What Whitney Can Teach Us

By Scott Westerman
“What people expected of me was too much. Too much to try to live up to. Too much to try to be.  And I wanted out at some point.”  Whitney Houston

The wall to wall coverage of Whitney Houston’s death is a testament to the unrealistic pedestal on which we place our heroes.

We expect them to continually live up to our disparate expectations. They can’t. We expect their private lives to mirror their public lives. They often don’t. And when they fall short of our expectations, we are quick to criticize, even though we could never begin to approach their achievements.

Whitney Houston is the poster child for all of these things. She had the gifts that her public and those who sought to profit from them admired. She was the unattainable ideal for beauty. She radiated a playful joy that everybody seeks. And she could sing. Oh how she could sing.

But as we all know, when you turn off the lights and send the band home, the most revered stars are inevitably human. And being human, they have weaknesses and imperfections. For many, the very tenacity and drive that propelled them to “success” was the result of equally strong feelings of unworthiness and fear.

There is a perception that there are no consequences for the behaviors of the rich and famous. Reach a certain level and there will always be hangers-on who will tell you that you’re great, no matter what you do. They are ready to respond to your every command, even if the things you demand are dangerous, hurtful or illegal. Unless you are well grounded, it’s all too easy to lose your way and be consumed by the monster that created you; a monster that is, in fact, of your own creation.

The truth is that any of us can succumb to the monster. If Whitney Houston’s tragic end teaches us anything its this:

As you become successful, your fans will turn on you. You’re either not black enough, not white enough, not dedicated enough to the cause (whatever we think that cause should be), not humble enough, not accessible enough, not articulate enough, not down to earth enough. You may feel that the world is always judging you and nothing you can do will be good enough.

Our culture’s definition of success is not success. Study after study tells us that being rich, acquiring material possessions and earning accolades mean nothing if there is no purpose behind it.  As Tony Robbins has said, “Only those who have learned the power of sincere and selfless contribution experience life’s deepest joy.” Too often, profession is not connected to passion. And sometimes what we think is our passion turns out to be something we pursue to avoid facing what’s really eating us.

We are who we are. We are not necessarily the people our parents wanted us to be. We can’t always be the person our friends, bosses and co-workers want us to be. We’re all damaged goods. We are wonderfully imperfect and it is those very imperfections that can lead us to enlightenment and happiness or to disaster and suffering.

The law of cause and effect applies to everyone. If your intentions are good, your goals are productive and you are constantly seeking to improve how you can serve the world, you will vector toward that outcome. If you hang with the wrong people, are bereft of purpose and engage in self destructive behaviors, no matter how successful you might think you are, you will ultimately crash and burn.

All glory is fleeting. Admiration and achievement are addictive. Once you’ve had a taste you want it again and again. That’s not how life works. As David Niven writes in 100 simple secrets of happy people, “We share a boundless capacity to ignore the long term implications of our decisions while focusing on short term effects.” It’s ok to aim high. And being appreciated is great. But ask anyone who has a sustained track record of authentic happiness and they will tell you that all true glory is intrinsic. Joy lives in the process, not the goal. You appreciate the view when you reach the summit, but what ultimately sustains you are the lessons you learned as you made the climb.

All of us come with the potential to do great things, to make a difference, to be happy. The challenge is deciding what each of these things mean, and knowing that the joy is in the doing, not the outcome.