More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

Status and the Illusion of Progress

I’ve written many times about the great disease of status. If I were to trace back our worst impulses and decisions to its origin point, what you would ultimately find is a huge vial of this deadly poison. The desire for status and the subsequent move to categorize humanity is what breeds greed, envy, narcissism, and pretty much any variant of those unpleasant things.

With that said, there’s one common argument against this assertion, and I’d like to take the time to address it today.

The argument is simple: Without status, there would be no incentive to drive progress. If we didn’t desire to be known or to be held in esteem, there would be no technology, no culture, or any other export that we consider to be a special part of who we are. That the whole reason things are getting better in the world is because we play status games, and that our desire to win these games incentivizes us to use our intellect in the most ingenious of ways.

While this sounds reasonable at first glance, the argument begins to break down once you question some of the underlying assumptions.

The first is about progress. What does it mean for humanity to progress? One may think that there’s an obvious answer to this, and chances are, that kind of person would be a rationalist. To a rationalist, progress is measurable, and is determined by plotting time on the x-axis, and some variable indicating well-being on the y-axis. If the resulting trend line moves up and to the right, that’s what it would mean to progress as a species.1

But as you could guess, this only shows half the picture.

If a nation as a whole is getting wealthier but its citizens are getting angrier, is that progress? If global life expectancy is increasing but more people are suicidally depressed, is that progress? A rationalist will answer, “Interesting point, but take a look at this data instead!” Whereas someone that understands the limitations of reason will say, “Maybe we’re thinking of progress incorrectly in the first place.”

The way I see it, anything that relies upon status to create “a better world” will ultimately create division. If you’re incentivized by money or fame to create the next technology that will cure a biological disease, then you will have simultaneously created a psychological one: a disease that involves distrust and hatred. This is why people refuse to get vaccinated against COVID, for example. If the creator of any useful technology has a ticker symbol next to its name, then even the most benevolent innovator will be the target of vitriol and shame.

Some might blame this phenomenon on ignorance, but what I see are the destructive forces of a society obsessed with status. If even the most intelligent among us find no problem with playing status games, then it’s only natural that division and separation will be a feature of our society. By definition, to have status is to be “above” someone else, making it a zero-sum game. And any time a positive must be accompanied by a negative, the seeds of rebellion and violence are sown.

To me, true progress is when a gain isn’t offset by a corresponding loss. Some might point to rising average incomes as an indicator of progress, but to me, that’s not real progress. Wealth is an infamously relative thing, where a rising tide may lift all boats, but if Tom’s boat rises a bit higher than yours, then you’ll be envious. Almost any quantifiable indicator of progress has this type of tradeoff embedded in it, which is why real progress cannot be defined by something external.

Rather, progress must be driven from the inside, at the level of the self. Because it’s only in this domain where something quantifiable can’t define your being. You may care about your net worth or the number that pops up when you step on the scale, but deep inside, you know damn well that these digits don’t determine who you are. The essence of who you are is unquantifiable, and it’s only in this realm where true progress is made.

Once you accept this, you begin to see that status is ultimately a fight between who you think you are (internal), and how you think you’re perceived (external). This is why the moment you desire approval from others, an immediate tension arises. It’s your body’s way of asking you, “Hey, what about you isn’t enough?” And the more you ignore that question and push forward to obtain that approval, the more you lose the sense of who you are.

This is precisely why status is one of our greatest poisons. Because the pursuit of it is the very antithesis of knowing yourself. Anytime you play a status game, you take on the perspective of an outsider looking in, judging who you are based on whatever metric or position you’re chasing. You give credence to the belief that you’re not enough, and that there’s something you need to achieve to finally accept who you are. But of course, any chase of this nature has no end, given that your very participation in this chase means that self-acceptance isn’t possible.

There are many ways to justify our playing of status games. That without it, we might still be riding on horseback. Or that we’d still be playing Snake on our Nokia phones. That all the forces governing the world as we know it today would cease to exist, and perhaps we’d all be worse off for it.

But in the end, these justifications are just that… justifications. They’re attempts to use reason to shine a glorious light on what is fundamentally an ugly feature we’ve inherited from our monkey ancestors. Real progress is to look beyond the limitations of our evolutionary lineage, and to understand that the desire to be a “somebody” only exists because we can’t face the reality of who we truly are.


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For more stories and reflections to rethink status:

Pursue Mastery, Not Status

The Antidote to Envy

The Game You Don’t Need to Play

"How do you find your ideas?"

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