Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is the bestselling author of books on business, entrepreneurship, skill acquisition, productivity, creativity, applied psychology, and practical wisdom. About Josh »

Status Malfunction

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

The Tao Te Ching, as translated by Stephen Mitchell

One of the most important lessons in modern psychology is that the human mind malfunctions in specific, predictable ways.

The study of these malfunctions - pioneered by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize for their work on prospect theory - is becoming more widely known as the field of cognitive bias. Today, there's a growing industry of books and speakers on the topic, including New York Times bestsellers like:

But no one is talking about the biggest mental malfunction of all: the mother of all cognitive biases.

That's because it's so common - so utterly ubiquitous - that it's difficult to see and impossible to fully ignore. Just as fish don't notice the water that surrounds them, we're steeped in information about a quality that warps almost every facet of how we think, how we act, and how we feel about ourselves and our place in the world.

That quality is social status. I've already used it three times in the previous paragraphs to manipulate your thoughts.

You probably didn't notice. 1

"Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better..."

Every minute of every day for your entire life, a non-trivial part of your brain has been devoted to keeping track of how you measure up against the rest of the world. Without very much effort, you could rattle off a list of things like:

Humans are social creatures - we're built to survive and thrive in groups. Group behavior confers many advantages when it comes to ensuring survival in an often-hostile environment, but it also introduces intra-group competition for scarce resources. The individuals who prosper within the group tend to be the ones who most successfully compete on obvious reproductive survival dimensions (like beauty, wealth, strength, group political influence, etc) and those that innovate by inventing a useful new dimension to compete on - that's why humans have direct incentives to explore, create, and build skill in millions upon millions of different areas. 2

That, in short, is the whole idea of social status: how do you stack up against others along some specific dimension, and where do you have a fighting chance of being considered "the best"? Relative status is often tricky to calculate precisely, so we rely on status signals: visible indicators of a more subtle, hard-to-quantify quality.

And so a substantial amount of our cognitive resources are devoted to tracking our current status and changes in our status relative to others. Likewise, many things that factor into our emotions and behavior boil down to this: "does this (or will this) improve my social status in some meaningful way?"

Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous

I'd list some examples of status-motivated thought and behavior, but there are so many it's probably not possible to produce a complete taxonomy.

Have you ever dreamt of being a movie star? Performer or musician? Professional athlete? Astronaut? CEO? Politician or world leader? Celebrity? Those are all occupations that carry significant social status, and the status is a huge part of the compensation for the otherwise extreme demands and sacrifices required to break into, compete, and maintain position in those fields. That's status-motivated cognition.

Ever wanted to buy a Rolex or a gold Apple Watch? A Bentley, Lamborghini, Ferrari, or Tesla Model S? A private jet, or your own yacht? A private island? That's status-motivated cognition.

Ever wanted to win a Nobel Prize, be Time Magazine's "Person of the Year," win an Oscar, or be awarded some prestigious medal of honor? That's status-motivated cognition.

Ever felt envy when someone accomplishes something impressive, buys something cool, or receives some sort of difficult-to-attract attention? That's status-motivated cognition too.

This sort of thought and behavior pattern operates at all levels. Celebrity gossip is everywhere, and some people are famous primarily for being famous. "Keeping up with the Joneses" is as common as ever. We notice things that win awards, and happen to know the names of the wealthiest people in the world. We have favorite sports players and teams, and their performance on game day affects our mood. Believing you'll finally like yourself once you accumulate just a little more renown, only to find that, after attaining it, the reward was a mirage... but maybe the next goalpost will finally deliver the happiness you seek.

And we can't forget the legions of salespeople who are happy to promise you fortune, fame, and attractiveness of all sorts - if only you buy today. (Don't delay!)

Then there's the ugly: fighting dirty to win. Talking trash about the competition. Putting down people we envy. Investing self-identity in political parties, turning words into weapons to make one side look great and the other side look terrible - as if there were only two sides to the issue in the first place, truth and accuracy and rational governance be damned. Lawsuits. Group discrimination, oppression, and violence. Gang fights. Wars. Genocide.

All forms of status-motivated cognition: it's a difference of degrees, not of kind. The mother of all cognitive biases.

Defining Status Malfunction

So, here's a handy heuristic: the more attractive an option looks in terms of status, the more likely it is to have significant drawbacks or pitfalls (given extreme competition for that status), and the more likely we are to ignore or undervalue those drawbacks and pursue that option anyway, which is a pretty dumb thing to do, and we should stop ourselves from doing that if we can.

I call this tendency "status malfunction." The greater the potential perceived status increase, the higher the risk of serious error or malinvestment.

I'll let you in on a secret. Most of my work to date, and most of my planned work in the future, involves identifying and disarming status malfunction, and choosing to do something more effective instead. If you're able to inhibit your status seeking tendencies long enough, it's trivial to find ways to get better results in a more reliable and less expensive way.

