Warning: Self deception and manufactured fame kills “entrepreneurs”

There is a fine line between being self-employed and unemployed.

If you’re one of many “online entrepreneurs” please don’t forget that.

Recently I read a post by my friend Margie Clayman entitled “How Social Media Is Broken For Me Now”  and it got me thinking about how that sentiment seems to be shared by many of the people I talk to on a regular basis.

Last week, Shane Ketterman from Rewire Business talked for several hours about how I’ve been able to grow my business dramatically over the past few months without heavily blasting Twitter, and Facebook, and all that other stuff you’re “supposed to do”.

But what got me emotional about Margie’s article was it’s subject; Bruce Serven.

Now I didn’t know Bruce personally, and I’m sure we’ve crossed paths once or twice, but if you’re unacquainted with Bruce’s story it ends like this;

On October 23rd, 2011 Bruce Serven shot his 22 month old son in the chest, then himself in the head, after an argument with his wife. (link)

Self Deception is tricky.

Like I said, I didn’t know Bruce.

But I know plenty of people who were in Bruce’s position.

Looking at Bruce’s blog, it looks just like any other online entrepreneur type. His last post was on Sept 11 titled “The things people say they’ll never forget.” and it combines humor with personality to make the point, “Don’t say you won’t forget, when you probably will.” The article had one comment.

Bruce’s Facebook Page had at most only 2 comments on recent entries and 267 fans connected to the page. Bruce’s Twitter connected to 1,748 followers appeared to have tweets that were automatically pushed out links of influential people via twitterfeed with no real interaction with anyone for at least to the beginning of October.

He had a landing page on Facebook to capture email addresses, the email opt-in on the sidebar on his blog and his description:

I’m an everyday entrepreneur, working hard to build and sustain an empire, create jobs, make a meaningful difference, and capitalize on opportunities, while passionately living a purpose driven life & helping others to find their success in life.

But, according to the local news coverage of his death it said: 

On the internet, he portrayed himself as a maverick entrepreneur with his own motivational blog and Facebook fan page, but in real life, he was a man who had been unemployed for months and had recently taken a job as a forklift driver.

Don’t lie to yourself.

Of course Bruce is an extreme case, but Trey Pennington is another who committed suicide recently, and I feel like I’ve heard about more suicides in the “online entrepreneur” space more than ever before.

In Bruce’s case, his online persona was that of an entrepreneur, but in reality he was unemployed.

Being an online entrepreneur myself, it’s not hard to empathize with someone who feels like they have to maintain the persona of a successful entrepreneur while watching his entire life fall apart (he was going through a divorce at the time of his death).

The Duality of maintaining a fictional personality can become extremely stressful, and incredibly dangerous, if the fictitious personality doesn’t have roots in reality. In one world, you’re a successful entrepreneur, in another you can’t pay your bills.

The pressure builds until eventually only one personality can win, and it’s usually the one who’s lights are about to get shut off.

What about addiction?

Bruce eventually took a job as a fork truck operator, his local news tells us that. But they didn’t mention whether or not he was addicted to social media. Really, if he was or wasn’t is irrelevant, because so many of us are addicted to our virtual communication methods and probably don’t even realize it.

When talking to my wife about this today, she gently pointed out that I check my email more frequently than I smoked, which was roughly 20 times a day. Right now, I have a second monitor dedicated strictly to email so I can quickly glance over instead of switching tabs. Before that, it was bought with the sole purpose of being dedicated to Tweetdeck.

Being in this space, and having times where I poured countless hours into my computer wishing with everything that something would pay off, I can certainly empathize with the incredible amount of personal failure and frustration that Bruce must have felt.

Then having to keep that pain away from the virtual people you spend the most time with, then sacrificing time with those people to drive a forklift to make ends meet.

It must have gotten very lonely.

We live in public.

For Bruce and Trey (and the rest of us) you must also factor in the stress of living a splintered life in the spotlight. As digital citizens we’ve deemed it necessary to live out a considerable portion of our lives in public, without recognizing the potential consequences to the human condition.

