A friend recently told me that my group of friends, particularly the males, competed against one another too often. For her it had come to a point of exhaustion. She was tired of watching each of us push ourselves for no better reason than to run ahead of the others.
I knew I was competing, but for the for the past year or so, I thought I was competing against myself. It wasn’t as though my close friends were in the same fields of work. We weren’t doing the same hobbies. We rarely read the same books or watched the same shows. When we caught up we spent more time trying to make one another laugh than show off our accomplishments.
But she was right. I was competing. I was in love with my day job. I was addicted to my side projects. I longed to run farther and faster. And it wasn’t just me. Everywhere I looked people did the same. Why? Status.
Status of the Past: Strength, Wealth
Status is a need for security. Those who have status have the strength and support of the tribe. Evolutionarily speaking, it was important for our monkey ancestors to know who to follow, who to fear, and who to mate with. Our survival depended on it. So natural selection favoured brains designed for deciphering hierarchy and determining status.
For our monkey ancestors status was most commonly displayed through physical strength. The strongest males found themselves in the role of alpha male. And most often their first pick of mate was the strongest and healthiest female. After all she was the most likely to bear children of good health.
Whilst strength was a big indicator of tribal sway, emotional intelligence also played a substantial part. When observing large cohorts of monkeys, one or two females can often be seen to pull the strings from behind the scenes. Less likely to fly off the handle, or to disappear for days at a time, these matriarchal leaders take responsibility for organising the females to raise the children as a collective. They also keep the more aggressive males in check.
Still, when it comes to monkeys at least, strength has the final say. An upset male made it impossible to keep the tribe together. And so the matriarch’s primary responsibility is to appease the male.
Over millennia brute strength was replaced by wealth through the introduction of farming. This was kicked into overdrive during the industrial revolution. Making and buying things became a symbol of prosperity. We placed a dollar value on everything, including ourselves. With money in such high demand those who held wealth, held the power. The wealthy could afford to buy opportunity and security for themselves and those around them.
Status of Today: Exposure
Today things have once again changed. Through the invention of the internet status has become more about exposure than wealth or strength. Much like how the big biceps, or the big house, told others we had sway through strength and wealth. The big online following tells others we have sway through the power of an audience. After all, what’s the point in having money when a big audience provides us with true status. Especially when a big audience brings with it big wealth.
This shift has led to an obsession with likes, followers and subscribers. Today we act to be seen. For Silicon Valley megastars this means the pursuit of media exposure and charitable recognition in addition to the big dollars. For the rest of us this means social proof. We upload our life to have it marked. A good amount of likes means we’re on the right track. Silence means a tweak is in order. Social media is a simple way for us to measure our personal value in an increasingly complicated world.
The problem is this need for status validation has become an obsession. In order to moderate our image, most of us have come to care less about the moment than what the moment says about us. Few of us want to climb the mountain solely for the experience of climbing the mountain. We want to climb the mountain to tell others we climbed the mountain. To tick it off the list.
The same is true for our day jobs and side projects. We care more about overcoming them than actually doing them. We long for the launch, the promotion, the profit, the recognition. We long to conquer the thing so we can add another notch to our belt. So we can say, I conquered it, and get started on what’s next.
The Status Trap
This is the trap. Like a drug, status and our hunger for more is insatiable. Every time we get a hit, we crave a bigger, more prolonged high. For every one NY Times bestselling book we want two. For every two, we want to be Tim Ferriss.
As Sam Harris put it in Waking Up, “Our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on.”
Buddhism tells us to suppress our craving for constant craving. According to Buddha constant craving is what stands in the way of us attaining true sustaining happiness. The problem is we’re wired to push the envelope. We need to grow and develop. This need is built into us. And with the right measure, it is healthy.
This is the conundrum. Ambition is healthy. It’s our addiction to checking the leaderboard that isn’t. So how do we grow and develop without getting caught up in a status race against our peers?
How to Overcome the Status Trap
Fall in love with the process, not the outcome. If you hate the work, put an exit strategy in place. Otherwise change your mindset. Learn to love tinkering and celebrate the small wins along the way.
Play against yourself, not an opponent. Ignore everyone else. Keep a journal, a blog, or some way of measuring where you are at. When in doubt look back at this list and be grateful for where you have improved.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Tinker with a variety of projects from different fields. That way you don’t come to identify yourself as your work.
Be a big fish in a small pond. Stop trying to trawl the ocean. Find a less fierce market to compete in. Or live somewhere small and be big.