Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence they dreamed of becoming humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: the Thought Leader.
The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler. Each year, he gets to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative, where successful people gather to express compassion for those not invited. Month after month, he gets to be a discussion facilitator at think tank dinners where guests talk about what it’s like to live in poverty while the wait staff glides through the room thinking bitter thoughts.
He doesn’t have students, but he does have clients. He doesn’t have dark nights of the soul, but his eyes blaze at the echo of the words “breakout session.”
Many people wonder how they too can become Thought Leaders and what the life cycle of one looks like.
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In fact, the calling usually starts young. As a college student, the future Thought Leader is bathed in attention. His college application essay, “I went to Panama to teach the natives about math but they ended up teaching me about life,” is widely praised by guidance counselors. On campus he finds himself enmeshed in a new social contract: Young people provide their middle-aged professors with optimism and flattery, and the professors provide them with grade inflation. He is widely recognized for his concern for humanity. (He spends spring break unicycling across Thailand while reading to lepers.)
Not armed with fascinating ideas but with the desire to have some, he launches off into the great struggle for attention. At first his prose is upbeat and smarmy, with a peppy faux sincerity associated with professional cheerleading.
Within a few years, though, his mood has shifted from smarm to snark. There is no writer so obscure as a 26-year-old writer. So he is suddenly consumed by ambition anxiety — the desperate need to prove that he is superior in sensibility to people who are superior to him in status. Soon he will be writing blog posts marked by coruscating contempt for extremely anodyne people: “Kelly Clarkson: Satan or merely his spawn?”
Of course the writer in this unjustly obscure phase will develop the rabid art of being condescending from below. Of course he will confuse his verbal dexterity for moral superiority. Of course he will seek to establish his edgy in-group identity by trying to prove that he was never really that into Macklemore.
Fortunately, this snarky phase doesn’t last. By his late 20s, he has taken a job he detests in a consulting firm, offering his colleagues strategy memos and sexual tension. By his early 30s, his soul has been so thoroughly crushed he’s incapable of thinking outside of consultantese. It’s not clear our Thought Leader started out believing he would write a book on the productivity gains made possible by improved electronic medical records, but having written such a book he can now travel from medical conference to medical conference making presentations and enjoying the rewards of being TSA Pre.
By now the Thought Leader uses the word “space” a lot — as in, “Earlier in my career I spent a lot of time in the abject sycophancy space, but now I’m devoting more of my energies to the corporate responsibility space.”
The middle-aged Thought Leader’s life has hit equilibrium, composed of work, children and Bikram yoga. The desire to be snarky mysteriously vanishes with the birth of the first child. His prose has never been so lacking in irony and affect, just the clean translucence of selling out.
He’s succeeding. Unfortunately, the happy moment when you are getting just the right amount of attention passes, and you don’t realize you were in this moment until after it is gone.
The tragedy of middle-aged fame is that the fullest glare of attention comes just when a person is most acutely aware of his own mediocrity. By his late 50s, the Thought Leader is a lion of his industry, but he is bruised by snarky comments from new versions of his formerly jerkish self. Of course, this is when he utters his cries for civility and good manners, which are really just pleas for mercy to spare his tender spots.
In the end, though, a lifetime of bullet points are replaced by foreboding. Toward the end of his life, the Thought Leader is regularly engaging in a phenomenon known as the powerless lunch. He and another formerly prominent person gather to have a portentous conversation of no importance whatsoever. In the fading of the light, he is gravely concerned about the way everything is going to hell.
Still, one rarely finds an octogenarian with status anxiety. He is beyond the battle for attention. Death approaches. Cruelly, it smells like reverence.
© , New York Times News Service
David Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York Times.