In 2009, a documentary titled We Live In Public (available on Netflix/iTunes) showed the journey of web entrepreneur Josh Harris.

In 1999, Josh started the Quiet Experiment which asked 100 artists to live in a bunker and have every moment of their lives recorded and streamed live over the internet.

The purpose of the experiment was to document the effects of  “living in public” 24/7 would do to the human psyche.

Josh says of the project “Everything is free except the video we capture of you, that we own.”

By the end of the Quiet Experiment, participants appeared to simultaneously detest and crave the spotlight, doing virtually anything to get their 15 minutes of fame on a daily basis.

Josh later turned the experiment on himself. For 6 months, he and his wife would broadcast every moment of their lives, documenting and being the catalyst for the break down of their relationship eventually leading to their divorce, and Josh’s mental collapse.

Watch the trailer below.

Is it possible that the constant need to perform was a contributing factor for these social media suicides?

The price of fame.

Celebrity suicides and mental breakdowns are something we’ve become accustomed to in traditional media.

Social media has for many of us dictated we build our own version of celebrity to showcase our businesses or talents to the world and achieve widespread success.

The reality is, famous or not, we’re all subject to the same exact rules and pressures of fame. According to a study in 2007, the price of fame for successful rock and pop stars is that they’re twice as likely to die an early death.

Yet, we crave a similar high octane lifestyle. To be a well known “business celebrity”. The problem is, we’re not as well equipped as the traditional celebrity. If we have an addiction, we can’t just check ourselves into rehab and get treatment from Dr. Drew.

Mental breakdowns don’t afford us merchandising opportunities like Charlie Sheen.  Instead, we deal with mental breakdowns and our personal lives privately, while pretending everything is ok online.

No, social media didn’t kill Bruce or Trey, depression did.

My friend Chris Brogan says Depression is an Offline Event and requires real offline help.

I very much agree with this, reaching out to anyone who will listen will usually end poorly. After talking with my wife about this article, she suggested something brilliant, which is an “online buddy system.” An online friend who you share with in a very real way.

Yes, if you’re feeling depressed, seek offline help, but also have just one person online who you know you can talk to and share anything with.

Because let’s face it, people in the real world just don’t understand what it’s like to be a digital citizen.

I can only imagine the incredible pressure Bruce and Trey must have feeling leading up their final moments.

I urge you, please, if you’re in a place where you’re calling yourself self employed when your reality is something different, please stop the insanity and get real with yourself.

If you’ve been banging your head against a wall wondering why nothing’s working for you, take a step back and reevaluate your methods.

Working for yourself  is meant to bring joy and freedom to your life, not take it from you.

Thank you so much for reading this, if you agree with it’s message I ask that you share it because this is a very real issue that is affecting very real people.



  1. Dawn says

    Wow, you gotta love the sympathetic light that seems to have been cast on Bruce in this blog. I mean seriously.. Poor poor guy. Driven to murder his 22 month old son. Poor Bruce..

    Oh wait, not poor Bruce. Fuck Bruce Serven, he’s a murderer. I don’t give a shit how hard it is to be unemployed or addicted to social media or whatever the hell else. To cast an even sympathetic light on a man who pointed a shot gun at his 22 month olds chest and pulled the trigger.. Pretty much disgusts me. I realize this is more about Bruce feeling the need to kill himself because of his depression.. But fuck that. Murdering his son cancels out any sympathy that should be felt for his feeling the need to end his own life.

    He wasn’t a good person. The person people saw was just who he pretended to be. He was a murderer. End of story.

    • Tommy says

      HI dawn,

      First, thank you for commenting. The intention here was not to be sympathetic, but to shine a spotlight on the very extreme effects on what self deception can do.

      As a father of a 14 month old boy myself, that he killed his own son is monstrous to me. I do not claim to understand nor do I ever think I would be able to comprehend what must have been going on in his mind at the time he made the decision to pull the trigger.

