One of the perks or maybe just peculiarities of having done as many beats in journalism as I have — foreign coverage, White House reporting, food writing and scattered stories in the areas of law, mental health, film and even fashion — is not only that I’ve met many hundreds of the country’s most hugely accomplished people, but also that those people occupy scores of different professions. And I’ve often asked myself: What do those who’ve reached the highest tiers in their fields have in common? Is there asecret to that kind of “success”?
Talent absolutely matters, but I don’t think it’s the consequential quality. I know plenty of talented people who haven’t gotten as far — by conventional and of course subjective measures — as some of their less talented peers have.
Ingenuity counts. So do charm, charisma or whatever you want to call the ability to make people like you, believe in you or both.
But above all of these I would place single-mindedness. Most of the people who get far prioritized getting far. They put in the extra plotting and, in some cases, scheming to make it happen. Often, but not always, they put in the extra time. They sacrificed and jettisoned the things that needed sacrificing and jettisoning: hobbies, leisure, occasionally even friends.
And in more than a few cases, they were shameless — when it came to promoting themselves, for instance, or when it came to taking credit. They were ruthless. I’d like to say that a conscience helps one’s ascent to the top. But at least as often, it impedes it.
“To the unscrupulous go the spoils,” I wrote in my column last weekend, “Donald Trump’s Phony America,” and while that’s a deliberate, provocative overstatement, it’s also something worth mulling. Wealth, power and professional distinction aren’t always functions of anything as simple as merit. They can be the fruits of less savory qualities.
Our president is Exhibit A in this regard, and that’s why I put him in the headline of the column. And I chose to explore this theme in the first place not just because Michael Cohen’s testimony on Capitol Hill last week drew attention to all the fakery and amorality behind Trump’s rise, but also because there may well be something about this juncture in American life that rewards the peacocks and the blowhards.
We’re fixated on entrepreneurship (see: Silicon Valley), with its “fake it ’til you make it” sensibility. Are strivers taking that phrase too literally? Is the line between positive thinking and outright fraud blurring?
As I make clear in the column, I worry. And I fear that the example of the current president doesn’t help.

Frank Bruni (New York Times)

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