I have nothing against Kelly Clarkson. I know she won American Idol and has gone on to great success as a singer, which I think is terrific. That people have such talent is wonderful. As for Macklemore, I’m afraid I have no idea who that is, and may look for a Youtube video later just to find out.
The title is a quote from David Brooks’ column last week in the New York Times, simply entitled “The Thought Leader.” My buddy, Kevin O’Keefe, has been using the phrase for years, and I’ve always hated it, ridiculed anyone claiming it and made fun of Kevin for using it. Not that he cares. The way Brooks defines it, it’s worse than hipster.
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.
Brooks has his point. Some people want to become Thought Leaders. They dedicate themselves to creating Tribes and being invited to pointless conferences where they can pretend to cheer for each other. As Brooks explains,
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.
Through other stages goes the Thought Leader, until he reaches his peak.
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.
There is something haunting and disturbing about Brooks’ timeline. Sharing his disdain for those whose purpose is to achieve recognition without substance, it bothered me that so much of it still seemed overly familiar, even as I recognized dozens of people I’ve come to know too well in the blawgosphere who fit the mold, or at least parts of it.
As much as I got Brooks’ point, I realized there was another angle unnoticed. The existence of the thing called “Thought Leader” meant more than empty suits trying to accomplish it, but unknown others looking for it. And they, the people you don’t know but who think they know you, think they own you, make you a Thought Leader, even though you never asked for it.
The last couple days clarified things for me. There was the stray redditor who complained of my over “editorial-ism,” and because I didn’t respond with a tummy rub of validation, responded that I should be ashamed of myself, and he was leaving and wouldn’t be back. Was this supposed to matter because the Thought Leader was losing one of his tribe? I had no clue who this person was, yet he decided my purpose was to fish for page views. Another even called it “blogspam.”
Then there was the lawyer who sent me an email out of the blue, seeking my advice. It was long, rambling, incomprehensible, and signed with a common first name. Without even the courtesy of telling me who it was, I was supposed to dedicate myself to deciphering When I responded that I had no clue what this was about, who she was, or what she was trying to say, the lawyer replied, “Seriously? Sorry I asked.”
Someone I didn’t know twitted at me that she had a problem leaving a comment here because she couldn’t read the letters on my captcha because they were illegible. I twitted back that the captcha here is a math problem, so it’s unlikely the letters were illegible. Yet another person I didn’t know twitted, “You should listen to access problems instead of blithely dismissing them outright.”
A post here was linked at Pete Guither’s Drug War Rant, causing some of his locals to stop here to pontificate from their singular perspective. When they weren’t shown the love they demand, they returned to complain about me being “a might testy” for not meeting their expectations.
I didn’t ask to be anybody’s “Thought Leader.” I didn’t ask anyone to read here, or comment here, or adore me for my brilliance. I don’t charge for SJ. Hell, I don’t even run ads here to monetize this place. Yet, people I don’t know seem to believe I owe them, that they own some piece of me, and I’m obliged to cater to their desires.
Is it too much to ask that a lawyer seeking out my help, asking for my time, introduce herself first and ask coherent questions? Is it too much to ask that they not assume I owe them? Then again, it was very kind of all the lawyers (and there are quite a few) who call or write me when they need help to send a nice holiday gift as a token of appreciation. Only kidding. No, no one sends a thank you gift. My time and experience is theirs for the taking.
It’s not that I lose sleep over this, or that my feelings are hurt. I don’t, and they aren’t. I mostly just shrug at the insults, as they are part of the game. But Brooks’ denunciation of the Thought Leader startled me. I’m no Thought Leader. I never wanted to be a Thought Leader. And yet I couldn’t help but feel these weird pokes and twinges reading Brooks’ column.
I’ll check the mail again Monday. Maybe a thank you gift will show up and make me a liar. You didn’t hesitate to ask something of me, to expect me to give you my time, so you probably wanted to show some appreciation, and it just got held up in the holiday mail. But when you don’t care for the way I stroke you, the barrage of arrows is immediate. Whatever.
Edit: Lest there be any confusion, I’m not fishing for validation for SJ. Much as I appreciate the kind emails and comments (and I do), I write for my sake rather than yours.
* I found this video of Kelly Clarkson. It’s a very nice song, and she seems like a very good singer.