      It is a tragedy. A horrific tragedy.

      My only hope is that this article can show what the extremes a person will go to after being self deceptive for so long, in hopes that 1. If someone who reads it can recognize it in themselves and get help and 2. Never take such an extreme and horrific action, because children are innocent.

      • Dawn says

        My point… “Self deception and manufactured fame” didn’t kill Bruce Serven. He was a sick man, and the manufactured maverick entrepreneur persona he had was a symptom of his sickness, not the cause of his demise. He’s a murderer and doesn’t deserve to be remembered, or thought of sympathetically. He deserves to suffer for eternity for what he did to his son, who loved and trusted him more than anything in the world. He was sick and disgusting. That’s how he should be remembered.

        • says

          Perhaps, but Bruce and Trey are only examples of something that exists in a much larger community.

          Bruce surly wasn’t the only false “maverick entrepreneur” and is not the only one in this space that would be guilty of lying to themselves on a daily basis.

          While the article uses him as an example, it’s not really about him, it’s about the other people who lie to themselves on a daily basis and don’t do anything to truly improve their situation. Self Deception, independent of any particular field, entrepreneurial or otherwise, is dangerous. As is depression.

          Again, I’m not saying poor Bruce. Neither am I saying he should burn in Hell.

          But his story needs to be told, not to be idolized, or memorialized, but as a statement of just how bad self deception and depression can get. He was sick, I’ll agree with you there, but had he been honest about his sickness, and his situation, perhaps he could have gotten help.

          I would ask that you refer to Susan Girleo’s comment from earlier, she is both a psychologist and an entrepreneur and has very valuable insight on the topic.

  2. says

    Hi Tommy & Co.

    As someone who has suffered from depression and had a very traumatic upbringing (violent, drug & alcohol fuelled – not me, my parents! well actually I nearly followed in their footsteps!!) your article really resonated with me. I’m haven’t been in a great place recently. Most people aren’t. Honestly. They aren’t. Not in London anyway.

    That’s why I stayed away from here the last few years (living in India and Ibiza) but I came back for the woman I loved. Little did I know that would bring up all the childhood drama/ trauma patterns I had as a child as a result of being strangled, abandoned, homeless, beaten etc… and then being effectively adopted by my grandfather and step-grandmother, both of whom where Colonels in the army!

    So why am I writing? Life is very complicated and so are we. I run a business (having run 3 previously) which is NLP based. Helping people to design the life/ business of their dreams. And yet I have struggled massively over the last year or two about how I ‘package’ or brand myself… or maybe that is, how I can just be myself! And be comfortable with that. So your article is timely and relevant. The question then remains, who is providing the environment and experience for those that want to be entrepreneurial and ‘make stuff happen’ to actually make it happen, despite the traumatic past (i.e conditioning) that holds them back?

    Not many people. Most IM is just that. IM. It’s not helping people to find their true voice and express that in meaningful ways in the world, AND in a way that attracts people to their businesses!

    It’s a very complex issue (how to be ourself… so easy yet so hard!) and certainly more than any blog can pay tribute to. Perhaps more than any one business can really pay tribute to, although that is what I am striving to do now.

    I recognise that we all have a story. And I love the way you write and share yours. Most people’s stories hold them back. Yours is unique and powerful and moves you and others forwards. I’d love to interview (sounds very official!) or perhaps more ‘model’ your ability to write from the heart, share very powerful stories and make a difference. Whatdya say?

    I’m sure it would give your subscribers some real value into the strategies you use to create such powerful messages and make a difference while being authentically you.

    Have an inspired week!

    • says

      Tristen, I am so sorry for not getting back to this sooner. I’ve been neglecting my blog for the past few weeks! I just read your very detailed and thought out comment, and I am moved that you find my words inspiring. I would love to chat further. Thank you so much for sharing your story as well, I love your honesty :-)

  3. says

    Thank you Tommy, I think I’ll be adding this to my list of blogs I wished I’d written!
    There are also some intelligent and articulate comments here, I’ve enjoyed reading every one and found the whole discussion very thought-provoking.

