One night over twenty years ago I stood outside Urban Stonehenge, a large pink house on Potrero Hill, talking to my friend Rose as people streamed in through the front gate. It was a big monthly San Francisco party known as the anarchist community coffeehouse, and I’d driven down from Sonoma County to see friends and play at the open mike.
Rose and I greeted people as they came in and many of them, seeing my guitar nearby, asked expectantly if I was going to sing. At one point I commented to Rose how awkward the attention made me feel. She said, in her matter-of-fact way, “Don’t be. Just accept the fact that you’re a minor celebrity in a minor subculture.”
Until that moment I had not thought much about fame in terms of our circle of friends. Rose’s comment helped give me some perspective, and from then on I started paying attention to who stood out from the crowd, why, and how they handled it.
Commerce in the Community
Fame is different from leadership, yet in our celebrity culture we often conflate them. We assume that people who are famous are better at something than the rest of us, or have great ideas that others should follow. While this is often true, the larger a community grows the more likely you are to find people who achieve celebrity without the weight of actual leadership ability.
I have written before about what happens when narcissism and charisma infect community leadership. That post was in some ways the product of my observations over the past twenty years of spiritual communities in general. To make it a little more concrete, I want to focus here on two different leadership paradigms I have found.
For many years, the prevailing business model in the women’s spirituality and self-help movement had been to write a good book, then go on the workshop circuit and teach that material to grow your audience, while developing material for a second book. These books presented a positive vision of personal empowerment, yet among the author personalities there was a degree of competition that often belied their egalitarian message.
Their zero-sum-game attitude was easy to miss when the economy and especially publishing was doing well. But as money started to tighten up, people with name recognition were faced with hard choices and not all of them made good ones. Those who could not control their egos tended to flame out and disappear, while others found steady income through teaching or sought out new markets in which to spread their message.
In the early 2000s I studied dreamwork with Rev. Jeremy Taylor, eventually becoming the first graduate of his Marin Institute for Projective Dreamwork. For something as non-mainstream as interpreting dreams, Jeremy had a refreshing viewpoint on competition and fame. He stated explicitly more than once that the more competent dreamworkers there were out in the world, the more the public would be educated about dreams and ultimately the more opportunities there would be for all dreamworkers.
Having come up against the winner-take-all mentality in self-help circles himself, he knew the only way to counter it was to set a different tone early on with his own students. I was deeply grateful that someone so well-known would live his principles to such a degree, and actively work to change the culture of celebrity from within.
Studying with Jeremy gave me the language to voice what had been bothering me about fame and community ever since that coffeehouse incident. It continues to inform my work today with authors, most of whom hope to bring their message of wisdom or spirituality to a larger audience.
“Leave more value than you capture.”
This quote from tech CEO Tim O’Reilly should guide all of our efforts to create a stream of commerce from our community involvement. A subculture that becomes an exclusive feeding ground for one or two high-profile members will end up desiccated and unable to thrive. And thriving culture is what supports all the arts and insures a growing audience for everyone.
The publishing industry is in such a shambles today that the only way authors can get ahead is to collaborate, sharing insights and best practices, and joining forces to find and create new audiences for all our work. The relationship between spirituality and commerce has never been easy, but at least we now have a guideline by which to judge those in our midst who end up being leaders and achieving fame. We can ask how much value they create and leave on the table for others. How are they generous, and to what effect? And is our community richer or poorer for their presence in it?