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On "success"

Einstein on success

[From this book.] The more one experiences the world, the more one understands how difficult it is to be “successful” and have integrity at the same time. Maybe most successful people don’t have much of a “core self” to begin with; they’re just malleable, their essence from youth is malleability. Few convictions, certainly no courage of whatever convictions they have. Depending on which institution it is you want to succeed in, such things as pleasantness, obsequiousness, continual obedience, a willingness to narrow yourself, and a lack of intellectual curiosity are required. Conventional behavior is, from a sort of “human” perspective, despicable. Most people understand this, and yet the successful are respected anyway. Why? In itself—other things being equal—success is more like something contemptible than something admirable. Yet frequently I hear people expressing near-reverence of this person or that person, this respected mainstream academic or that respected mainstream journalist, apparently forgetting momentarily what they acknowledge at other times, that success tends to be more like something negative than something positive. And insofar as it isn’t negative, it’s based largely on luck, on institutional connections and so forth. Things that deserve respect include kindness, moral and intellectual integrity, activism on behalf of the downtrodden, contempt for authority as such, the challenging of conventions; talent as such deserves no respect (since one is, to a great extent, born with it), and mainstream success usually deserves even less.

For these reasons, by the way, I can’t escape residual doubts about the integrity of famous political radicals. Have they not had to “sell out” in order to become successful and famous? What deals have they made with the devil? It’s true that this preoccupation with integrity and honesty can be taken to absurd extremes, for it is impossible not to live in modern society without morally and intellectually compromising yourself constantly. Just by virtue of buying products from a corporation or paying taxes to a government, one is participating (indirectly) in distant moral outrages. Social life, too, necessitates that one sometimes “lack integrity” in a different way, by pretending to like people one doesn’t like, etc. Nevertheless, there is surely a line to be drawn somewhere between this daily necessity of “lacking integrity” and a really contemptible sacrifice of integrity for the sake of money or power or fame. Such a sacrifice is even more deplorable in the case of a political radical, who, as such, is defined by his adherence to certain exalted ideals. The striking thing about some of the famous leftists I admire is that they seem to have achieved their success without substantively flouting their principles.


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