Status Roles

The Status Game, why we play it, and what to do about it.

Hey everyone,

This week, I want to talk about 'status roles.' Back when people used to 'get together,' we used to have these 'networking events,' which, I find the epitome of all status games.

Basically, most people are a networking event to generalize the tiniest part of you — your professional title. In fact, if you do go to a networking event, you might as well not have your name on your visiting card; your title is good enough.

This phenomenon got me thinking about three questions: (1) Whose game we play when we play status games; (2) Why do we play these status games; and (3) What can we do about it?

1) Whose game we play when we play status games

Start with the first. In the opening scene of The Godfather, an Italian immigrant Bonasera asks Don Corleone to avenge the injustice done to Bonasera's daughter. I'll let the movie scene itself show you what plays out after that.

Throughout the scene, notice how The Godfather's view evolves from denying Bonasera any help to "accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day." Also note how, all this while, The Godfather intuitively wanted Bonasera to accept The Godfather’s status as not a ‘hired thug,’ but as a self-respecting, charismatic leader of the town, who stands up for what he thinks is right. The moment Bonasera does that, The Godfather accepts Bonasera’s favor.

When we play 'status games' (ie games where we try to advance our status or diminish others' status), we are always not playing our own game, with our own rules. More often than not, we are like puppets, dancing to the tunes of an invisible puppeteer, the one who actually designs our behavior and environment, so that we buy into such status games.

In retrospect, it was wise of Bonasera to ask The Godfather for a favor on The Godfather's daughter's wedding day, because tradition has it that The Godfather cannot deny a favor asked of him on this day. The Godfather was playing a status game, but not his own status game… Instead, he was playing the status game of the Sicilian "tradition."

2) Why do we play these status games

Come to the second question. I think we play these status games for one of three reasons:

- We want to dominate a hierarchy,

- We want validation, and

- We seek external rewards.

In pursuing either of these things, though, what we’re really trying to mask is a sense of ‘shame.’ We don’t want to feel inferior to another person in this whole status game, and so, we perform actions that are contrary to what will make us happy, but align with what will get us status. In doing so, though, we end up trading temporary shame for temporary status.

In fact, I did some digging into why we play these games, and it brought me back to the first question — Whose game was it in the first place? Take the $30 billion luxury goods market, which was kickstarted by Louis XIV and his finance minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert. Both had stimulated the French economy by forcing people to produce and consume super-expensive French goods, both at home and abroad. Doing this fueled demand and increased the recognition of French goods among the crème de la crème, thereby perpetuating France’s ascendancy as a luxury market. (So, the next time you buy a Louis Vuitton, remember that you’re falling prey to Colbert’s game of chasing status roles.)

3) What can we do about it

Well, knowing about status is one thing. Doing something about it is another. I think a few things have helped me not play this whole status game. But the one main resource that got me thinking about status is this piece on Inner Rings by CS Lewis. The main idea is that don’t pursue exclusivity for the sake of being exclusive, because once you are in that ‘exclusive’ group, you’ll realize two things:

  1. There is nothing inherently special about that group, and
  2. There is yet another exclusive group within that group.

Instead, CS Lewis advises to ‘focus on your craft,’ and in doing so, you will automatically find yourself in the company of people who actually matter. Soon after reading this, I realized there’s no point in pursuing status above meaning, or status above excellence.

Since then, I have constantly tried to stop playing the status game and instead play the long game, the infinite game, the ‘excellence game.’

Something to think about this week :)

Until next time,


PS: All right, a newsletter + channel + podcast is hard, on top of work + life. These weeks, the nights of my weekends are occupied with happily worrying about what I'll read, absorb, and crank out, instead of Netflix or catching up with friends. That's both good and bad, but let's see how this plays out… The goal, though is this: Continuously reduce the marginal effort the channel and pod require. (Till I reach this goal, though, I'll try to show up every week.)

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