There's a good question about whether and to what extent philosophers ought to be professionally ambitious. After all, work is only one of many good things in life. But that's a question for another post by a different cocooner. Here I want to ask what it even means to pursue a philosophical career. If you want to strive for professional excellence as a philosopher, what should you do? And how can you tell whether you're doing it?
In some professions, success is tied to income. If you work in sales, for instance, the size of your commissions is roughly equal to the size of your professional success. This makes it easy for salespeople to know how well they're doing.
But matters are more complicated for us. Some low-status philosophy jobs actually pay better than higher-status jobs. Professional philosophers rarely put on displays of wealth, and that's not because philosophers are reluctant to display their successes. (Philosophers brag just as much as anyone else, in my experience. Bragging is what a CV is for.) Instead, I think, philosophers don't display wealth because they don't see wealth as a sign of success.
I don't know the best way to fill in the blank, but I'll list some possibilities off the top of my head. Maybe professional success in philosophy is (or is indicated by): (1) the production of high-quality philosophical writing; or (2) the production of influential philosophical writing; or (3) landing a job at a well-regarded philosophy department; or (4) being a good philosophy teacher; or (5) acquiring a deep understanding of important philosophical problems; or (6) actually solving important philosophical problems...
Of course, we don't have to pick just one. Perhaps there will be a combination of different factors that make up our notion of professional success. Given this, we should be attentive to cases in which one dimension of professional success is at odds with another.
There is also an interesting scope issue. It's conceivable to be regarded as a success (or failure) within your department or university and simultaneously be regarded as a failure (or success) by the wider profession. Does the ambitious philosopher (qua ambitious philosopher) try to gain worldwide fame, or does she try to be the favorite philosopher on campus?
I think it might turn out that we just don't have any coherent idea of what it is to have a successful career as a philosopher. Maybe we should simply count certain events as successes (e.g., the publication of a paper in an excellent journal seems clearly to be a kind of success). I'm tempted by the idea that it just isn't possible to add up all the successes and failures in one's career in order to correctly reach an aggregative judgment about one's career as a whole. Maybe this is one of the differences between professional sales and professional philosophy. In sales (and presumably in a lot of other professions, too), each of your professional activities meaningfully contributes to the overall value of your career. But in philosophy, perhaps, your career as a whole can't be informatively evaluated, even though each of the things you do in the course of your career—read, reflect, write, publish, teach, etc.—is independently worthwhile.