The Futility of Status Games

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Photo by Matt Lamers on Unsplash

10 Years ago if a book was on the New York Times-Best-Seller list, you learned about it on Oprah. Or you saw it on the shelf at your local bookstore.

Today you follow the author on Instagram, you’re friends with them on Facebook and you might have even met them in person. They become your basis for comparison and standard for success.

This isn’t isolated to authors. You can envy and admire the iconic founders on twitter. You can stalk real celebrities on every social network.

Income reports, accolades, humblebrags, picturesque vacations, newborn babies, engagements, and internet celebrities posing with real ones fill our newsfeeds, shape our values, affect our decisions, and determine our definition of success.

I made the NY Times Best-seller, Forbes 30 under 30…and whatever other list is curated by some old white guy sitting in a room with nothing better to do than rank people in some sort social hierarchy.

I made so much money this year I’ve decided to sell you the secret.

Check out our perfect life.

We play a status game, whether we want to or not. Whether realizing it or not. The inevitable result of this game is envy, comparison, anxiety, and the perpetual sense there’s’ s some next level we’re always supposed to be at.

4 Types of Status Games

1. Status as a Result of Signaling

Status as a result of Signaling is manufactured and bullshit. Anybody can charge an overpriced handbag on a credit card or hires some arm candy to appear with them in public. We can manufacture status signals with excessive consumption. But this is unsustainable if you’re living beyond your means.

And the internet amplifies our ability to broadcast status a result of Signaling, and it’s not all materialistic.

Take a look at my Instagram feed, and you’ll see pictures of books, surf trips, and snowboarding. I’m using my feed to broadcast the status signal that I’m smart, athletic, and adventurous. But that’s just interpretation.

If you get to know me, you’ll see that I don’t have an athletic bone in my body. I chose board sports because there’s nobody to compete against. And underneath the veneer, I’m just a beach bum who loves books.

2. Status as a Result of Privilege and Pedigree

Status as a result of privilege might open the door to pedigree and the top of the career ladder. But skill, grit, commitment, resilience, and resourcefulness are what will get you there. Your parents might be able to buy your way into Harvard, but you can’t buy your way to becoming the next Elon Musk or founder of Google.

The paradox of being Indian is that our primary religious text tells us we’re not entitled to the fruits of our labor. But, as a culture, we’re taught to play status games until we reap those fruits. So we go to Ivy League schools, get advanced degrees, and collect status symbols.

The people I went to school with at Berkeley are incredibly good at this game. And so are the people who went to any other school of the same caliber. That’s because they’re taught early in life that this is the game worth playing. This game will lead you to a good life.

They earn high GPAs, become high school valedictorians, go to Harvard for Law School, UCSF for Medical School, and work at places like Google, Mckinsey, and Goldman. This literally describes 5 people I went to Berkeley with. If any of those friends are reading this, you know who you are. And just so we’re clear, I do believe you’re really fucking smart.

My only victory in playing status games was getting into Berkeley. From there it was all downhill. I graduated with a terrible GPA, a resume that looked more like a rap sheet, which an MBA-admissions counselor called “a crucible of a career” and got rejected from every business school where I applied.

This status game is alive and well. It’s what keeps high school students stressed out of their minds and applications flowing into the Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and every other school of the same caliber. When my brother in-law’s best man Ernie interviewed a girl applying to Stanford, she was beyond impressive. She’d done more in high school than most of us do in a lifetime. She got rejected.

As Scott Galloway said to me, colleges are no longer educational institutions. They are the ultimate luxury brand.

Status as a result of pedigree might open the door to your first job. But after that, nobody will care. My publisher doesn’t care that I went to Berkeley. My investors at Pod.Fund never asked me once where I went to college or business school. Status from pedigree, like most forms of status, has a very short shelf life.

3. Status as a Result of Accomplishment

Status as a result of accomplishment, regardless of how impressive, is temporary. Whether you hit a best-seller list or take a company public, it won’t be long before someone else is in the spotlight. Today’s sensation becomes tomorrow’s afterthought and today’s unicorn is tomorrow’s cockroach.

The status game chewed me up and spit me out. So, under the delusion of success on my own terms, I started a blog, built the Unmistakable Creative, and wrote two books. But this is just a different version of the same status game. The only difference is how we measure status.

Instead of pedigree, it’s best-seller lists, six-figure launches, and the size of your audience. We’ve quantified everything we can. And we’ve optimized every moment of our lives with productivity apps, life hacks, and spiritual practices

Status games cause us to focus on metrics instead of mastery. So we sit around optimizing shit that doesn’t need to be optimized. We obsess over things we can’t control.

I’ve had friends who’ve sat in front of the computer on the day of their book launch refreshing Amazon to see their ranking as if it was a stock price on the day of an IPO. Podcasters do the same with iTunes. And we all roll our eyes and think “how the hell is that one of the top shows in iTunes?”

As I said in An Audience of One, obsessing over rankings and reviews is a recipe for madness instead of meaning. And playing a status game already creates enough madness. Why pour gasoline on a fire?

While status as a result of accomplishment might make you better financially or improve your career prospects, the status itself will eventually become an afterthought. As I said., most people don’t know or care that I wrote a wall-street Journal best-seller. I was on that list for 2 days. I’ve been writing for 10 years.

4. Status as a Result of Mastery

Status as a result of mastery might be the only prize in the status game worth acquiring. When you master a skill or craft, it’s something you can transfer to other areas of your life and future projects. To even call it status is somewhat misleading. Even if you fall in the rankings of any social hierarchy, you’ll retain mastery.

A Zero-Sum Game

“Status is a zero-sum game. It’s a very old game. We’ve been playing it since monkey tribes. It’s hierarchical. Who’s number one? Who’s number two? Who’s number three? And for number three to move to number two, number two has to move out of that slot. So, status is a zero-sum game.”- Naval Ravikant

Someone always has more





If you’re on a best-seller list, someone is higher on it. When you fall to number two, you’re pissed that you’re not number one.

If you have a nice car, someone has a nicer one.

If you’re dating a hot girl, your friend is dating three.

Your son got to in Berkeley? Well, my son got into Harvard.

Status games keep our current education system in business.

They keep idiots flocking to malls on Black Friday, and punching old ladies in WalMart.

They ensure that we buy shit we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.

They keep every one of us chasing the next level of achievement.

Status games are as Ryan Holiday said, good in the aggregate because senators become presidents and entrepreneurs build empires. But on the individual level, they are a lie.

No matter how much you keep raising your status, it will never lead to the life you think it will. But the funny thing is even knowing this won’t keep you from chasing status.

The most screwed up thing about having you first book become a best-seller is that it sets an unrealistic standard for success. Especially, when it’s self-published and you were happy to sell 300 copies.

I’m finally coming to terms with the fact I might never make a best-seller list again. And comparing the size of my audience to Jordan Harbinger’s or my book sales to Amber Rae, James Clear, Mark Manson, and all the others who’ve sold more books than me is ultimately a futile status game that I’ll never win.

Status vs Significance

Status games trap you into an ego-driven pursuit of a life that looks good on paper or the internet. Status games are all about what you can get. Significance, on the other hand, is soul-driven. It’s about contribution and what you can give.

What about you? Are you playing status games? Is it making your life any better?

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Order An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake: Listen to the @UnmistakableCR podcast in iTunes

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