Choose Your Status Game Wisely

When I was a kid I didn’t really understand status. I didn’t understand why some people would grant more social value to others based on their wealth, fame, or talents.

I grew up in the middle class and everyone I knew was in the middle class (or close to it) as well. Therefore, the only time I saw status was on television. Musicians. Athletes. Actors and Actresses. You were either a celebrity or a normal person and there was nothing in between.

In high school I furthered my ignorance by becoming anti-status. I grew my hair long and started playing electric guitar. It was heavy metal or bust and I didn’t care what anyone else thought. Status among my friends was determined not by how popular you were, but by your music abilities or how much you could drink. Nevertheless, I kept my grades up and my parents never asked any questions.

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I finally had my first encounter with status. After getting into a good university I noticed how people outside of my friend group started treating me very differently. No longer was I seen as this random “metalhead,” but as the kid who was going places. For the first time in my life I had some status. And I’m not going to lie, it felt great.

But as soon as I entered college, everything changed. Those things that had once given me status were gone. No longer was I one of the smartest kids in my school, I was just average. Now status was determined based on what fraternity you joined and where you were going to work after you graduated. But this wasn’t the last time that I had to learn a different status game.

Following college I worked at a litigation consulting firm where status was based on prestige, pay, and performance (like most corporate environments). And today, as a content creator, status is mostly determined by the size of your audience and how much you can keep their attention. No matter which environment I was in, I noticed that there was always a status game being played.

Status in the Eye of the Beholder

My story illustrates how different communities value different things when it comes to conferring status. For example, if you are a competitive powerlifter, your status is determined by how much you can lift (strength) and how many competitions you have won (competitiveness). If you are a VC, your status is determined by what companies you have invested in (network) and how well those companies have performed (money).

I could go on, but you get my point. Status is relative to the context in which it is being evaluated. In other words, VCs don’t care how much you can bench and weightlifters don’t care about your investment returns. Both groups have their own standards for judging members of their community and they care much less about everything else.

This is why you have to choose your status game wisely. Because whatever status game you choose in life ultimately determines what you optimize for. Choose money and you’ll end up working all the time. Choose beauty and you’ll always want to look better. Choose fame and you’ll constantly be seeking attention.

Each of these choices has consequences too. Your pursuit of wealth could leave your personal relationships in shambles. Your pursuit of beauty could impact your mental and physical health. Your pursuit of fame could end up ruining your reputation.

Whatever status game you decide to play, you have to ask yourself: are the benefits worth the costs?

Get Status or Die Trying

When it comes to the pursuit of status, the juice is usually worth the squeeze. Research on primates has shown that those at the top of a status hierarchy have a higher quality of life and experience far less stress than those near the bottom. It’s good to be at the top.

Well, at least most of the time. When a status hierarchy is stable, being at the top is great. But when it isn’t, watch out. As Robert Sapolsky explained in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, instability is hell for high status individuals:

Suppose you keep the dominance system unstable by shifting the monkeys into new groups every month, so that all the animals are perpetually in the tense, uncertain stage of figuring out where they stand with respect to everyone else. Under those circumstances, it is generally the animals precariously holding on to their places at the top of the shifting dominance hierarchy who do the most fighting and show the most behavioral and hormonal indices of stress.

This research suggests that, even after making it to the top, it’s not always smooth sailing. So ask yourself: Is it worth the time and effort to chase status only to face increased anxiety about losing that status in the future?

I’m not so sure. What makes this issue even worse is that there is some research suggesting that those with higher status crave increased status even more than those with lower status. In other words, once you start to attain some status, you won’t want to stop.

I’ve noticed this in myself despite not caring about the traditional markets of status (i.e. wealth, career success, popularity, etc.) for most of my life. But, I have found a way to fight back.

Outsmarting the Status Game

Though the pursuit of status is a hard temptation to fight off, there is a simple way to prevent it from controlling you—play multiple status games at once. Instead of linking your entire identity to a single status game (i.e. richest, smartest, etc.), have multiple things going for you. In other words, diversify what brings you status.

Robert Sapolsky touched on this idea in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers when discussing how low status individuals can feel high status from other avenues:

So, the lowly subordinate in the mailroom of the big corporation may, after hours, be deriving tremendous prestige and self-esteem from being the deacon of his church, or the captain of her weekend softball team, or may be the top of the class at adult-extension school.

There is no rule that states that you have to judge yourself by a singular dimension, even if society suggests otherwise. For example, I know I’m not the best computer programmer and I’m not the best financial writer either. But if you take the combination of those two skills and I have a bit of an edge. It reminds me of what Scott Adams said about what it takes to have a great career:

If you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The same is true with status. You don’t have to be the best at any one thing. But if you can get pretty good at a few things, you can avoid the pitfalls of trying to be #1 and the status battles that can go along with it.

I know some of you will say “Just ignore the status game altogether,” but this is easier said than done. Like many other animals, we are biologically wired to respond to status. Ignorance is not the way out.

The way out is building a solid foundation of status in multiple things. It’s about becoming diversified in your life, not just your portfolio. Thank you for reading!

If you are interested in learning more about status I recommend Rob Henderson’s newsletter (subscribe here), one of the leading thinkers in this space.

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