I read in the papers where a beauty queen, interviewed in the hour of her triumph, states that she intends to be a pediatrician. Also, she wants to be a volunteer worker in South Africa. So, what’s wrong with that? Not one thing. The image of a Florence Nightingale packaged along the lines of 36-23-35 is not an unpleasant one. Improbable, maybe, but unpleasant, definitely not. One has memories, however, of former queens pursuing, they said (and undoubtedly believed), careers ranging from physicist to congresswoman, who, today are minor celebrities in show business. Like many of us they began with the noblest of sentiments and ended by trying merely to satisfy some of the more prosaic desires. Altruism is warming to the heart when viewed prospectively, but vis-a-vis it seems insanely impractical.
It takes a disciplined person not to signal for applause prematurely. I hate to think of some of the fine things I have proposed in life, and I fully intended to do them. So I shyly announced my noble intentions and was so generously commended over a period of time that, when the time for action came, I quietly abandoned my plans. Great and noble sacrifices are most alluring when most remote. For every magnanimous act born into the world a thousand are aborted.
If an eighth grade student tells family and friends that he intends to be a brain surgeon, and if he continues to remind them during the next five years, by that time he probably will have received as much recognition as some practicing surgeons. Then, faced with the prospect of ten or so grinding years of arduous preparation, he might settle for something less, like ditch digging. If you are an eighth grader who plans to be a brain surgeon, and if it is a burning ambition, and if your uncle asks you what your plans are, I advise your telling him that you have every intention of finishing the eighth grade, after which you will try desperately to get through the ninth. The desire for recognition is such a powerful source of motivation that it should be husbanded.
The very idea that recognition should be a factor in motivating human beings disgusts some people. What should applause, whether premature or not, have to do with our actions? But the desire for fame, approbation, acceptance must not be denigrated. Our problem is not that we desire recognition; rather, we desire the wrong kind and from the wrong people. A man stops at a Howard Johnson’s and frets over what impression he is making with the waiter. What difference does it make if the waiter does or does not consider him to be a man of distinction? We order our lives to impress those who know us only casually, while at the same time we are sacrificing the good will of those who know us best.
Milton said that true fame lives only in the witness of God: As He pronounces lastly on each deed, of so much fame in Heaven expect thy meed (i.e., reward, recompense). A distant second in importance is the good opinion of one’s self, discerning men and women, whereas the approbation of the bigoted, the self-righteous, the arrogant, is a condemnation.