The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; … and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Driving a new Land Rover is a flex in most parts of the world. By having, and showing a luxury car to others, its owner signals that they are affluent enough to be able to afford it. It can be a Veblen good which separates its owner from the rest, and increases their status. Until it doesn’t. I was fortunate enough to go on a vacation recently in Los Angeles, and booked a modest studio in a nice neighborhood. There I saw the highest concentration of Land Rovers and Range Rovers in my life. One out of every 5 houses seemed to have this status symbol parked in front of it. Which made me think - is it still a status symbol for these neighbors? Or does it merely become a luxury trinket? How many people can have Land Rovers and still claim the status boost? In the luxury car dimension, there are only a limited number of people who can flex. This makes fighting for the status of the owner of the nicest car in the neighborhood a game with limited resources. And you already know my opinion, that we should want to opt out of such games.
However, fighting for status seem similar to fighting over a limited resource, as status may seem limited, but it doesn’t have to be. Status is more abundant than we think. Let’s look one of the most clear cases of status - winning an olympics gold medal, and let’s consider running. It seems like a zero sum - there is a winner, and losers, and only one winner at a time. At least on the surface, the winner gets the majority of the status, while everyone else gets the much lesser status of being a finalist. The other runners are not really worse-off than they would’ve been if they didn’t participate in the running game. They are still getting paid, and they gain fame. Their loss is only relative, and running is a win-win game. The amount of fame and happiness from a single race might seem limited but it is not - it varies with the quality of the performance. For example at the 400m hurdles race at the 2021 Olympics, Karsten Warholm destroyed his previous world record of 46.70s by running it in 45.94s. This is 760 milliseconds faster, three quarters of a second. Beating a world record by so much is wild! But what made the race even more amazing, and Warholm’s win even more impressive is that his main challenger Rai Benjamin also destroyed the previous world record by running 46.17. In order for Warholm to win, he had no choice but to break the world record by a lot. The top two runners each got more glory, fame and status by pushing each other. They both become heroes worthy of praise and both win status, as runners who broke the world record, and creating an unforgettable experience for everyone watching.
Let’s now look at a different type of race - the race to be the first person to make a scientific contribution, and the first company to get a certain innovation to the market. Someone might say, with a dose of cynicism, that the scientists in the forefront are engaging in a zero-sum race with each other and that this scientific discovery was going to get made anyway. Yet it will be a boon for society if that discovery happens 10% faster and brought to market 10% faster. New discoveries build up on top of old and over ten years, this gradual speedup will amount to a whole year of advancement. Over 60 years, that’s whole 6 years of advancement. For healthcare, that may be the difference between having the treatment to a cancer or Alzheimer disease before or after someone you love catches it. Even if we look at a much shorter time frame - the race to create and deploy a COVID vaccine saved millions of lives. The outcome of any seemingly trivial science and innovation race can be a matter of life and death eventually. In the meantime, the race resets every time there’s a new discovery, all the scientists can build up on top of it, and win status. The faster the discoveries happen, the faster new status is “mined”. Some scientists become giants, and that allows other to stand on their shoulders.
In a given dimension, there may be only so much status - one best runner/scientist, one employee promoted to the next level, one president elected. But if we look for more dimensions, we realize that there are more untapped opportunities for gaining status. For example, if two employees are fighting for the same promotion, they might instead build up their areas of ownership to the level that they are providing so much value, and they both get promoted to expand their work. Or, if people want the clout associated with being a president, they can instead focus on achieving what a president would achieve and improving other social and environmental issues such as poverty, pollution, healthcare, etc. If they have a major success there, they might be remembered by the future generations even more than whomever was the president at the time. Martin Luther King Jr was not a president, but has a more important place in history than LBJ, who was president at a time, and even has an official holiday dedicated to him.
In my opinion, the highest status is achievable by each of us, simultaneously, and without detracting from anyone else’s status. That’s the status and confidence of being in internal harmony, and in harmony with Nature. In such state, my internal angels and demons will be dancing together instead of fighting, and my being will be dancing with others instead of fighting them. This is my goal in life, and I wouldn’t feel any less accomplished if others also achieve it - in fact it will make me happier. We are all different, and each of us has a different Everest to climb.
Thanks to Sylvain Kieffer for spotting grammar typos in this post.