A fascinating book that I read recently was The Status Game by Will Storr. I have enjoyed reading a few of his prior books too, including Selfie and The Science of Storytelling.
In it, Storr says that it is impossible to not be part of some hierarchies. In other words, we can’t go through life without having a sense that we are competing against other people in some areas of our lives.
This is what he means by games. Not just basketball, monopoly, or poker. A game is anything where there is a set of rules about how things should be. Based on this, it is possible to get a sense of if you are doing well, winning, or losing.
“The fastest person on the planet” is a game that has been played better by Usain Bolt than anyone else ever. Michael Phelps is at the top of the “best swimmer of all-time” hierarchy. Whilst I had some moments when I was younger when I did Little Athletics and swam competitively, I’m not trying to play either of these games these days. Therefore, I don’t really care about where I am in either of these hierarchies.
Joe Rogan has been at the top of the “most listened to podcast” hierarchy for a while now with his Joe Rogan Experience. I wouldn’t mind having a few more listeners and some of the financial security that comes along with it, but being at the top of that game is really not what I’m aiming at either.
I podcast because I like to have a creative outlet and share some of my insights with people who may be interested. It’s also fun to be sharing the project with one of my closest mates who I don’t get to see as often as I would like to anymore. Therefore, as long as I am making and putting out a podcast episode once a month, I’m happy with the game I am playing.
Bernard Arnault is currently winning the game of the “richest person in the world” with $208.7 billion. Being high up on that hierarchy sure wouldn’t be important to Will MacAskill, who is an effective altruist and author of the excellent 2015 book Doing Good Better. He committed a while back to donating to charity all money that he makes every year beyond £24,000. Being the richest person in the world would be even less important to a Monk that has given away all of his earthly possessions and is spending his life in a monastery.
When it comes to money for me, all I am aiming for is a healthy and happy life. If the money I am making and saving allows me to do that, I feel like I am winning. Especially if I get to live in a sustainable way where I am not too stressed, helping some people in my work and connecting with the people that are most important to me outside of it.
I might not have as many fancy things as Kim Kardashian, or get to travel into space like Jeff Bezos, but I am also glad that I am not like either of them in these ways and many others too. Because I am not competing against them for things or money, we are not playing the same games, I am not lower in the hierarchy of those games, and I do not have to feel worse about myself.
It is only when I am not being the person that I want to be, and I can see that others are living the life that I want better than I am that I experience feeling lower in the hierarchy and worse off. The moment I can make the necessary changes to start living my life consistently with my core values, the more I am playing the games that are really important to me, the better I am doing and the more satisfied I am likely to feel.
At the end of The Status Game, Storr shares what he says are the core rules of status games to keep in mind so that you can improve your life and be protected from potential traps and danger. Sometimes certain dreams can be persuasive, but it doesn’t mean that striving toward something will necessarily give you what you need. I’d like to summarise these for you here.
Seven Rules of the Status Game
Rule 1: Practice warmth, sincerity, and competence
These three components are essential if you want to optimally present yourself to others and successfully play a status game. If another person is trying to gauge what type of person you are, they are most likely to assess you to see if you are a kind person, if you are genuine, and if you know what you are talking about and are good at what you do.
If you have competence, sincerity, and warmth in whatever it is that is important to you, others will know that you will not try to dominate them, that you will treat them fairly, and that you will probably be able to help them.
Rule 2: Make small moments of prestige, not dominance.
Wherever you can, try to create win-win situations, where you are trying to benefit both yourself and the other person in an interaction. If you are trying to win by making the other person lose or be worse off, it can lead to a worse reputation for who you are over time.
Try to be respectful to others, even if you disagree about something. Be gracious and thankful for the efforts that they have put in. You might not always get what you want if you conduct yourself in this way. However, both parties will leave the situation feeling better about who you are as a person, including yourself. If you take care of developing your character in the ways you would like, your reputation is likely to speak for itself over time.
Rule 3: Play a hierarchy of games and resist tyranny.
Whichever game you are playing, try to see if you can notice how status is awarded. If higher-status people are the most obedient ones, believe more strongly in the dogma, and are most concerned with defeating the enemies or non-believers, you may be caught up in tyranny. Tyrannies are virtue dominance games.
To best protect yourself from becoming too caught up in tyranny, try to play a wide diversity of games and have different aspects to your identity.
If someone’s identity is entirely tied up with being a good Democrat or a good Republican, it can be hard to go against anything that their party stands for. However, if your political beliefs are only a small part of who you are, it may be a lot easier to disagree with the party that you usually support on a particular topic.