I've spent many years debugging this part of my mind: trying to ignore status factors long enough to figure out what I really want, then spending my time doing that instead of mindlessly seeking attention and approval. It works so well that it almost seems like an unfair advantage, and it's applicable to pretty much every part of life. But it's difficult - status-motivated cognition can be inhibited, but it never really goes away. The mental and emotional hooks are just too deep. But practice makes status malfunction easier to notice, easier to block, and easier to redirect attention once you notice it.

Now, I'm much better at noticing status malfunction on the fly, and it's not as difficult to inhibit. It's nice whenever status signals appear, but I don't consciously pursue them anymore. It's the pursuit of status that usually gets you into trouble. I'm not immune to the siren song of status - not by a long shot - but I've managed to build a healthy resistance.

This is a major factor in why my work tends to be polarizing: some people love it, and some people hate it. On the one hand, I'll never run out of things to talk about - there are millions of ways to get better results in important areas of life if you're willing to ignore the sexy/shiny distractions and focus on doing what works. On the other hand, I'll always have a vocal segment of status-oriented readers who will be offended by any recommendations that don't appear to be a direct path to substantial renown.

Example: Status and Skill

The First 20 Hours is a great example of this. Skills are often used as social signals, since performing better than others at something visible and valued is a way to differentiate yourself. Accordingly, skills are often valued to the point of being considered parts of our core identity. Competition and perceived status encroachment or upsmanship are met with distain, scorn, and reciprocal competition and upsmanship. 3

Here's a different way of thinking about skill: independent of status, acquiring a new skill is always a win from a capability standpoint, since the skill opens up new options and opportunities. Some skill in an area is always better than no skill.

From a status perspective, being average is terrible, since it doesn't differentiate you from others, and doesn't improve how other people think about you in a meaningful way - if anything, being perceived as average decreases your status in the eyes of some people. From a capability perspective, being average is fantastic, since it lets you accomplish things you otherwise couldn't do without that average level of skill.

That's the thing: you can accomplish millions of valuable and meaningful things with skills that are mediocre in every way.

Being able to build skill in any area in short periods of time is a fundamental advantage that provides extreme value. We all learn how to do thousands of things over the course of our lives, and so it stands to reason that learning how to be a better beginner and improve quickly is the most valuable thing to learn about skill acquisition.

And yet the vast majority of attention, conversation, and research on skill acquisition focuses on "mastery": how to become the "best in the world" or achieve flashy results, claiming the skill as a status signal. Claiming mastery is high status, but doing the work necessary to get there is low status, so everyone is interested in the former, not the latter.

That's a classic example of status malfunction, and it's everywhere. It's in the "ten years to overnight success" pattern that shows up every time someone new appears in the spotlight: everyone notices the success, but few pay attention to the effort. In the immortal words of Ronnie Coleman, just before squatting 745 pounds: "Everybody wanna be a bodybuilder, but nobody wanna lift no heavy-ass weight."

It's the same in business. The real core of commercial success is finding a valuable problem, solving that problem, selling the solution, keeping your customers happy, and not being stupid with the money you make. That's it. Do that well in a consistent way, and you'll prosper.

But that doesn't sound as impressive or exciting as chasing credentials from top universities, raising millions of dollars in venture capital, being featured on Techcrunch, making money on the internet while you sleep, or driving a brand new BMW if you can figure out how to recruit a few more people into your multi-level-marketing downline to sell magical bottles of lotion at a 10,000% markup to people who believe they'll be able to drive a brand new BMW if they can figure out how to recruit a few more people into their multi-level-marketing downline to sell magical bottles of lotion at a 10,000% markup.

And so it goes. Guess which strategy gets better results in the long run?

Avoiding Status Malfunction

So how do you go about avoiding status malfunction?

It's not easy, but it's worth it. Here are a few things that'll help:

It's not foolproof, but being aware of the pattern is half the battle, and you'll find it easier to notice situations where status malfunction is a significant risk.

Status and attention are nice to have, but substantially overrated. Decide what you want, figure out a smart strategy, then put in the effort required to get it.

Ignore the crowd.

  1. Kahneman & Tversky's work on prospect theory would still be useful even if it didn't win the Nobel Prize. The books I mentioned would still be great even if they weren't New York Times bestsellers. Status malfunction would still be important even if I hadn't suggested it's more important than other cognitive biases, and that it's a secret that I know that you - and other important and famous people - don't. 

  2. I'm partial to Seth Roberts' theory that diverse skill specialization confers evolutionary advantages, resulting in substantial cultural and economic incentives to explore, innovate, improve, and signal advanced skill in an extreme variety of human activities. 

  3. A few examples: threads on Hacker News any time the subject of programming skill and productivity comes up (“there's no way you can be a 10x programmer if you don't [programming flavor of the month]”), audio recording engineers discussing their gear (“that microphone is okay, but it's nothing compared to this custom mic I had made by a secret master engineer in Belgium”), or martial arts enthusiasts debating which style is best in a real fight. (“Nice dance moves, but any random [style practitioner] would destroy them.”) 

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The First 20 Hours
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