The Future of Status – Conspicuous Production

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Wealth CreationMy 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 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…

Conspicuous Production

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

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  • Clay Forsberg

    Imagine if there was no money and no things to buy. How would you show the world your worth? Or how would you show yourself?

    Would your value lie in the number of friends you have – physical or electronic? Would it lie in the quality and depth or your relationships with these friends (kind of a three dimensional assessment)? Maybe it would lie in the number pieces of art you produced, or books and articles you’ve written.

    Or better yet … what about the number of karma points you’ve accumulated by doing random acts of good? Haven’t we reached a point on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where we can at least flirt with self actualization?

    Over your last couple posts, I think you’ve been us leading to this. It’s obvious, the standard societal measurement of wealth and worth just isn’t cutting it for you. I join you brother.

    Maybe this is the first step – discontent. Only then we can find our own “store of value.” and from there truly maximize it’s worth. Maybe this is what mean when I talk about “On the Road to Your Perfect World.” Thanks for pointing me the way :)

    • GregoryJRader

      Clay, I think you are absolutely correct that we have reached the point where we can flirt with self actualization. It is hard to reach that point on the pyramid before you have enough wealth to feel comfortable but once you have reached that point, wherever it is for you, other unmonetized activities may very well contribute more to happiness than more money.

      I see the economic+technological shifts away from monetization being reinforced by the widespread social/psychological recognition that living for our titles and bank accounts was a fools errand.

      Of course that doesn’t mean that money disappears…I want to try to hedge these comments so it doesn’t sound like I am predicting utopia…but, I do think we will look back and see that money as the universal indicator of success, status, well being, influence, and all other things good and worthy, was a function of the industrial economy and the social structure it dictated.

  • Rafstevens

    Hi Gregory,
    May I ask you the same question as I have asked Clay on his site:
    what do you believe is the role of “stories” in all of this?

    I think stories are key in all of this. We can have value just by sharing our stories. And by looking for connection and engagement. By trying to link our story to that of our peers. Their is value “an sich” in linking our stories, in making a storynetwork and story economy.
    And “the big why” of why story networks have value? I would say the more I can get people sharing their stories, have their story connected to other people, get them engaged and have them think and act in new and meanigful ways – and correspondingly act in ways, the more we can make this world a better place.
    It is just a thought.

    • GregoryJRader

      Hey Raf,
      Stories definitely play a huge role. In a sense, this blog, all my various comments and connections throughout the “social graph” and “interest graph” are my story. The more value we find in these stories the less need there is to broadcast our worthiness through material consumption. I do believe that fundamentally we are social animals, we want to be loved and respected and engaged with people who inspire us. I am no expert in story telling but it certainly seems reasonable that stories are one of the foremost tools for forging these connections.

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