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Beware the hook baited with prestige

7 August 2020

Status matters to me. It matters to you, too. Because we’re human.

Status confers lots of benefits linked to surviving and thriving. We’ve social creatures, evolved to seek and respond to status.

Granted, status may mean more or less to you than others. But we all have hierarchies that matter to us.

The challenge is, we didn’t evolve for an environment like the modern world. We’re adaptable, but there are times when our evolved desires, like the desire for status (prestige), are subverted, and work against our interests.

(If you want to go down a rabbit hole regarding subverted evolved desires, start researching “superstimuli” or “supernormal stimuli”. But I digress.)

Paul Graham puts it well:

“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”

And:

“Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on.”

Since reading Graham’s article, I’ve often asked: is this is a hook baited with prestige?

Be on special alert where prestige is involved

Graham goes a little further than me. He says:

“It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.”

My general view is that if prestige is involved, it’s not an initial “no”. But I’m on special alert. You should be too.

In this article, I’ll share some examples from my own life.

  • Working in a “prestigious” industry (law) or firm (one of the “Big 3”) – as opposed to an industry that is a good fit for me, and a firm that is aligned with my values;
  • Working towards a PhD – as opposed to directly acquiring skills and knowledge that is instrumentally useful; and
  • Wanting to work with a book publisher – as opposed to publishing independently.

I also touch on social media and the concept of “vanity metrics”.

Working in a “prestigious” industry or firm

When people ask me what I do, I often say that I’m a “recovering lawyer”. It has more social cachet than saying I’m a financial adviser.

(Now I sometimes say that “I blog about death, sex, and money”, but whatevs.)

I think that’s one reason many people stay in professions they don’t especially enjoy. It’s because their identity is too attached to the social cachet associated with their role.

Quite a bit is said about “title inflation”.

But title deflation exists, and it can be hard for the psyche.

Maybe we need to heed the words of Tyler Durden:

“You are not your job. You are not the car you drive. You are not the contents of your wallet.”

 

Or perhaps we can remember the words of David Brooks:

“there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.”

I personally decided that I’d rather do something that was a good personal fit (not to mention, a good fit for my family) rather than have the prestige of an office job in a law firm.

Before I even practised law, I also decided I didn’t want to work in a “prestigious” firm, such as a “Big 3” or “Big 4” firm. That’s still the case, even in the financial services world.

One of the most influential articles I’ve ever read was titled “On being a happy, healthy, and ethical member of an unhappy, unhealthy, and unethical profession”, by Patrick J Schiltz, published in the United States in 1999.

Schiltz starts by rattling off all the ways that lawyers suffer poor health outcomes compared to the general population. These include high rates of:

  • depression, anxiety and other mental illness;
  • alcoholism and drug abuse;
  • divorce;
  • suicide;

and lower physical health generally.

He talks about the reasons for these terrible well-being outcomes:

  • the hours,
  • the prioritisation of money, and
  • the “game” (because “Big firm lawyers are, on the whole, a remarkably insecure and competitive group of people [Schiltz’s words, not mine!]…. Now that [they’ve competed successfully to get into] a big law firm, what’s going to happen? Are they going to stop competing? Are they going to stop comparing themselves to others? Of course not. They’re going to keep competing… They’re playing a game.)”. In other words: are law firms, highly concentrated with these sorts of people, going to assuage these feelings of insecurity and competitiveness, or are they going to exaggerate them? [An aside: what a b-o-r-i-n-g game, and what a great way to become a boring person. Sometimes I think competition is for ambitious people without imagination.]

Schiltz gives some stark advice:

“Avoid working in large law firms – or in firms that act like large law firms”.

I think this is true elsewhere. To a large extent, I put it down to money becoming the lowest common denominator. If you work in a firm with just one or a small number of stakeholders, it is easy to consider the values of the business owner(s).

Beyond a certain number of stakeholders, however, it becomes hard to negotiate on the basis of values. A denominator becomes necessary, and money is almost always the lowest common denominator.

I refuse to let money be the major determinant in my life decisions. It needs to be a factor, but it shouldn’t be a determinant. That’s not wealth to me.

On this note, this tends to inform my decisions regarding professional service firms I choose to engage. I won’t rule out a firm with its name on the side of a building. But if the firm’s name is on the side of a building, I’m likely to give that firm more scrutiny.

