Prestiging also helps explain why those new jobs feel evil or insidious to outsiders. Prestige careerists get to keep all the apparently positive virtues of their experience while magically shedding all the negative ones—or better, converting them into positive ones. For example, Schmidt gets to be seen as a selfless civil servant, not as a wealthy, former tech executive bringing his experience eroding privacy into the public sector. Those who have the foresight or shamelessness to order à la carte from the menu of their capacities and accomplishments manage to dodge the obstacles that strand more ordinary people in middle management.
Once you start looking for prestige careers, you see them everywhere. Donald Trump has prestiged twice now, first from (inherited) real-estate mogul to reality-television star, then from media figure to politician. With each prestige, Trump has carefully extracted, refined, repackaged, and sold aspects of his prior personal and professional persona.
Likewise, Kim Kardashian, who prestiged from socialite hanger-on to sex-tape star to media heavyweight to, essentially, diversified product conglomerate. It’s not difficult to imagine Kardashian making a future case for herself as, say, Federal Reserve Chair—no more than it was to imagine Trump circa 1988 as presidential candidate, anyway.
Dr. Dre’s evolution from Compton rapper to Death Row Records owner and producer to electronics executive to Apple-made billionaire—also a series of deft, risky prestiges. Sean Penn’s (troubled) attempt to become a journalist represents a zygotic kind of prestiging. And George W. Bush’s unlikely presidential afterlife as a painter surely counts as a prestige, too: The eyes of the Commander in Chief transformed into a legitimate artist whose works ask, “Can you look seriously at paintings of dogs and Ehud Olmert by this man in particular?”
This is not mere “reinvention,” a term so frequently used when describing the renowned that it has become meaningless, nor is it “pivoting,” a term used in start-up culture to describe making nimble adjustments to original plans in response to market forces. Prestige careerists build up a portfolio of resources in one domain, then carefully eject themselves into another by selecting and omitting from the materials produced in the last run. These are hard resets, but with remainders.
Prestige entails not just parlaying that term’s usual meaning—renown—from one domain to the next, but also taking advantage of that other, earlier meaning of “prestige”: illusion, conjuring, glamour. As such, it’s not a bad way to distinguish elites from ordinary folk. The truly accomplished are not those who have fooled the rest of us into believing that they are something they are not. They are those who have recognized that an illusion is just a machine that makes certain things visible while keeping others hidden. Ask any magician if he thinks he’s “failing up.” Quite the contrary: He’s levitating.