How you can beat Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk without being a billionaire
Winning the status race
Life is a status game. Everybody wants more. Nobody has enough. If you play it smart, you can beat anyone at it, even the wealthiest people in the world.
What is status
Status makes us buy fancy cars, follow fashion, fight for work titles, earn more money, compete in races, work out, fight in arguments, give to charity, go to clubs, do public speaking, gain mastery, and many, many other activities.
There are three types of status according to Will Storr in his brilliant book The Status Game: Dominance, Prestige and Virtue.
Dominance Status comes from power over others. It is the domain of physical violence but also verbal and emotional violence. Nowadays we call bullies those who seek dominance status.
The animal kingdom is full of dominance games. Baboons who feel stressed attack lower status baboons to feel better. Wolves, and many other predatory mammals, establish hierarchy based on dominance.
Among humans dominance games were more common in the past. Life was more violent. In the past hundred years we have reduced the amount of violence in the world and the pursuit of dominance games.
Prestige Status comes from perceived success. This success can be popularity, like for influencers and teenagers, or it can be competence and expertise, like for doctors, or it can be positions of authority, like for politicians. It varies wildly depending on the social group. I get prestige status among my Crossfit friends for doing a workout quickly, but among my colleagues at work it might come from making impressive presentations. In the eyes of strangers my prestige status will vary wildly depending on how my appearance, facial hair, clothes, posture, etc. fit with their values and social group norms.
Despite this variability, there is a general prestige status indicator: wealth. Overall we tend to attribute high status to rich people.
Virtue Status comes from doing good. Maria Theresa has high virtue status. As with prestige, virtue status depends on the group. In some groups recycling is high status, in others it is not. In some groups teaching teenagers to use condoms for intercourse is high virtue, in others teaching abstinence is virtue.
Nobody has enough status
Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos obviously have tons of Prestige Status. They also have dominance status through the sheer power that comes from being incredibly wealthy. They also try to gain virtue status, with mixed results. Many say Jeff Bezos’ 10 Billion $ Earth Fund is greenwashing. Elon Musk fares much better as Tesla did make electric cars an industry and thus significantly reduce fossil fuel pollution. Also his explicit mission is to colonize Mars so that humanity is less vulnerable to an asteroid strike on Earth. This is high moral ground.
Yet it’s not enough.
Research shows that humans have an insatiable desire to increase their status. The quest for riches and power is in fact a quest for status.
Despite the humongous status they both have, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are unsatisfied with their status.
This dissatisfaction makes them revert to dominance status games. Some of their behaviour betrey it. In Jeff Bezos’ Amazon there have been numerous scandals about employee unfair treatment. Elon Musk sometimes fires employees who disagree with him.
Then they chase status through extravagant gestures.
Jeff Bezos used his wealth to go to space and then acted like it advanced human civilization.
“I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this,“ Jeff Bezos, after his space flight.
Elon Musk obviously has SpaceX. But he also uses Twitter for status. He has 90 Million followers there. He admitted it the attention he gets on Twitter makes him feel good.
Why do the highest status people on the planet chase more status?
The Status race has no finish line
Status is not a fixed thing. It’s not like you reach a destination and your status becomes permanent. The highest status people can drop in status.
On top of that, we evolved to never be satisfied with our status. It was beneficial to survival and reproduction for our ancestors to continuously chase higher status. It made them continuously improve.
This is why status perception is relative. We don’t have an objective scale on which to judge our own status. We look at the people around us and compare with them. Our ancestors needed to attain high status in each of their tribes, not globally. Thus status depends on the people to which you compare. They are dynamic and so are you.
Relative to Average Joe, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have ridiculously high status. But they don’t compare with Average Joe. They compare with each other, and other high status people. This makes their relative status lower. It also makes it fragile. Others’ action can lead to status drop, because it is relative.
There is not one status race, but many
There are many ways to chase status. You can seek followers on Instagram, professional success at work, physical prowess in a sport, mastery in a hobby, popularity among a group of people, be the moral authority in a community.
Each of us is chasing status in different ways. We are running multiple races.
In each race, you have different positions. In one you might have a high position, while in others you might be low. In some you might be increasing, while in others you might be stagnant or decreasing.
Nobody wins in all races. Through global communications we are all running more races than ever before in history. Whatever you are good at, there is someone in the world who is better. And through social media and the Internet, you are likely to know it.
Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos might have big status leads in many races, but even they cannot win all of them. In some they are low. In some they are losing status.
Loss of status is emotionally catastrophic
Research shows that we fear loss of status more than almost anything. This study indicates that humiliation might be the worst emotion.
Investigations into mass murderers and Nazi Germany also point to humiliation as the driving force behind these atrocities.