Dr… Sonnie Bailey?

I go through phases where I think I want to work towards a PhD.

Sometimes I’ll pursue the idea a little. Last year, for instance, I reached out to a handful of people who were very generous with their time while I investigated the option, to the point where I had a plan of attack.

But to date, I’ve managed to talk myself off the edge.

At the heart of it, I think my desire to work towards a PhD is a goal that I want for the prestige more than any other reason. I’ve got a fair amount of letters after my name, but it’d be nice to have the PhD and be Dr Sonnie.

(My wife is a dentist and also has a doctorate, so I sometimes tease her that she’s a “double doctor”. That means, on average, we have one “Dr” between us. I also tease her that she’s got nothing on another of our friends, who is a “triple doctor” – he is a dentist, has a PhD, and also has a clinical doctorate. And he feels like he’s got nothing on some of his high school classmates, who are Rhodes Scholars. The merry-go-round never ends…)

But prestige isn’t enough.

The trade-offs and opportunity costs are enormous.

Would I rather spend thousands of hours over the next three or more years working on a fairly narrow, esoteric area, to write a dissertation that very few people will read… or spend the same amount of time working on this blog? Alternatively, would I prefer to spend that time building my business and/or writing a book?

Or, from a what-really-matters perspective, would I rather spend it with my family?

Of course, there might be some practical benefits to having a PhD. For example, being one of the few financial planners in New Zealand with a “Dr” in front of my name would add some cachet and might increase demand for my services. It might also enable me to charge more.

But will it increase demand and my prices substantially? Would I be adding any more value to my clients? Would it be worth the cost — in tuition fees and opportunity costs?

On the flip side, would it manage risks? Would it make me more employable? Or would it actually make me less able to find work if I need it, because I’d be over-qualified? Would it create a perception of being an ivory-tower pointy-head rather than a “pracademic”?

Would it open any additional pathways or options? Would I want to work in academia? If I made submissions in relation to regulatory matters, would it give my submissions more weight over and above the quality of my arguments? Would it open doors I’m not aware of?

From a financial perspective, would it generate a return on investment? The opportunity costs would be somewhere in the vicinity of several years’ worth of time I could spend working. On top of that, there would be the costs associated with the course in question. Would my income over the long-run exceed that?

Could it actually lead me towards being more narrow in my thinking? Would it make me more conservative in relation to any statements I make, and make me even more inclined to qualify everything? Would I start looking for, and including, citations everywhere? Would it change the way I write – and not for the better?

Is being narrow in one area going to incline me to stop trying to think more broadly?

There may come a time where I find a topic that really matters to me, and I’m compelled to work towards it. But for the time being, my instinct is that working towards a PhD is bait, in the form of prestige.

There are alternatives:

  • I like the idea of what Kevin Simler did: instead of completing a PhD he co-wrote a book with Robin Hanson, which became The Elephant in the Brain. (A terrific book.)
  • Instead of learning the skills associated with completing a PhD, there are other skills I want to develop; some practical, some less practical. I’ve become a lot more inclined to participate in non-credentialed, paid courses, because I think they’re more likely to be instrumentally useful.
  • I can signal my intelligence/thoughtfulness (or otherwise!) in other ways — for example, with this blog. At the end of the day, there comes a point where it doesn’t matter whether someone has a Dr in front of their name (unless you’re an actual medical doctor). What matters in the real world is competence and results.
  • Are there easier ways to become a “Dr”? Are there other titles that might be equivalent? (My wife is a Baroness of Sealand, for instance…)
  • Maybe I could work on myself. Maybe this desire to prove to the world that I’m intelligent or need a better title represents a flaw in my own thinking, or a missing piece of my soul. Once I achieve this goal, it’s likely that I won’t be satiated: I’ll want more.

What do you want out of having a PhD? Some validation of your intelligence? To be honest, you can tell from a short conversation whether someone is switched on. Just because someone is a medical specialist or has a PhD doesn’t mean they are especially smart in a general sense.

(Another beef I have: PhDs relate to making a unique contribution to knowledge. The issue is, there are many fields where new knowledge isn’t necessarily what’s most needed. Instead of getting talented people to go deep on some esoteric area, I suspect the world would be better if they instead mastered existing knowledge. Insisting on unique knowledge as an initial ticket into some forms of academia seems a bit weird to me.)

