Status Anxiety

Career or status anxiety?  Main cause – we are surrounded by snobs.  “What do you do?” It’s a four-word sentence designed to sum up the worth of an entire person as quickly as possible. It’s answer will in large part determine whether or not the conversation continues.

Botton argues the appearance of equality (and a society that tells us we can be anything we want) leads us to believe we should be able to obtain what others have – when we don’t, it leads to regret and envy.  This is why we don’t envy the Queen of England but might strongly envy less successful classmates at a 10 year high school reunion – we don’t have the expectation to rise to the level of aristocracy, but the common experience shared with those in our high school does lead us to believe we should meet similar fates.

As we increasingly believe that we live in a meritocracy, we also believe those who have fallen to the bottom rungs of society also earned their place there. Two hundred years ago, the poor were described as “less fortunate.” Today they may be described simply as a “loser.” Fate is no longer determined by the gods or circumstance, but ourselves.  This is difficult when applied to others, but can be fatal when we completely blame ourselves. He argues this is why developed countries have some of the highest suicide rates in the world.

What relief do we have? He argues that while meritocratic ideas should be advocated, we need to drop the pretense that we could ever create (or live in a society) that can factor in all of the accidents and chance of birth and life (for example, genetics or an unfortunate car wreck)

Next, he laments the demise of tragedy (as a form of literature/art). He talks about how these stories were designed to afford the characters a measure of humanity in their failure. He jokingly shares a story of when he shared plot lines with his journalist friends and asked them to come up with potential for headlines – for Othello they came up with, “Love crazed immigrant crazed kills senator’s daughter”.  The contrast between classic tragedy and modern headlines serves to highlight the divide between what has been lost and how quickly we ridicule those who may be deserving of sympathy.  

In short, we need a truer version of success. What does this word really mean? First is that we can’t succeed at everything. Any honest version of success must admit the loss of some other equally worth goal. We don’t define this for ourselves. Success has been externally defined – we let others define what it means to be a “man” or “father,” or what our life will look like and how we will spend our free time.

I can relate to this piece and hit on the main points before (On our own terms & Chance).

I echoed his exact sentiment here - “I should be using my time to become the type of person I really want to be, and not be tempted/influenced by money or prestige.”

Since I generally agree with the basic points he made, I want to think about obstacles to this idea – aspects of our society which make the transition to success on my own terms more problematic. My idea of success is flexibility. I want to wake up when I want. Take a road trip when I want. If this isn’t possible I would at least like to be able to do those things somewhat regularly. Most jobs expect you to be there 9-5, 52 weeks a year with a little vacation and a few holidays.  

Debt is high on that list. It has a way of keeping us bound to the system even we are ready to move beyond it.  By the time many are ready to simplify their lives, most are shackled by car payments, mortgages and student loans. In fact, debt has a way of forcing this lifestyle on many involuntarily. Barring default, many are forced to keep working at jobs that no longer interest them because they need the income to service their debts. I am partially in this camp though I could get out in a year or two with a small sacrifice and a few years more than that without much at al.

Second is the inability to be self-sufficient (if you wish to maintain regular human contact). Sure, if you are willing to buy a trailer and live in the country, life is still quite simple and inexpensive. You can have a small garden, get solar power well water, have a wood stove and wear what you want without worrying about socially isolating yourself. For the most part one is generally unshackled by local building codes and ordinances.  However, if one wishes to live (in a safe part) of a modern city (even a small one), the only option is some steady source of income. All of one’s needs (shelter, power, water, and sadly safety) are external. This is problematic without a rather radical transformation of the existing housing model. Energy costs and maintenance have the potential to usurp actual housing costs in coming years.  A “comfortable life” requires somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000-$30,000 (depending on location and what one defines as a base) which is an average salary a lot most people. Add in children and life simply isn’t comfortable without a “normal” paying job. I am fortunate in that I bought a modest, inexpensive home a cheap city, got a good rate on my mortgage, and have roommates to help pay my bills. I certainly advocate this course of action for most people, but it is not suitable for strong introverts, people who are married or single parents.

Along these lines, my pet project to redesign starter housing would go a long way towards making it easier to move towards self-sufficiency. There is a strong need for low-cost, nice looking, simple starter homes that are quite energy efficient. They perfected this after WWII (energy costs then didn’t matter very much) and the GI bill made loans easy to obtain. Many of those homes still exist (though the neighborhoods haven’t all fared as well).  Recently there was a boom market in shitty patio homes covered in vinyl siding. These structures will not outlive their mortgages and it breaks my heart to see people sitting on these underwater properties in deteriorating developments and no real sense of community. (Both of these plans highlight the importance of not just building homes, but building community, with common areas and places to walk to encourage neighbors to interact – community gardens, sidewalks, playgrounds, parks)

In short, I think a lot of people want to be free but either lack a path or have already made decisions which keep them (in the short term) from doing that.

I see two ways I could help. One would be to teach business education (to keep future generations from making poor decisions) the second would be to reduce one significant expense (housing). I am only a test away from being able to do the first and could experiment with the later as much as I want on my parent’s farm if I wished.

I was looking for a source of passion – this could certainly be one.

Gratitude log:
For generous parents to fall back on and a social safety net that others do not have. Seeing a friend recently fall victim to circumstances (and having them almost spiral out of control) which would have only been a minor obstacle for me really highlighted the importance of my parents.
That I am not subject to the vicissitudes of climate – storms, heat and humidity are just things that might make the walk to my car more difficult, but do not pose a real risk to my safety.
I am thankful for boredom, because it means that I have time to reflect and change. Many people have to work, work, work and I am fortunate to have the opportunity to thoughtfully plan my life in ways that the “busy” often do not.