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Who Are You Trying to Impress?

How to escape status anxiety.

Key points

  • One famous study found that more people would rather earn $50,000 while others earned $25,000, than earn $100,000 while others earned $200,000.
  • Many people use career status as a boost to their self-esteem, but it can trap them in an unfulfilling profession or simply never be enough.
  • Granting others the power to determine one's relationship to work and status should be questioned.

"I've always wanted a job that sounded cool to my friends," said a student in one of my recent courses on career change at London's The School of Life (founded by the philosopher and author Alain de Botton). What was he really after? Social status. In fact, the desire for status is one of the most common rewards that people seek from their jobs, perhaps only second to money. But if you are on the hunt for fulfilling work, it is worth thinking about exactly what status means to you, and whether or not it does you good.

Two kinds of career status

Career status comes in two varieties. One is the status we get from having a prestigious job that is admired and revered by others, such as being a lawyer, surgeon, top athlete, or professor. The chance to impress people with your high-powered career is an alluring prospect. Like the ancient Romans, we still have a strong yearning for reputation and glory.

The second variety is status based on our position relative to others. A famous study in behavioural economics showed that if given a choice between earning $50,000 a year with everyone else earning $25,000, or earning $100,000 while others earned $200,000, the majority of people would choose the former.

We also care about our relative position in career hierarchies. If you see all your peers climbing the ladder of success, becoming company directors or top managers, yet you remain at the bottom of the ranks, then you may well feel something of a failure and have a desire to join them.

The dangers of using a career to boost self-esteem

Both kinds of status can be an important way to boost our self-esteem. But as the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned, "this universal desire for reputation" in which we judge ourselves through other people’s eyes is fraught with dangers.

We can easily find ourselves pursuing a career that society considers prestigious, but that we are not intrinsically devoted to ourselves—one that does not fulfill us on a day-to-day basis. In my teaching, I am constantly meeting people who are deeply unhappy about their work despite having apparently enviable careers, such as being a photojournalist or neuroscientist. Others in the room can hardly believe that they are miserable in their outwardly impressive jobs.

There is a further problem. Once we achieve one status level, another often instantly appears above it. We may aspire, for instance, to be a successful TV producer. But having become the producer of a popular TV show, we might then want to be amongst those who have won coveted awards or who also make feature films. Our peer group shifts and the status we seek is forever just beyond our grasp.

The writer and spiritual thinker C.S. Lewis understood this problem when he said that most of us desire to be a member of an "inner ring" of esteemed or important people, but we "will reach no 'inside' that is worth reaching" since there are always more rings within it.

A simple lesson

The lesson may be the simple one that we should not be so concerned about what other people think about us. So start rethinking your attitude to status by asking yourself this question:

Who do you imagine is judging your work status—perhaps family, old friends, or colleagues? Do you want to grant them that power?

Copyright © 2013 Roman Krznaric

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