Rules Of Influence

Lewis Lapham, editor of Lapham's Quarterly and editor emeritus of Harper's Magazine, once recalled that many young college graduates would turn up at his offices in New York looking for a career -- not necessarily one in the literary trades, but one that might prove lucrative or show them the way to fame.

"A generation ago," Lapham observed, "the graduates of the country's well-to-do universities might have mentioned the name of a dead poet, or said something about truth and its untimely betrayals. Not now. Not when they think that if they miss their first and maybe only chance at the brass ring, they might never find their way back to the putting greens of Fairfield County or the music on the beach at Malibu.

"The philosophical questions have gone missing in action, rendered futile by the prices paid for New York apartments, and although I sometimes come across a wandering idealist intent upon saving an orphan or a whale, mostly I meet people to whom the fervors of social protest seem superfluous or quaint. They don't talk about changing the system, only about the means of improving their access to it, and they smile with their mouths but not their eyes."

Intimately acquainted with society's upper class but standing at some remove from it intellectually, Lapham wrote a sardonic book advising aspiring careerists how to go about fashioning their life. The book, Lapham's Rules of Influence: A Careerist's Guide to Success, Status, and Self-Congratulation (Random House, 1999), offers such indispensable advice as how to curry favor with those of higher social rank, what poses to strike at cocktail parties, whom to choose as a companion, and how best to manage one’s image. In today's America, where the deepest aspiration of many is to rack up admirers on Facebook and become a sensation in social media, Lapham's Rules is as timely as ever. Following are nine choice nuggets from the volume:

The Trap Of Friendship

"Do not burden yourself with the luggage of false sentiment, and bear firmly in mind the distinction between a connection and a friend. A connection is an asset and a temporary convenience, like a rented car. A friend is a liability and a permanent obligation, like alimony. When discussing a friendship with a fellow careerist, refer to it as the mud that clogs the carriage wheels of high ambition."


"Careers rise on the appearance of gravity, sink with shows of levity. Remember at all times that you bear the burden of inside information, which is very heavy and not to be thrown around like confetti. When sitting at a conference table, think of yourself as a speech by Alan Greenspan or a trunk by Louis Vuitton."


"Always more welcome than the truth. The word is ugly, but the service never fails to please. People blessed with extraordinary talent can remember which lies they've told to which persons in what sequence and for what reasons; the beginning student should not attempt to deceive the same individual more than twice in the same afternoon. With steady practice the duplicitous response becomes as natural as a good golf swing."

Notes of Congratulation

“Search the newspapers for the names of people who have won prizes, received prestigious sums of money, been appointed to important posts. Send at least four congratulatory notes every morning before noon, taking care to match the tone of your praise with the degree of your acquaintance.

“If you actually happen to know the individual, your remarks can be familiar and brief; persons with whom you enjoy only a passing acquaintance deserve two paragraphs and three tasteful adjectives; truly famous people, those whom you admire from afar, receive four paragraphs, six fulsome adjectives, and one compliment worked up into an extended metaphor that employs a reference to baseball.

“Follow the same procedures when writing notes of condolence.”

Stepping Stones

“Bess Myerson, a former Miss America and New York City Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, expressed the rule in its most elementary form when writing in her diary about her second husband – ‘I think of him less as a man and more as a thing that must be manipulated.’ Once you have the principle firmly in hand, you can apply it to first wives, trusted associates, aging relatives.”


“Any doubts on the questions of costume should be resolved in favor of unobtrusive colors and inconspicuous ornament. Celebrities of large magnitude can afford to make fashion statements, to express what their publicists call their ‘personality.’ Careerists not yet granted the privilege of a licensed self should seek to inspire confidence and respect, to convey the impression that their clothes, like their opinions, match the furniture and the drapes. Uniforms are always good, a tuxedo never a mistake.”

The Mask of Irony

“The correct expression is slightly contemptuous and faintly amused. Admire everything and nothing. Never show surprise. Do not gawk. Remember that you have seen everything worth seeing, not once but many, many times before. The attitude defers judgment – also commitment and possible mistakes – and when displayed in the form of writing or speech, it serves as a substitute for dissent.”

The Norm of Mediocrity

“A show of superior knowledge, perception, or taste usually is as self-defeating as being seen to think on television.

“Conceal the marks of intelligence as if they were warts or running sores, and take to heart the advice of the late Paul D. Cravath, patriarch of the New York law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, who was speaking to a quorum of young and ambitious lawyers: ‘Brilliant intellectual powers are not essential; too much imagination, too much wit, too great cleverness, too facile fluency, if not leavened by a sound sense of proportion, are quite as likely to impede success as to promote it. The best clients are apt to be afraid of those qualities.’

“If the world arranged itself along the lines set forth by men and women of genius, how would it be possible to elect a president or bestow an Academy Award? Who could anybody invite to dinner?”

Dropping Names

“Collect both the private and public names of prominent celebrities. Like jade bracelets or medicinal herbs, they protect you against the scorn of headwaiters, the insolence of hotel clerks, the mockery of pool attendants. Among people of superior status, drop only the private name – ‘Brad,’ ‘Babs,’ ‘George.’ Among persons of inferior status, drop both names – Brad Pitt, Barbara Walters, George Soros. In the first instance you are presenting letters of recommendation; in the second, throwing coins to beggars.”