We can no more choose to not care about our social status, than can a lion become vegetarian. But we can master it instead of being enslaved, by satisfying it in a deliberate manner.
Do you care about how other people see you?
If you answered no, you are lying to yourself.
We all care about how others see us.
It’s human nature.
But it’s human decisions that determine whether this status obsession harms you or helps you.
Evolved for status-seeking
Our ancestors conquered the world through collaboration. Bands of humans were apex predators. Lone humans were helpless prey.
Being exiled from the group was death. Thus humans became obsessed about their status within the tribe. It ensured they would not be kicked out and died.
High status also improved offspring success, and propagation of the genes.
A high-ranking member could procreate with high-ranking members of the opposite sex and provide the resources for their offspring to be healthy and strong. A low ranking member struggled to find a willing mate and provide for their young.
After the Agricultural Revolution, status became even more important. As inequality appeared and deepened, high status granted a higher share of the community resources. A king had almost everything, while a peasant had very little. The king had the highest status, while the peasant had the lowest.
Status has been the bedrock of evolutionary fitness for more than 100,000 years.
We are all the offspring of humans who were obsessed with increasing their social status.
But now it has become a poisoned chalice.
Modern status trap
“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Nowadays most people spend most of their time seeking status.
Fashion, jewelry, make-up, cars, home furnishing, and many other items are bought mainly to signal status. We show off with our fancy stuff to craft a certain image in the perception of others.
The infinite consumerist opportunities to buy status are amplified a thousand-fold by the Internet.
Online you can craft an image that is divorced from reality. In effect you can fake almost any status with sufficient effort.
Teenagers do this a lot now. They curate their Instagram feed ruthlessly. Any post or story that does not get the expected number of likes is deleted. They are like their own PR and marketing agencies.
All this status management is exhausting and unhealthy.
Exhausting because it takes a lot of work. Crafting and promoting an image of yourself is a difficult never-ending challenge. You have to always evaluate and judge what you signal the world and how you actions impact this image.
Status management is unhealthy.
You either focus on the your image, or you focus on your actions and outcomes. This is explored in depth in Carol Dweck’s excellent book Mindset.
The gist is that if you focus on promoting a certain image, then you don’t grow. Failure at anything detracts from this image. You are incentivized to never try anything new, never attempt to surpass your limits or move beyond your comfort zone.
Carol Dweck calls this the Fixed Mindset. Her research shows it correlates with poor performance. This is logical. Success comes from trying new things and taking risks, not from doing the same things over and over.
To achieve success you need to not care about your image.
Achievement comes from failing over and over until you learn how to be better. This is the Growth Mindset. In this case you don’t care about others’ image of you so you are free to fail. People with this mindset treat failure as information which helps them improve rather than a negative thing. No wonder it correlates with success in life.
Growth Mindset is easier said than done
Common advice is to tell people to adopt a Growth Mindset.
Stop caring about other people’s opinion of you.
Don’t chase social status.
This advice is as beneficial as it is useless.
We can no more choose to not care about our social status, than can a lion become vegetarian.
You can try. But willing yourself to not care about social status will do very little.
You cannot not care about social status.
We are Homo Sapiens. The animal that specialized in collaboration. The obsession of social status is deep in our unconscious.
But this does not condemn us to be slaves of this obsession.
We can escape it by satisfying it in a deliberate manner.
This transforms us from slaves into masters.
Diversified status leads to not caring about status
When does someone become more obsessed about their social status? When it feels uncertain.
Insecurity about your status in the group motivates status-seeking.
Conversely, feeling secure in your status frees you from worrying about status.
The main error about status seeking is that most people invest in a certain area of their life.
The most common is work. Many people build their whole identity around their professional status. Their achievements, their importance, their title. Whenever such a person feels their professional reputation is threatened, they become status-obsessed. They worry about their image and take great pains to maintain it. Ironically this often leads to less work success, and thus more cause of worry.
The problem around status is not work itself.
The problem is focusing on only one area for your status needs.
The solution to status-seeking is to have multiple sources of social status.
If you draw status from work, but also your parenting role, community role, role as a husband/ wife, role in fitness community, passionate in a hobby, expert in a area of knowledge, and so on, then you will not care about status so much.
By having multiple sources of status, you are always certain of it. It matters little when one of them is threatened, because you have the others to fall back on. You can focus on outcomes and what you do, instead of worrying about the image perceived by others.
What can you do now
Think about what you do in your life. All the areas where you excel, or wish you could excel.
Evaluate how much of your identity is tied into one activity or area. If it is more than 70%, then diversify, diversify, diversify.
Invest time and effort to be proud of your status in multiple fields.
Become a better partner, parents, friend, learner, practitioner of sports you enjoy, knowledgeable in field that interest you, passionate about hobbies.
This is a strategy with asymmetrical payoffs, as they say in investing.
If you gain status in multiple areas, then you become more status-proof. You find it easy to not worry about your image. Instead you can focus your energy on results and self-development. This in turn will gain success, and thus status. In a virtuous cycle this creates more stability and less worry about status.
Escaping the status-seeking trap is not about wishful thinking that you can not care about status. That’s for robots, not people.
Rather the escape is by creating status wealth. Once you have enough sources of status, your unconscious will relax and let you get on with doing stuff instead of managing image.
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Previous Ideal Life entries:
Ego is the enemy - Ryan Holiday
Growth Mindset - Carol Dweck
Status Game - Will Storr
Meditations - Marcus Aurelius