    One of things seen frequently is the exhortation to ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’. Although there is nothing wrong with having confidence in your abilities and your future, ‘faking it’ is something I wouldn’t advise. After all if you are truly confident why not tell the truth about where you are? There is no shame in being on the first leg of a journey after all.

    I understand that the law of attraction would have us all focussing on acting as if we have already made it too in order to attract those things into our lives. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that as long as it is done intentionally and knowledgeably rather than in a way that leads to delusion.

    If we were all a bit more honest then maybe the pressure we all feel to be superstars would abate.

    As for me – I haven’t ‘made it’ yet, and sometimes I do get down and frustrated. I don’t share that often as I would rather go for a walk and remind myself how lucky I am just to be alive on this planet! But I do share it when I think others will draw strength from it, and I have to say that even though I’m not top of the twitterati tree I am on the whole really enjoying the journey and the people I’m virtually meeting along the way.

    Wishing all of you the very best.

    • says

      Really insightful and uplifting post Gemma. I especially like your reference to how LoA applies.

      Your line: “I don’t think there is anything wrong with that as long as it is done intentionally and knowledgeably rather than in a way that leads to delusion.” is brilliant. I whole-heartedly encourage this.

      Thanks for writing!

      “I know I exaggerated things / now I got it like that.” – Drake, Headlines.

  4. says

    Tommy this is such an amazing and honest article.

    Online there are 1000’s of internet marketers that on the outside look like they’re doing really well when the reality is the opposite. Most of them have part time or full time jobs that they’re not declaring. Others are struggling on each day.

    I often wonder if it’s the industry’s fault – there is a common saying “fake it till you make it” and I’ve seen that being taught by well respected mentors who are making it.

    There are so many people wanting to make money online and buying every product they possibly can, spending money instead of earning money. And yet the reality is that 97% of people in this industry fail (not even sure where these figures come from now!!).

    Running a business is incredibly hard and can be very lonely. It’s a difficult subject – when people ask for help and are honest and say actually they’re struggling it offers a negative image and destroys any credibility they may have. But at the same time isn’t it time for some home truths?

  5. roadrunnerABQ says

    1) There’s a fine line between self-employed and self-unemployed. Or not.

    2) The need to be constantly connected is addictive, be that via phone – most notably with texting and constant conversation, or continually monitoring the social channels on the internet. Yes, it is important for a healthy online business, but perhaps less than what one really thinks. A single person can absorb only just so much constant ‘noise’ or ‘activity’.

    That merges with the emotional need to be continually noticed and self-important, possibly driven into our lives from all the reality shows on TV — culminating with the ability to show yourself off on youTube. I can only imagine the downer when all the effort to ‘be somebody’ is totally ignored by millions of people.

    3) The facade of all this self-importance in today’s world is alarmingly frightening, and certainly outweighs the old *do better than the Joneses* egotism, altho that trap still exists big time.

    Showing off intellectually or materialistically for the purpose of making an impression or to bolster one’s personal importance quite often ends in great disappointment to oneself and one’s family, with behind-your-back derision by the very persons you seek to impress.

    ~~ Reality checks are something one needs to address constantly to stay well grounded, mentally healthy, and successful. And true success comes only with all three of these conquered:

    Your Health,
    Your Wealth, and
    Your Personal Life.

  6. John Gizowski says

    @Rachel — my motto is: Show Up. Be Present. I have to REALLY work on that, but it’s SO worth it.

  7. says

    Thank You so much for posting this. I think that this is something I personally have been having issues with. Being a digital citizen is something that not a lot of people around me if any know a lot about so it is not often that I discuss what it is like.

    There was a time that I was known locally and in my online network as an extremely positive person and I used to inspire people. Then I fell ill with a kidney stone and had a doctor take advantage of me. At the same time college was wrapping up and I had to move out of my apartment in a big city to move back home with my parents.

