A Defense of Jeremy Strong (and All the Strivers With No Chill)

In a December New Yorker profile of the actor Jeremy Strong, who plays Kendall Roy on the HBO show “Succession,” colleagues, friends and classmates painted him as a person who, in internet-speak, “has no chill.” His intense and sometimes extreme devotion to his craft was extensively documented and skewered.

One critique particularly stood out to me when I read it. A classmate of Mr. Strong’s at Yale, where he studied with financial aid, said, “I’d never met anyone else at Yale with that careerist drive.”

In this respect, the version of Mr. Strong in the profile felt very relatable. Like me, he grew up working class: He was the son of a juvenile jail employee and a hospice nurse in Massachusetts. My dad was a local lineman for a utilities company in Alabama, and my mom worked at my school, first as a janitor, then later as a lunch lady in the cafeteria. I also went to a fancy college on enough financial aid to rival the G.D.P. of a small European country. I have felt dismissed at times as an ambitious striver, or because I wasn’t an obvious fit in a room full of wealthy, overeducated people, with my rednecky accent and teeth unmolested by modern orthodontics. My freshman year at Duke University, a lacrosse player coming from a prestigious boarding school overheard me talking and asked, “Where the [expletive] are you from?” It was clear that he wasn’t just asking for a geographic location.

There’s an unmistakably negative connotation to the word “careerist.” It is a dismissive insult often deployed against people who have the temerity to transcend their economic class. Every time I’ve heard it used, it has been by someone who has enough privilege that needing to work and worrying about advancement are alien experiences. The target is generally someone like Mr. Strong, whose path to success was long and difficult, and sometimes involved extreme displays of devotion to his craft. (As recounted in the New Yorkerprofile, Mr. Strong once drove to Canada as Daniel Day-Lewis’s assistant on a film shoot, the great actor’s prop mandolin strapped into the passenger seat like he was “guarding a relic.”)

Only one person has ever called me a careerist to my face, and it was over a decade ago. An ex-boyfriend who was also a writer was piqued that I got a nice magazine assignment and that I had the gall to be enthusiastic about it. He was European and had gone to expensive prestigious schools, paid for by his parents. He saw my focus on my journalism career as a gaudy Americanism that carried the stench of effort. Given his sneering reaction, you would think I had murdered all of my professional peers and scaled a pile of their dead bodies in order to get the work.

In fact, I had simply been offered the assignment as part of a contract I had at the time as a columnist at Fortune magazine. I had perhaps done some Jeremy Strong-level striving to get the contract, though. After I discovered that no one in media wanted to assign me stories about business and finance, despite my having worked as an equity analyst, I started a Wall Street blog called Dealbreaker that was read by a lot of young finance professionals, and ultimately, the guy who hired me at Fortune. I was young, a woman and my background wasn’t typical for a finance columnist. A colleague wanted to know how I got the gig. I hadn’t even done an internship, he pointed out.

And I hadn’t. Internships in media were mostly unpaid, and often won via connections or nepotism. I had no connections and no money at the beginning of my media career. Besides, starting a media company from scratch — launching it, writing it, hiring other people, building an audience — might be more difficult than doing an internship! It was certainly not the easy way in. My colleague’s implication that I must have cheated my way in somehow, showed me quite clearly how elites often view people who they see as interlopers in their rarefied spaces.

Class resentment is often discussed as if it’s a one-way phenomenon: The lower classes resent the upper classes. But it works in the other direction, too. Wealthy elites in an institution full of other wealthy elites view each other as allies. I, or Jeremy Strong, might be a threat.

A study from 2018 illustrates this problem: Researchers asked European university students about attitudes toward immigrants. When university-educated immigrants were perceived as a competitive threat to the surveyed group, they were rated more negatively than those with less education.

In the United States, we love a good Horatio Alger story, in which a person who starts out with very little applies hard work and ambition and becomes a success — but only in the abstract. In real life, American elites abhor a try-hard as much as any European aristocrat might.

In our national mythology, class doesn’t matter, but in practice, our widely held belief in the myth of meritocracy reinforces inequality. Americans tend to overestimate the nation’s economic mobility, as research from Harvard University has shown, and they have great faith in the fairness of their economic system, despite ample evidence of racial and other bias. In certain circles at least, coming from a modest background and nakedly wanting more is a moral deficiency, a form of greed.

The classism of this attitude isn’t always apparent because there’s plenty to legitimately criticize about America’s hustle culture, in which overwork is valorized and we’re all expected to rise and grind. The Covid pandemic and rethinking of work culture that it forced has spawned a backlash and a slew of think pieces about the end of ambition and whether careers really matter when people are dying and the planet is burning.

But that’s not a critique of striving itself; it’s a critique of a corporate culture that still relies upon unsustainably long work hours, cutthroat competitiveness, and exploitative labor practices.

The real question, then, is what is worth striving for? There is a difference between pointlessly toiling away for a company and working hard because you enjoy it, or you care about what you do, or most crucially, you are trying to economically advance. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do better than your parents did. Making an effort — even an over-the-top effort like Mr. Strong’s — should not be embarrassing. We strivers understand this because we’ve never been able to achieve great successes without that effort.

Elites are often socialized into affecting “ease” and eschewing displays of effort. But it’s a mistake to see the disconnect in terms of personal style or etiquette. We strivers cannot behave as if things come easily because pretending that they do often requires resources we lack. We are “unchill” because we have neither the time nor the money to assemble the accouterments of chill, or to perform it.

It’s worth noting that “Succession,” the show where Mr. Strong’s remarkable performance has made him a star worthy of a New Yorker profile, centers on a striver, Logan Roy, who grew up without wealth in Scotland and built a media empire. His children, on the other hand, inhabit a world of wealthy people who disdain striving in just the way that Mr. Strong’s Yale classmates quoted in The New Yorker appear to.

This disconnect is represented most glaringly in Tom Wambsgans, a much-mocked social climber who married into the family, and effectively, the family business. But in the season finale, the strivers seem to win the day: Tom joins forces with Logan in a corporate maneuver that blindsides the Roy children — who are left with only their stunning sense of entitlement about what they deserve, without doing anything so crass as earnestly striving for it.

Elizabeth Spiers (@espiers) is a writer and digital media strategist. She was the editor in chief of The New York Observer, and the founding editor of Gawker.

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