“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor,’ avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work. Fight to remain the person that philosophy wished to make you. Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short—the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Lately I’ve been contemplating prominence. It started with Little Haystack Mountain, an impressive 4760 foot summit, relegated to the role of supporting actor due to its prominence of only 79 feet from nearby Mount Lincoln (5089/180). Or consider poor North Carter Mountain, 4531 feet tall but an almost embarrassing 59 feet of prominence from its cousin Middle Carter Mountain, which by comparison is 4610 feet with a prominence of 720 feet. North Carter didn’t even have a cairn or USGS marker designating its summit. I walked right by it until called back by a savvier hiking friend with a GPS tracker.
If all this seems like a lot of numbers, well, I’m with you. To me a summit – no matter how prominent it may be – is a worthy accomplishment and very much worth celebration. With both Little Haystack and North Carter I lingered with friends to savor the moment before considering the next destination. Prominent or not, both summits took a fair amount of energy to reach and deserved their moment of appreciation. My mind danced as joyfully on Little Haystack as it did on Lincoln. Perhaps more so because in reaching it the world opens up around you. Why negate the accomplishment because of prominence?
We live in a world where prominence is everything. How many followers do you have? How many likes did you get on your last post? What school did you attend? What was your class rank? How quickly did you reach a C-level position? Who did you marry? Where do you live? What kind of car do you drive? Where do you go on holiday? It seems that no matter how high your personal summit, it doesn’t matter unless you’ve achieved some measure of prominence. Of course its mostly nonsense that churns away in our own brain, perhaps fueled by co-conspirators like a parent or spouse who wants the best for you, if only for bragging rights at the next cocktail party (remember those?). Your prominence is your identity to some others.
But not all others. Some celebrate your personal summit and ignore your prominence. Those are the people you want in your life, not the posers who skip right past the lesser summits to check in where there’s status. The trick is knowing who to celebrate with, and who to ignore as you focus on your climb. I sometimes shake my head at people who leapfrogged over others to reach VP titles or collect Board of Director positions like some magnets of places they’ve been. Prominence is a game really, and the question is who do you want to play the game with? How much is enough? Who is a true friend and who is an acquaintance who pays lip service and then quickly moves on to the next summit?
Our worst critics are often ourselves. All those questions above? How many do we ask ourselves as we compare our own prominence to that of others we know? If achievement is associated with height, comparison is associated with prominence. But comparison is a fools game that negates your achievements when stacked up next to others. Skate your lane and stop worrying about what others are achieving. Focus on what matters. Celebrate each day and each accomplishment, no matter how prominent it may be. And by all means keep climbing and stretching your limitations. Be supportive of others as they make their own climb. Give and receive support on this epic slog. Fight to remain the person that philosophy wished to make you.