Whatever you do for a living, you spend many years climbing the ladder. Going to school, getting credentials, chasing promotions, putting in the years. Through all these years the question is never why but only how: how can I get to the top, what do I need to do? What no one ever tells you is what to do once you get there.
If you spend enough years paying your dues and making the right moves, there you are: at the top of your profession, your company, whatever it is. What do you do now? What’s the goal: to stay there? Simply to remain standing for as long as possible? Coast til retirement? Enjoy the fruits of your labor? Only one thing is certain here: if you’ve never thought about it before you get there, you may well become one of those who abuse the position and the power that you’ll be given. We see news stories about this every day.
Here’s an example: in early 2018, Patrick Brown was the leader of the Ontario Conservative Party, a successful and young-ish politician leading his party into an election against an unpopular provincial government. The polls indicated he had every chance of winning when the news story broke: allegations of sexual misconduct. I have no idea if he was innocent or guilty of this, but his career in politics was over in the blink of an eye. His party removed him as leader and he looks to be finished. Of course, I don’t know this man; he maintains he’s innocent and even politicians are innocent until proven guilty. In any event, what matters here is this: in all the years that Mr. Brown was rising through the ranks, did this man ever think about what he was going to do if and when he ever became premier of his province? Some will say of course he did: he had a policy platform in place, a network of alliances, and a strategy, but what I’m asking is something else. What was he going to do with that position? Why did he want it? What did he hope to achieve? Did he have a vision? I don’t know, but if he’s like most successful politicians, he probably didn’t.
There are two kinds of politicians, and the point isn’t limited to politicians: those who want to do something and those who want to be someone. Think about that the next time you go to vote for a politician. I keep an eye out for this and try, when I can, not to vote for someone in this second category, but that’s probably most of them. The point for them is to be premier, prime minister, president. To occupy that office, collect the rewards, be well thought of. Maybe in your own profession the point again is to have the title and the office, collect the salary, have people under your authority. And there will be people who answer to you—employees, subordinates. How are you going to handle that? Their careers and livelihoods depend on the decisions you make. You can abuse that power too, and if you do, you’ll probably get away with it most of the time and maybe all of the time. Look at Harvey Weinstein. Here’s another man who came crashing down, but it was a long time he was on top of his particular mountain. How much damage did he do, and how many careers did he wreck from up there? It was a fluke that he was caught. Most of them never are.
It’s common in any workplace: the petty authoritarian, the harasser, the autocrat, the windbag, and the jerk. No one likes these people, but just try to eliminate them. They’re there, barking orders, getting in the way, being self-important, and making noise while other people quietly get on with doing what needs to be done. I can’t tell you how you should handle it once you get to top of the mountain, only to think about it on the way up. Why do you want that? What is the value of it? What do you hope to accomplish? If you haven’t thought about it before you get there, there’s a fair likelihood you’re going to be that petty autocrat whom no one likes or respects.
One way of putting the question is, whom do you want to be like, in whatever role you’ll be playing. In my own line of work I found it enormously helpful, especially early on in my career, to think about the various professors and teachers I had over many years. Some were very good, a few were inspiring, and others were not. You could learn from them all, different things from different people. I learned not to be like Professor X; you can learn from other people’s mistakes no less than from what they might do well. My greatest teacher, and Ph.D. supervisor, was the late Gary Madison. I saw him as an exemplar, someone who personified not just the professor but the philosopher and the philosophical way of life. Try to be like him, I thought in those days. You never do become someone else, but you might become yourself, in light of an exemplar, a role model. I now ask myself, what kind of a role model am I being?
Philosophers aren’t preachers, and I can’t tell you what to do if and when you become successful in your particular field. My only view here is that one needs to think about it, long and hard, before one gets there. What needs to be thought about isn’t what they’re saying about you or even who you are, but what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. No one can think about this for you. If you do much of anything, people will have opinions about you, and for everyone who’s willing to stick their neck out, there’s someone else who’s willing to chop it off. How much is that going to matter to you? Before you get too far up that mountain, think about which of those opinions really matter. Maybe none of them do. A person’s character is what they do, habitually over time, day in and day out, whether anyone sees it or not and whether anyone likes it or not. If you think about what you’re doing, what it means, and why you’re doing it, who you’re being will take care of itself. It’s enough to do good things, just for the sake of it.
Much of the difficulty of thinking—about this or about anything—is deciding what needs to be thought about. What matters and what doesn’t? What to focus on and what to tune out? Here, as everywhere, there are a lot of things that need to be tuned out, beginning with what they’re saying about you. Who are they anyway, and why do their opinions matter to you? It’s very difficult to be willfully indifferent to other people’s opinions when those opinions are about you and what you’re doing. It’s difficult, but it’s also an important thing to cultivate if you’re serious about getting to the top of that mountain.