    My life was drastically different than what I was known for and I didn’t want to share it because I didn’t know how. In fact this is the first mention of it online.

    Seeing people talk openly about what its like to live a digital life helps to give me vocabulary to process what I am going through. I appreciate it…

    Now I think I’ll quote this comment in a expanded blog post and begin to live digitally once again.

    Thank You,

    – Skyler Sweet

    • Tommy says

      Thank you so much for sharing this Skyler. It’s sometimes hard to bridge that gap.

      Honestly, I try to find the places where I can find lessons from certain real life situations to bring them into the articles. It’s not always easy, and of course not everything makes the cut, but being able to be honest with your readers and more importantly with yourself is going to be the most freeing, and give the most well rounded perspective.

      Again thank you for sharing your story, and I’m glad that this reached you. Feel free to reach out if you ever need anything in the future :-)

  8. says

    Great post Tommy! A perspective rarely talked about in our space so I’m glad you’re brining it up and the comments have been very insightful as well. The more people can show up and be their authentic selves in every aspect of their life the more satisfying and simple life is. It’s hard to pretend you’re someone you’re not and it adds unnecessary pressure to your life. I love the “online buddy system” and suggesting it just increases awareness. One other issue is that everyone is always so busy. It’s tough to keep up with life online and off – so simply taking the time to really listen to someone “between the lines” will help create a more connected community in the real sense of the word.

  9. John Gizowski says

    Hey Tommy – Thanks for the post. I wish I could say I am surprised. I have personal experience with mental health issues and doing the digital entrepreneur thing. In addition to all the other points, lets not forget how isolated a solo-preneur can feel. If you’re in a bad place to begin with, it’s really bad when you’re in it by yourself. This is why I really like your wife’s idea of a “online buddy system” Let’s get on that .. ;)

    • Tommy says

      I think that isolation is one of the scariest parts about working for yourself.

      I’ll tell ya, I moved into my own office about a month and a half ago, and the adjustment period of working from home with my wife and son around, to being completely by myself was challenging at first.

      Trying to fill the space with background noise, stay productive, and not get a little bummed out that there was no one around took some time to get used to.

      I’ve adjusted since, but it was still difficult.

      I really dig the “online buddy system” and think it would be neat if we could start a movement around that. :-)

      • says

        That’s interesting.

        I have a slightly different experience :)

        I was used to being the super-valuable, super-popular guy everyone wanted to be around. I was like a prostitute of skills. I could do so many things, and I did them out of the goodness of my heart, for like… everyone.

        And everyone loved me.

        Eventually this brings someone to a dark place: homeless -> arrested -> homeless again -> betrayed.

        So I began expecting more from the people around me, I began qualifying more, discerning more.

        And then I was alone.

        I went from uber-popular to alone, a pariah.

        But God I became more productive than I’ve ever been (and I am known for producing). All my energy went into my life and my business, instead of to people who used and under-appreciated my fantastic gifts.

        And faster than I thought, success-minded, happy, supportive people started popping up, because I made peace with being alone.

  10. says

    Another thing to think about is Social Media may have kept them alive longer than they would have been otherwise. Maybe it held them together and gave them a measure of self-worth, but in the end, it just wasn’t enough.

    Morgan Mandel

  11. says

    As a psychologist and online entrepreneur I think we all need to understand that people are people are people. Meaning, we are who we are online and off and nothing in the screen is going to make what we do or how we feel any different inside. Depression is rampant in our society right now due to a poor economy, a culture that values money and things over relationships and meaning, and a constant pressure to show no weakness. This is especially true for men.
    Posts like this are important, but I don’t feel are going to really reach those who need help the most. Because when someone is really in the pull of severe depression a blog post isn’t going to get them to reverse course. And this ‘trend’ is no different than the storefront business owner who leverages his life savings, only to be unable to pay his business loans and despairs (“It’s a Wonderful Life”, anyone?)
    Ultimately, we need to take care of ourselves and keep an ear out for others who may be struggling. Mental illness is real, it affects everyone you know. EVERYONE knows someone who has some form of mental illness. We can work to minimize stigma, have these conversations, and take care of our bodies and minds. More blogging and social media conferences should have sessions on health-physical and mental–because not taking care of ourselves is a life or death issue.

