For anyone interested in pursuing an intellectual career, I have three laws to suggest:
1) Never say anything you don’t believe. This may sound obvious, but I’m struck by how many people in academia and think-tankdom tailor their comments to please others while deviating from their true beliefs. Remember, we aren’t politicians, so we don’t have to lie. Some people get confused and think that they are politicians and craft what they say to produce a desired result as opposed to expressing their sincere convictions. Being able to say what you think is true is the one great compensation of an intellectual life so don’t throw it away to fit in with colleagues, please a funder, or to fool the public or politicians into doing something you want.
2) Never work with people with whom you do not want to be working. This law is harder to obey, especially earlier in one’s career, but please keep it in mind as an important goal to reach as soon as possible. People who work primarily for money have to put up with a lot, including nasty colleagues, because they feel obliged to do whatever get’s them more money. People who pursue an intellectual career should be primarily interested in ideas, not money. Since jerks as colleagues tend not to contribute to the development of your ideas and since their jerkiness distracts you from developing your own ideas, you should get as far away from them as quickly as you can.
3) Never work on projects that you don’t think matter. I’m not suggesting that every project needs to change the world, but you should see the projects on which you work as part of a broader intellectual agenda that has the potential to affect the world. If you work on projects that you don’t think have any effect on the world, then you will have a hard time caring about it. And if you don’t care about it, why should anyone else? You’ll probably also do a lousy job if even you don’t care about it. Besides, if you want to work on stuff you don’t care about you might as well work in a law firm or something else that pays better but does not require you to care.