Humiliation is nothing more than dramatic public loss of status. The recurring nightmare of being in front of the class naked is nothing more than fear of loss of status.
As the saying going ‘The higher they are, the harder they fall.’ People with very high status can experience more severe drops. They also tend to be more sensitive to possible signals for status decrease.
This is behind many celebrity breakdowns where they exhibit self-destructive behaviour in response to minor issues. They experience intense emotional anxiety from minor social slights.
Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are more protected than famous performers because they have assets with more stability. But they are far from immune to the sensitivity to potential status drop inherent in all high status people.
How can you beat Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos at status?
You will probably not beat them directly. It’s a lofty goal to become wealthier than the richest men on the planet, gain more than 90 Million followers on Twitter, launch spaceships or create a company with higher valued than Tesla.
But you don’t have to beat them directly to win.
As we have seen status is not an objective fixed goal. It’s a relative dynamic aspiration. You don’t have to become the wealthiest man on Earth to win at status. You can even beat the wealthiest man at this game.
How? By playing the status game in a smarter way.
Winning the status race does come from actually beating everyone.
Winning is quenching your unconscious need for status so that it allows you to get stuff done and enjoy your life, instead of worrying about it.
Understanding how our unconscious need for status works enables us to optimize for it, without becoming slaves of status. This is arguably better than what Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos do. You don’t reach the Top 10 wealthiest people on the planet without an obsession for status.
There are only three things you should do to win at status: Keep it local, Play multiple games, Build community.
1. Keep it local
The world is full of people better at almost anything. You cannot win at any one thing unless you are the best in the world. To achieve that you need to dedicate your whole life to that goal. And it might still not be enough.
You don’t compare yourself with the world intentionally. But it happens every time you look at your phone or go online on the laptop. Social media is the most popular destination online. It is 99% people boasting about their status. You cannot help but compare with them when you see such content.
The information you see determines the status games you play.
If you see many Crossfiters, you will feel a strong urge to play the associated status games. Same if you see people traveling to exotic location, having fancy cars, partying, looking in certain way, discussing philosophical concepts, signaling professional success and so on.
Btw, jargon is mostly a status signal. Few fields really require so many specific words. But the experts in those field use the jargon to signal that they are experts, that they have high status in that game.
Information determines what status games you play. Restricting information is the way to choose the status games you play.
You can choose which digital information reaches you. It’s an effort and unpleasant because our unconscious craves new information, especially about people. But the payoff is huge.
Decide your status games. Then filter your digital information so that it reflects those status games, and not others.
For offline life, this is more complicated. We cannot filter our perceptions. But the people with which we interact physically are not such a problem for our status game. We evolved to navigate these social contests much better than the infinite races of the Internet.
2. Play multiple games
The above might imply that playing fewer status games is better. This is true to a degree.
The trap most of us fall into is that we have one status game which is predominant. Usually it is career, or popularity in a specific tribe. With so much invested in this one game, we are fragile. Any downturns inflict a heavy emotional toll.
If it’s career, then you constantly need validation of your professional status. You expect constant reward and admiration. The truth is, few jobs really have an impact. Few companies really care about what you do. It’s unfeasible to get this admiration.
Focusing too much on any one game makes us fragile.
The solution is to play multiple status games. Some of the status games I play are: expert on human behaviour, marketing strategist, crossfiter, trail runner, skier, good partner, rebel/ independent thinker, health expert, speaker, and so on.
When you have multiple games happening at the same time, you become resilient. If one goes badly, you still get status from others. For example I do Crossfit in the morning. I don’t need validation every day from work because I already got it from the workout. I can think more rationally instead of unconsciously chasing status.
3. Build community
Last but not least, winning the status game comes down to community.
The reason we seek status is to secure our position in the tribe. The more uncertain the position, the more status-obsessed we become.
In the modern world, we each belong to multiple vague tribes. This is both good and bad. It’s good because being isolated crippled the mind. It’s bad because if the tribe is vague then your position is vague.
A big example is your social circle on a social platform. The people you see there represent a tribe for your unconscious. But it’s not really a tribe. Your followers and follows are not a community. Most of them don’t even know each other. As a result the perceived tribe is shifting and unclear. Your position varies wildly as a result. Your status anxiety goes through the roof.
We have numerous imagined tribes, but few of us have a real tribe.
If you find, or build, a real community, then your status anxiety disappears.
You have a clear position in a clear tribe. This is the situation our brains evolved to handle.
Of course, it is not perfect. People can do awful things for their status in a real community. But it’s better than incidental imagines online tribes.
How to beat Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos at the status race
Play multiple status games, but choose them intentionally.
Filter out information that pushes you into other status games.
Find a real tribe to escape seeking imaginary ones
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