-be-around narcissist. I didn’t want to be a reclusive weirdo who refused to cut my fingernails or leave the house. Okay. Well, what then? How was I to live and grow in the public eye if I had no other choice?
One of my favorite things about being on a television show with a global reach is that it’s made the world feel smaller in a really nice way. I like meeting new people and I’ve had the opportunity to meet fans of the show in India, Singapore, Mallorca, Tanzania, Peru, Italy, and Texas, to name just a few. I’ve also connected with people in some really tough situations — people going through divorce, health crises, losing loved ones, soldiers stationed overseas — who said that the series was a huge source of light and laughter in some incredibly dark times. To be a part of something that can offer that, well I don’t take that for granted.
But of course, like all things, it has not been without its challenges.
When “How I Met Your Mother” first went on the air I ran into an actress I knew and she said, “Are you just, like, so happy all the time?” And I thought, “Does she really think that when CBS picked up the series it left with me with an inability to feel anything other than unbridled joy?” But the joke was on me, because I kind of believed that it would. I had bought into the not uncommon notion that when I taste success, when I get over there, then I’ll be happy. But something really strange happened: As the show got more popular I got more depressed. And I kind of had to keep that to myself. The circle of people to whom you can complain about being on a hit television show is unsurprisingly small.
A lot of people think getting famous will save them from something, that it will grant them the life they feel they’re owed and spare them certain indignities. I was pretty bummed to learn that rather than lessening or eliminating my insecurities and least attractive qualities, it basically poured fertilizer on them. The upside was that I could really see them: how competitive I was, how much I compared myself to others, how vain, insecure, anxious, and self-conscious I could be in my worst moments, the list goes on. And I saw that if I wanted to live with myself… I was going to have to work on myself.
At some point I realized that all of this was actually providing me with an intense and fruitful spiritual practice. Fame could be a terrific teacher — if I agreed to the lesson plan.
Part of the lesson plan involved getting used to a different degree of attention. There’s an idea about actors, that we crave and welcome any chance to be in the spotlight. This is generally false. I want what I do and make to be seen and appreciated and I can also be intensely shy and slightly monastic — partly this is borne of a lifelong allergy to humiliation. Now any garden-variety self-consciousness or insecurity I might have felt before I was on television was suddenly magnified a hundredfold. As the writer David Foster Wallace once said: “Nothing stimulates your what-will-I-look-like-gland more than being on television.”
Once I was on television every week and that gland was in overdrive, I really had to start to look at this in earnest.
I came to see that it was “pride” that was holding me hostage. “Pride” is a word we’ve turned into a virtue but throughout most of human history it’s been thought to be a vice, the capital defect, in fact, the one from which all the others spring. And it expresses itself in my life in a number of ways. First off, I want everyone to love and praise everything I do and think and say and I feel there must’ve been some great cosmic error when they don’t. The flip side of that is that I can also feel like a world-class fraud who can’t believe anyone lets me on prime-time television or invites me to speak at fancy conferences in India. Really just depends on the day.
There’s a great spiritual master who gave some practical if startling advice regarding dealing with pride. He advised his students to find a way to get insulted every day. Now he took this quite seriously. There’s a wonderful story about this master, that apparently he had an enemy in the town in which he lived. This man hated the master and never missed an opportunity to gossip and spread reputation-destroying lies about him. The master knew of this man and what he was saying. And he was shaken by it. So what did he do? Once a week he would go to this man’s house and he would knock on the door, the man would open the door, see the master standing there and he would scream at him, call him names, say what a horrible fraud of a teacher and person he was. On and on. The master would stand there for as long as the man had the energy to scream at him. And the master always said: nothing. He didn’t defend himself or object; he remained completely silent. One day, after years of doing this, it came time for him to go to the man’s house and he didn’t go. His students noticed and said, “Master, it’s 4:00, aren’t you supposed to be at so-and-so’s house getting yelled at?” And the master said, “No, I don’t need to go anymore.” They said, “Why not?” And he said, “I went last week and as he screamed at me… I felt nothing.”
Now I didn’t have to put myself through such an arduous exercise in exposure therapy. Because fortunately: there’s the Internet! Where you can get insulted — for free! — on a very regular basis. The internet, I’ve come to realize, is the perfectly designed pride-reduction technology.
When my show first went on the air I thought I would go on the old www and check out what people thought. What could be the harm, right? So I ended up reading messages on some comment thread and there was a bunch of nice stuff about the show and about me and then — you can probably guess where this is headed — it started to get meaner and meaner until I landed on this one, which quickly embedded itself in my cranium and has to this day never left: “I’m trying to figure out what it is I don’t like about this guy. And I think I finally figured it out: his face.” Nice, right?
Now there is, of course, an easy solution to all of this: Don’t read it. And that was my policy for years. And basically still is. Reading anything about yourself on-line can turn a dark day much darker. Even the nice stuff weirdly stings. But there’s also a usefulness in having it toughen you up, in draining it of its energy to chip away at your sense of self. The master didn’t bury his head in the sand and wish his enemy went away. He stood there and listened to him until it didn’t affect him anymore. I’m never going to succeed at silencing my critics, but I can get a different relationship to criticism. One where I can’t be rattled so easily. On the other side of that has been a new kind of freedom. As Winston Churchill said, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
If you’re visible in any way, you can be assured that people you’ve never met are going to come out of the woodwork to tell you that you suck. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In today’s world, if people are drawn to say negative things to you and about you online, it’s actually a sign of success. People are paying attention! And it’s my belief that that attention confers upon us a certain level of responsibility. You become a kind of ambassador. But for what?