Storr says that life is easier when we organize it as a hierarchy of games. By choosing what is most important to you, and then putting effort into these different things in a proportional way, you are likely to obtain a lot of meaning in your life.
Rule 4: Reduce your moral sphere.
Where you can, try not to spend too much time judging other people for what they do. Instead, turn your focus to your own life and behaviors, and see if you are being the person that you want to be. It is so much easier to judge other people for falling short than putting in the consistent effort to improve yourself in the ways that you would like to.
If someone else is playing a game that doesn’t matter to you, why do you need to judge them? They might have different values from you and are okay with the choices they are making. Isn’t it more important to find out if you are living consistently with your values?
Rule 5: Foster a trade-off mindset.
One of the quickest ways to poison the empathy we have towards someone or something is to become moralistic about it. The truth of most matters is often more complex than you realise if you only think about it as right or wrong.
If you can, try not to view the world in terms of heroes and villains, but different groups negotiating trade-offs. Most people are simply wanting what they perceive is the best for themselves, their family, or their group.
Pain is pain, regardless of who it is happening to. If you perceive someone as an enemy, try to understand the pain that they are in. Also, see if you can see the games that they are playing in an attempt of gaining status and feeling less pain.
If you can understand why someone is doing something, even if you would never want to play their game or see it as valid, it may be easier to remain compassionate or empathetic towards them. We need to all fight the bigotry that exists on both sides, and see if it is possible to reduce pain and improve the quality of life for all.
Rule 6: Be different.
It’s not easy to play a status game, nor is it often rewarding. If there can only be one winner, it can make everyone else feel worse off. Especially in your live in a more individualistic culture. If you live in a more collectivist culture, if anyone in your group has success, it can be possible to feel some of that success yourself too.
There is another way towards feeling good about yourself rather than continuing to try to be perfect or better than everyone else at something. That is through having the courage and determination to live by your own values and do your own thing, regardless of what everyone else says is important.
It may be tough to not conform if you feel a lot of external pressure to do what everyone else is doing. However, minor acts of non-conformity that do not violate the core standards of the group can attract attention rather than make you an outcast. As long as you remain helpful and useful to the group at times, you can rise in your status rather than being ostracised.
Being original also makes it very difficult for others to compete with you. Keep trying to be yourself rather than trying to be perfect. No one else is ever going to be as good at being you as you are, no matter how hard they try.
Rule 7: Never forget your dreaming.
At the end of the day, most things are not as important as people think when they are caught up in a status game. People strive for status because they want to feel like their life is essential and really means something to others and the fate of the world.
But if you look at the 8 billion people on the planet, there may not be too many people that are remembered 450 years later like Shakespeare, or over 200 years later like George Washington. This doesn’t mean that your life isn’t important to some people.
Your life probably already means a lot to your inner circle, including your closest family, friends, and co-workers. I guess a big question then is what is more important to you? Being the person that you would like to be towards your parents, partner, children, best friends, and colleagues? Or worrying about what a random person in your town, the other side of the world, or in a few hundred years thinks about you?
Once people have met their basic needs for shelter, water, food, and safety, the next most important things become love, connection, and esteem. Sometimes it is at this point that many of us become caught up in a status game. We feel that we need to have as many symbols of status as possible.
We can think we want deference and flattery from others, influence and lots of money, fast cars and big houses, expensive clothing and jewellery, and lots of attention. But are any of these things really what is most important to you? If someone was writing your obituary after you died, what would you hope that they would say about the person that you have been and the people that you had the biggest positive impact on?
We can never fully escape from the various status games, as most people naturally compare themselves to others to see how they are going. This can then impact how people feel about themselves. However, there is some wisdom in just knowing that these games are there, and we can choose which things matter or don’t matter in our lives.
If my neighbor goes out and buys a fancy sports car or flies first class, I do not have to feel worse about myself if these games do not matter to me. The answer lies in finding and playing the games that do matter.
It’s also not about getting to a destination, and then enjoying the rest of your life. Chances are that your mind will continue to strive for status in one way or another for the rest of your life. Therefore, there is no end or a happily ever after.
Storr says that the key is to be happy with the direction that you are heading in and the progress that you are making. If you can live in a sustainable way with the things that really matter to you and feel connected to the people that you care most about, you will know that you are on the right track. Hopefully, your physical and mental health will be better off for it too.
The final thing that he says, and one that I never used to understand, is that the meaning of life is about being able to keep playing in the ways that are most important to you. It is not about winning.
Dr Damon Ashworth