Apologies if you have a PhD or are working towards a PhD! Feel free to tell me that this is a complex rationalisation.

Wanting to work with a book publisher, as opposed to publishing independently

I recently went down the rabbit hole regarding “indie publishing”. It’s a fascinating world with sub-cultures of its own.

What struck me is that the world of publishing is different today to what it was just 10 or 20 years ago. Although there’s a time and place for traditional publishers, for many authors, self-publishing is a legitimate and preferable option.

Nowadays, what can a publisher bring to the party that a resourceful person can’t do for themselves?

  • Editing. There are loads of freelancers who can do this for you now, at fairly low cost.
  • Design. Likewise, it’s possible to find people who can design covers and typeset books for you, for both physical and digital formats.
  • Production. Publishing on Amazon’s Kindle store is largely a process of uploading a MOBI file and working through a series of online forms. For most self-published authors, the Amazon Kindle store is where most sales and money are made. There are also a number of services that allow you to print physical books on demand, including Lulu or Amazon’s Print on Demand.
  • Credibility. I’ve read plenty of terrible books that were made available via publishers. I’ve read great books that were self-published. The reality is, if you can create a quality product most readers aren’t going to care. They just want a book that will inform and/or entertain them.
  • Distribution. If your goal is to see your book in airport bookstores, then a traditional publisher is great. It’s probably great to say that you’re being published by X-prestigious-firm. But again: is that success to you? Or is the hook being baited with prestige?
  • Money. There are exceptions, but the advances that most authors receive are terrible. And only a small proportion of authors actually earn anything more than their advance. (On that note, I recently subscribed to KDPRocket, which gives you indicative sales figures for books, and the figures are illuminating. Let’s just say that it’s very hard to make a living from being an author unless your book is massively successful or you have other income streams. This is especially so if you’re a Kiwi.) If you publish with a traditional publisher, you will receive only a fraction of cents in every dollar sold. As an independently published author, you may incur all costs, but you also receive the majority of revenue. I’d personally prefer to incur the costs and receive triple the amount of revenue.
  • Marketing and PR. My guess is that you might have a better chance of getting on a TV or radio segment if you’re traditionally published. But again, is that success? For many authors, this doesn’t have a huge impact on book sales. Maybe I’m a control freak, but I’d prefer to have control over the levers of marketing, such as my website and mailing list, etc. Also: if a publisher pays you an enormous advance, they may have incentives to really push your book. But if only pay you a few thousand dollars, are they really going to try that hard? And after your book has been published for a while, are they going to put any effort into the book (unless it has had unique success), or are their incentives to focus on their new books? If the publisher will earn the majority of revenue from each new book sale, are you going to be incentivised to keep marketing your book?

Vanity metrics

Social media is a special example where services are geared to bait the hook with prestige. Let’s forget the personal side of things, but look at it from a commercial perspective.

If you are a business or blog, do “page views”, “follows”, “likes”, etc, really matter? Are they as important as, say, revenue, expenses, and profit?

No. These things are vanity metrics. I’d rather have a small number of page views, follows, likes, etc, but have the right people viewing, following, and liking.

Vanity metrics are noise, not signal.

Status and prestige can be valuable. We are human, so we respond to it and seek it. We just need to be careful to make sure it hasn’t been subverted and has us chasing the wrong things.

When it comes to prestige, as often as not, you’re getting noise, not signal. It’s often for vanity.

This is why it can pay to ask: is this a hook baited with prestige?

A GIF from The Great Gatsby seems oddly fitting for this article…


Tags

education, fish hooks, hook, independent publishing, indie publishing, phd, prestige, publishing, status, supernormal stimulus, superstimuli, vanity metrics


About the author 

Sonnie Bailey

In his spare time, Sonnie likes telling people that he’s a former Olympic power walker, a lion tamer, or that he is an orthodontist. He is none of those things. In reality, Sonnie is a financial planner based in Christchurch. Through his business, Fairhaven Wealth (www.fairhavenwealth.co.nz), he provides independent, advice-only, fixed-fee financial planning services. Sonnie is a “recovering lawyer”: he has specialised in trusts and personal client work. He has also worked as a financial services lawyer for many years.

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