Two high-profile examples of disorienting job changes, both involving Google, recently graced the news. First, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO, will head the new Defense Innovation Advisory Board at the Pentagon. And second, Chris Poole, the founder of 4chan, the anonymous messageboard known for Internet diversions such as lolcats and Rickrolling—as well as its more revolting features, such as abuse, hate, and doxxing—announced that he had joined the search giant in an unspecified capacity.
These two career shifts issue a cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, they appear to represent reversals for both figures. Schmidt, a vocal detractor of government interference and a de facto promoter of tax avoidance as Google’s CEO, assisting the government (and the Pentagon, no less). And Poole, the accidental leader of the most rogue, unpredictable, and sometimes despicable of Internet communities, joining the most mainstream and supposedly respectable of Internet blue-chips.
But on the other hand, both hires make sense in their own ways. Schmidt’s experience at Google does surely give him expertise in Silicon Valley-style innovation, which is something the Department of Defense—and the U.S. government more generally—increasingly values. And Poole’s experience building and managing difficult (to put it politely) communities is something of obvious interest to a company that has tried and failed to compete in social networking.
An old chestnut about work says that managers “rise to their level of incompetence.” Known as the Peter Principle, the idea is that employees are promoted based on their performance in a current position rather than their competence for a higher position. And so, people only cease to be promoted once they fail to perform effectively.
But clearly that’s not what’s going on in the case of Schmidt and Poole. Far from rising to their level of incompetence, it’s almost as if Schmidt and Poole have revved their competences so relentlessly that they have overheated and transformed into their opposites, Jekyll and Hyde-style: Google’s former CEO working for the Pentagon? The anarchist Internet’s boy-leader working for Google? These are the inverses of those figures’ previously familiar personas—that’s why these career moves might strike ordinary citizens as disquieting or even insidious.
There’s no incompetence at work here. Circumstances like Schmidt’s and Poole’s can’t be explained by the popular myth that today’s workers will have seven different careers in their lifetimes thanks to rapid changes in technology and industry. (Schmidt certainly doesn’t have to work ever again if he doesn’t want to, after all.) If anything, it could come off as more like selling out, betraying their supposedly well-formed values for a greater measure of power and influence.
Schmidt’s and Poole’s examples show us that people with sufficient competence and renown can reach escape velocity from the home planets of their previous careers, exfiltrating to other, distant worlds of novel but related vocations. Such workers are not entirely prepared for the foreign atmospheres on these strange and inhospitable new planets, but they also bring along select materials and experience that offer unique advantages. They thrive not in spite of their estrangement, but by virtue of it—by mining their own capacities for the raw materials that would be of use in different orbits.
There’s a concept in video-game design known as prestiging that offers a surprisingly effective frame with which to understand career shifts like Schmidt’s and Poole’s. To prestige is to reach the end of a game and to reset one’s character and some of its statistics and accomplishments in exchange for a social marker (thus the term prestige). The concept was made popular by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, in which players who reach the game’s highest level can abandon the resources they have collected and restart at level one, but with a special (though purposeless) insignia denoting their accomplishment.
Since then, prestiging has made its way into smaller, weirder games. It’s also changed in meaning. In addition to offering bling that demonstrates a player’s overall prowess and patience, prestiging now allows players to bring along certain late-game abilities into the early stages of the experience, giving the game a different feel and flavor. With their career moves, Schmidt and Poole gain prestige (not to mention financial benefit) in new domains, while also transferring their entirely distinctive traits to bear on new organizations in ways that few others could.
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.
As with all dissimulation, prestiging requires a degree of dissociation—a willingness to dismantle and rearrange the self, to slice up one’s own history and personality, and then to put the pieces back together again like an uroboric Humpty Dumpty. But that perversion is also the fundamental virtue of capitalism: its ability to treat anything whatsoever as a possible resource to be extracted, stockpiled, manipulated, and converted back into capital.
When people talk about success in business, they use all the wrong metaphors. They call the successful shrewd or sly; they identify them as geniuses or visionaries; they applaud them for timing and for foresight and for leadership. But really, these are just the fantasies of middle-managers doomed to be Peter Principled into oblivion. In truth, exceptional success in business requires mania more than management. The prestige is the worker turning the logic of capitalism onto his or herself: instead of fossil fuels or securities derivatives or units of smartphone user attention, the properties of workers themselves. Prestige careerists are the consummate capitalists, for they ingest and become capitalism.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? I sure think so. But then, all those who do are doomed never to succeed at prestige careers anyway. Terrifyingly, it turns out that the self is the ultimate technology: one that converts the physical, spiritual, and historical being of the individual into mere resources, waiting to be tapped for future use.