    • Tommy says

      Thank you for this Susan, and I totally agree with your point that people are people. I do wonder about the effects of splintering personalities on screen vs off though.

      While of course you have to have it in you in the first place, we’re really in the first and second generation of users who are able to create a facade of themselves that is only present in the virtual space. In previous generations, if someone wanted to become someone else, they would have to move to a whole new town and start over, now it’s as simple as sitting at the keyboard. And we both know first hand of many “online entrepreneur” types who are not entirely honest about their success or how their online persona is contributing to their success.

      I think it’s a great idea to have sessions on health both physical and mental at the conventions, and perhaps that’s something we can rally for in the upcoming year :-) Thanks for stopping by, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the splintered personality concept.

  12. says

    Great post Tommy! This raises an important point that I need to emphasize more with my clients. I teach people Fast Fame Online (mainly speakers) and yes some of the stuff gives a perception of being a huge success but it can also be perceived as not true. That is why it’s important for people to be “REAL” and be themselves. When they make mistakes, share what you learned. Keep it real! Also… as long as they are adding value to their clients and increasing their income (valuing themselves) then they are on the right path. You just made me realize though that I need to emphasize this more to them. Thanks for the post.

    • Tommy says

      Wow thanks for stopping by Jody (I feel extra cool now :-) The dual personality thing is something that I struggled a lot with early on and I found that when I started to shake myself of that and starting getting a lot more real about how I felt about all if it is when people started to connect more because it was something they could relate to as well. I’m glad you got something out of it! Thanks again for stopping by!

      • says

        Thanks Jason. I follow her yes :) Her and I have a very similar story – both from owning web design companies :) I still have mine… just a team runs it for me. I am in a different office and just do what you see there on my site :) Just about to check out yours!

        • says

          Hah! Very cool… I love the parallels :)

          Thanks for checking out my site and signing-up, I’m doing some very focused re-branding of my business and life, to increase consistency and congruency.

          I’m ready to… Ryze ;)

  13. says

    This is a really eye-opening post Tommy, and if I were to clarify + summarize it, it feels like you’re talking about:

    Congruency + Authenticity.

    I’d like to share my story:

    Much like Bruce, I portray myself as a motivator and successful entrepreneur online.

    Much like Bruce, it’s important that others see me as successful and worth doing business with.

    Much like Bruce I’ve been destitute, homeless, arrested, betrayed and more, barely scraping by.

    Unlike Bruce, I am open about this, no media needs to hunt it out of me, and I say it contributes to my ability to Succeed. I wear it as a badge of honor. Throughout all of these ups-and-downs, I was happier than anyone I ran into.

    A life filled with 99% ‘happy moments’ = success.

    There is no shame in being poor. There is no shame in failure. There is no shame in failing in your word, to meet bills, or societies ‘obligations’. These things happen. Donald Trump almost bankrupted 4 times, Edison failed 10,000, and Steve Jobs was fired by his own company.

    These people could’ve chosen depression or secrecy, but they didn’t.

    Every truly successful entrepreneur, if you examine their past, has mountains of failure.

    Everyone who is at peace with ‘fame’ are people who are at peace with themselves and their decisions.

    They need not maintain two personalities, because their core personality is why they’re famous.

    To wrap up, I think this is a really powerful topic, I love your perspective, and congruency & authenticity are key to handling fame smoothly.

    • Tommy says

      Thank you Jason for such a well thought out response :-)

      I agree, there is no shame in being poor or in failing, it’s a matter of learning from those mistakes and moving forward. It is tragic what has happened to Bruce and I only wish that something like this had reached him sooner.