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24- Starting at the Bottom and Working Your Way Up

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24. Starting at the Bottom and Working Your Way Up

Tom Palmer, Vice President for International Programs, Atlas Economic Research Foundation; Senior Fellow, Cato Institute


So you want to be influential? Right. Start at the top! But that may be a bit hard to do. So maybe you could start at the bottom, instead. I suppose that’s where I started. And I learned a few things on the way “up.”


I’ve worked for liberty as a student activist, an author, an editor, a petitioner, a campaign manager, a public relations agent, a rabble-rouser, a seminar organizer, a think tank officer, a journalist, a public speaker, a teacher, and a lobbyist. I’ve promoted libertarian ideas in academic lectures and seminars, on talk shows, on national television, in debates, in one-on-one conversations, in parliamentary and congressional testimony, in scholarly papers and books, in op-eds in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other papers in the United States, and in papers abroad, such as Die Welt, Caijing, Al Hayat, and The Spectator of London. I’ve done so in Baghdad, Kabul, Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, London, Accra, Jakarta, Berlin, Istanbul, Nairobi, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, and even in hostile territory, such as Washington, D.C. I’ve set up libertarian projects in fourteen languages. You name the job, and chances are I’ve gotten some experience at it. I was an intern at the Cato Institute and ended up as vice president for international programs there. (I’m now a senior fellow at Cato and vice president for international programs at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, to which we transferred Cato’s international programs.)


So, what did I learn? I’ve come up with seven things I think I’ve learned and that I think you may be able to put to work to become a more influential and successful promoter of liberty.


First, be the person on whom others can rely to get the job done. If you develop a reputation for making things happen (and not just talking about how great it would be if something were to happen), people will look to you for leadership, as well. Projects don’t just happen. They are projected and implemented by someone. Be that person. (There’s some irony in writing that, when my submission of this essay was after the deadline, but I was busy! My only excuse is to cite an adage that I’ve generally found to be true: “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”)


It’s good not to be known as a clockwatcher. The best way not to be known as a clockwatcher is not to be a clockwatcher. I generally find that the project, not the clock, dictates the schedule of a successful person. And, on a related note, don’t be seen as the person who finishes a job and then goofs off. Finish your work and then—if you have the time—ask your colleagues what else needs to be done.


Second, before doing something, ask yourself why you are doing it. What is your rational purpose? What do you hope to accomplish? If you are successful, in what way or ways will the world be different? Write that down. Then assemble your tools, whether arguments, assets, team members, or whatever.


I’ll digress for a moment to recommend some philosophy to you, not merely so you’ll be better read, but so you might help yourself to focus and be more successful. As a youth and then again as a young man, I read and learned from the Stoic philosophers, notably Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Their main works are short, and you could read them in a few hours. (I’d start with Marcus’s Meditations and then read Epictetus’s Handbook [sometimes cited with the Greek name, Enchiridion]; there’s more from Epictetus if you’d like, but that short book may be good enough.) They teach that one should know what one’s rational purpose is, and go where one chooses to go, rather than where one is carried. That also applies to writing an essay, an op-ed, a blog post, or a book: rather than starting with a blank computer screen and diving into writing, you should start by outlining or listing your purposes, your arguments, and your evidence, and then building your essay around those elements.


Third, become a knowledgeable person, rather than merely an opinionated person. If you know something, rather than merely opine a lot, people will come to you for your opinion. And here’s something I’ve learned the hard way: if you go around correcting mistakes made by others without being asked—that is, if you are aggressively opinionated—they will (amazing!) resent you and find you irritating. It’s better if you demonstrate your knowledge in a less aggressive way, after which you’re likely to find them asking for your opinion. I’m not against vigorous argument, but I recommend avoiding being a pest.


Understanding a topic and being able to organize your thoughts and express them coherently will put you head and shoulders above most people. If you can express them not only coherently, but in a way that is not painful to read, you will be on your way to success.


As a corollary, I recommend introducing yourself to the art of rhetoric. Learning how to approach audiences in a friendly way and how to arrange your evidence and arguments will help you enormously. As Aristotle noted in his Rhetoric, “all people, up to a certain point, endeavor to criticize or uphold an argument, to defend themselves or to accuse. Now, the majority of people do this either at random or with a familiarity arising from habit. But since both these ways are possible, it is clear that matters can be reduced to a system, for it is possible to examine the reason why some attain their end by familiarity and others by chance; and such an examination all would at once admit to be the function of an art.” That’s a fancy way of saying that some people are good at making arguments, defending themselves or criticizing others, and that we can study how they do it and learn to be better at it ourselves. Since you’re considering a career involved in making the world a more just, more free, and more prosperous place, you need to know how to persuade people not only that your views are correct, but that they should help you in your noble endeavor.


Two good places to start (I don’t recommend Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which is very theoretical) are George Orwell’s short essay, available online and in many books, “Politics and the English Language,” and Marcus Tullius Cicero’s “De Inventione.” (The latter is a lot easier to read than it sounds.) You will improve your ability to write, to speak, and to lead.


Fourth, look the part and maintain a professional comportment. If you want to be a leader, don’t look like a slob. Of course, that doesn’t mean fancy business clothes at all times, but it does mean thinking about how you will be perceived in various circumstances. I won’t go into detail on what color of tie to wear or whether to wear big jewelry, but I do think that attention to appearances counts. When I mention “look the part,” I’m not referring only to how you clothe yourself, but to how you present yourself generally. If you write a letter of introduction or an application for a job and it’s full of typographical errors, spelling mistakes, or bad grammar, you will make a bad impression. Remember that people judge you by how they perceive you.


Fifth, work with colleagues, not underlings; I learned a long time ago that it’s a lot better to introduce the people whose work you supervise as colleagues, not as “assistants” or “interns” or “helpers.” It’s OK to say that so-and-so “is my colleague here, working as an intern on…” but it’s bad form to introduce a person as an underling. If you respect your younger or “more junior” colleagues and treat them with respect, you will help to create a better working relationship.


Sixth, be careful about giving credit and not seeming to take credit for the work of others. That said, it’s worth making sure that people know what you in fact have accomplished. There may seem at times a fine line between bragging and just getting credit, but if you’re responsible for getting something done, be sure that you let the right people know that, and that you acknowledge the contributions of others.


Seventh and finally, be ready to adjust your strategies as circumstances warrant.


Work hard. And keep your ear to the ground. And your nose to the grindstone. Now try to get some work done in that position!



Dr. Tom G. Palmer is the Atlas Economic Research Foundation’s vice president for international programs and general director of the Atlas Global Initiative for Free Trade, Peace, and Prosperity. Previously, he was vice president for international programs at the Cato Institute and director of the Center for Promotion of Human Rights. He is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and director of Cato University, the Institute’s educational arm. He was an H.B. Earhart Fellow at Hertford College, Oxford University, and a vice president of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. He frequently lectures around the world on political science, the economics of institutions, public choice, the history of liberty, and the moral, legal, and historical foundations of individual rights. He is the author of Realizing Freedom: The Theory, History, and Practice of Liberty, has contributed essays to books published by Princeton University Press, Routledge, Cambridge University Press, and other publishers, and has published articles and reviews on politics and morality in scholarly journals such as the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Ethics, Critical Review, and Constitutional Political Economy, as well as in publications such as Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Die Welt, and The Spectator of London. He received his B.A. in liberal arts from St. Johns College in Annapolis, Md., his M.A. in philosophy from The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and his doctorate in politics from Oxford University.


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