and, to repeat a maxim…

June 9, 2009

I’ve said it here before, but it bears repeating.

Our careers are made by people older than we are; our reputations are made by people younger than we are.

It is possible to have both a good career and a good lasting reputation, but these two need not go together, and often do not. And in fact, I think most people who are successful at some stage generally fall into one of two types: those who please their elders, and those who please their youngers.

The first category are the star students referred to in the letter below. The second category are more of the “late bloomer” variety, because at least in the humanities you have to ripen a bit to do work of lasting significance to others. (Again, the dynamics are a bit different in the physical sciences and especially in mathematics… I’ve been told by a mathematician that you’re supposed to do your best mathematical work in your 20’s.)

I recall once seeing a reference letter for a graduate student whom I happened to know personally– great guy, very talented, but never really got his act together, and now I have no idea where he is (certainly not in the profession). The referee, a professor I also knew well, gushed about how this particular student was the best student he had ever seen.

But, when it came to spelling out the details of why he was the best student ever, the main point seemed to be that this student was good at taking criticism. That’s certainly a virtue, but it’s just one virtue among many, and far from the most important of them (intellectual history is replete with hyper-sensitive geniuses who couldn’t take criticism, but whose work was vitally important nonetheless).

Essentially, the professor was saying that this student was a very gratifying student to work with. And that was surely true, and is also surely a virtue. But being a gratifying student for a professor to work with is not, I submit, one of the necessary building blocks of a later successful intellectual career.

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