My last post drew a very interesting response. On one level it was largely ignored, generating relatively few comments and tweets. On the other hand it elicited very strong responses from a small group of people who are currently dealing with big educational decisions of one sort or another. As I was writing that post my lizard brain was telling me that I would be heckled for suggesting that people shouldn’t go to college. After all, who do I think I am…Peter Thiel? Yet, the impassioned responses I did get were not from people who were outraged, but instead from people who had the same intuition and seemed to be probing for further validation. Clay Forsberg pointed out in his comment that often the only necessary justification for college education is the near universal acceptance that everyone needs it. “For what?” is a question that is rarely answered or even asked.
The answer to “For What?”, of course has very little to do with education and everything to do with status. College admissions has become the rat race for teenagers. Acceptances to Ivy League schools are like country club memberships, they separate the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots’. In the last post I argued that traditional education might not be worth the opportunity, however I failed to address the issue of status.
Does lack of formal education condemn you to being seen as a ‘have not’ despite any success you might achieve?
If so then the financial argument is irrelevant and people will continue to demand college educations in order to maintain appearances.
A Case Study in Status: When Worlds Collide
I was recently introduced to the website IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com by Ramit Sethi. Now if that is not a URL that begs for a sociological analysis I don’t know what is. If you are anything like me, you will be immediately put off by almost everything about the site, from the name itself to the testimonials in nearly every post to the outrageous claims and promises.
The other thing you will notice immediately though is that Ramit writes amazing copy. He unapologetically plays all your psychological triggers even as he explains why those same psychological triggers work. And, if all those psychological hooks keep you reading through at least a few posts, you will realize that Ramit actually backs up all the bluster with very compelling content.
So here we have someone who clearly has status:
he comments frequently about how much money his techniques have earned him
he is a best selling author
he has undergraduate and masters degrees from Stanford
he frequently name-drops his connections to established thought leaders
Where does Ramit’s status come from? It would be easy to conclude that he is a model of old economy success, that his status is built on money and traditional credentials (education, publication). But you know I wouldn’t be writing this if I accepted the conventional interpretation…
Ask yourself – Why is Ramit relevant? Maybe he isn’t to you, in which case his status doesn’t mean much. If he is relevant though it is clearly because of his production and not because of his wealth and traditional credentials.
I currently live in Los Angeles where wealthy assholes are a dime a dozen. If you live in a similar city then you have likely become thoroughly unimpressed with wealth. These people may have a lot of material stuff but they have no more influence on my life than the homeless people begging for change. In fact, we often frown upon material indicators of status because they are assumed unearned.
If there is anything notable about Ramit’s status it is that he earns it right in front of you. If his site was full of garbage content you would immediately recognize him as a spoiled poser and his supposed status would be illusory. Conversely, if you took away all his traditional credentials, he would still be the author of a website full of content that creates wealth for thousands of readers.
What Do We Really Care About?
Fundamentally, this is another story about transparency. In the industrial economy work stayed at work so the only way to demonstrate value to the rest of the world was to convert your paycheck into conspicuous luxury goods. This was a remarkably inefficient solution if what we ultimately value as human beings is connection, influence, and relevance to other human beings.
In the networked economy opacity is replaced by transparency. We can now directly demonstrate value to other human beings by transparently offering that value and thereby nurturing the connection we ultimately seek. Degrees and credentials are great if they accurately represent the talents we intend to offer the world, but degrees pursued for their own sake are simply socially accepted status signals.
Traditional status signals may continue to provide marginal benefits for some time but forward looking students will increasingly adopt more innovative solutions. As the world becomes more transparent, status will increasingly be earned based on the value of conspicuous production.
How can you confidently demonstrate your value to the world without jumping though the traditional hoops?
*Disclaimer: I fully admit that I indulged in college education. I thoroughly enjoyed my four year vacation during which I contributed very little to the world. If I had it to do over again I like to think I would make better use of those four years but I recognize that the social pressure is still very powerful.
photo courtesy of carspotter