Now many celebrities truly just want to sing or act or do whatever it is they do and be left alone. That’s entirely reasonable. But I think at the very least one should consider adopting the physician’s credo: “First, do no harm.”
I got a big lesson in this the second year of my show. I was giving someone a ride home from a party where I’d had a few drinks and I got pulled over by the police. The officer put me through the whole battery of sobriety tests and my heart was racing so fast I actually didn’t do all that well. He then gave me a breathalyzer test which I passed… barely. The next morning I realized that had I been arrested for drunk driving there was a good chance my mug shot would’ve ended up splashed across myriad gossip websites. I thought about a young kid who was a fan of mine and the show seeing it and how that would look to him.
It was a reminder that my life was no longer entirely my own. My missteps would be there for many people to see. First off, it forced me to take a long hard look at my drinking which had ticked up considerably since my show went on the air. The rates of drug and alcohol abuse among celebrities are well-documented. I didn’t want to be another sad statistic. I realized after the incident that I was much more interested in being an example than a cautionary tale, that my behavior off-screen was as vital and consequential as my behavior on.
In my more awakened moments I try to remember that absolutely everything that comes my way is potentially my teacher. Everything is an opportunity to go against my tired habits and practice something new. When a reporter misquotes or quotes me wildly out of context I can practice surrender. When a fan behaves strangely around me I can practice compassion. When a beautiful woman approaches me with a big smile and then says, “I’ve never seen your show but my boyfriend is a huge fan and was too shy to come over and ask, but can he have a picture with you?” I can practice acceptance. When the girlfriend’s camera on her phone won’t work and I’m standing awkwardly shoulder to shoulder with her grinning boyfriend for what seems like hours… I can practice patience. When I feel overwhelmed with attention or scrutiny I can practice gratitude. When no one knows or cares about who I am or what I’m doing I can practice humility. When people say all manner of unintentionally offensive things in the guise of a compliment such as, “You’re much more attractive in person,” or, “You’re much thinner than you look on television,” I can practice everything.
The other options available to me in those instances are anger, frustration, resentment, disappointment, and a feeling of hopelessness and victimhood. One choice gives me some agency in my life, the other does not. One choice moves me forward, the other holds me back. Life is constantly offering up these fork-in-the-road moments. And which path I choose is a really big deal.
I love what I do and I’m immensely grateful that I get to do it. I would like to stay sane and creative and employed and energized. The last decade for me has been a journey in busting through illusions, in getting my priorities straight. I try now to save the dysfunction for the art, following Flaubert’s wise dictum: “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
So you may be asking yourself why this should matter to anyone not on long-running television shows? Well consider this: We’re all pretty much visible at this point. Everyone has and curates an audience of sorts. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to ask ourselves, given this new weird modern visibility we all have: What is it that we’re putting out there? What are we emitting from our little control towers and what effect is it having on those who come in contact with it?
I’m an optimist but not of the delusional variety. The levels of suffering, hurt, hunger, and ignorance in the world are outrageous and unacceptable. Given all of this — if a large or even a small number of eyeballs are on me for whatever reason — I feel deeply moved in both my work and my life to offer something nourishing, something healing, something inspiring, something kind. Will that change anything? Will it move the world forward in any way? It’s my belief that it can’t not.
I recently came across the psychological term “behavioral contagion.” The gist of behavioral contagion is exactly what it sounds like: our behavior is contagious. We think we’re these independent-minded, autonomous operators making clear-headed decisions… but it’s actually not true. We are porous, highly susceptible creatures whose words and actions are affecting each other constantly. We’re taking cues from each other in every moment about who and how to be.
The consequences of this are pretty massive. Everything is contagious. Every word, every action, every tweet, every Facebook post is a contribution to the collective. Every encounter affects us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and then that affects our next encounter, and our next, and so on and so on… We are wildly underestimating the impact we have on those around us.
Those of us who are visible — and by that I really mean all of us — have a beautiful and holy opportunity. We can be contagiously good.
I believe in the power of words, in the molecule-altering properties of kindness, compassion, selflessness, and forgiveness. These are not headline-grabbing qualities but they’re what I believe we’re hungering for beneath all the shouting, finger-pointing, and fence-building.
A “celebrity” is one who is celebrated. I think it’s useful to ask ourselves: What is it about us that is worthy of celebration?
I think there’s a lot.
I don’t believe we’re these miserable animals wired to maximize self-interest. I think that actually goes against our nature and causes us a great deal of pain. Scientists who work on eradicating disease, they’re not doing it so we can have a couple more years of being cruel to each other. We want more life, more time, because we want more laughter and love, more inspiration and stories, more opportunities to be kind.
I believe deeply that there can be no outer peace without inner peace. And that we always have a choice, that we’re making the world in every moment with our thoughts, words, and actions. We can all take a little better care of each other, be better examples for each other. This, I suspect, is how we remake the world.
One word, one sentence, one story at a time.
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From Josh Radnor’s INKtalks speech: Fame’s Lesson Plan. Watch it here:
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