The Psychology of Status: What Creative People Do To Set Themselves Apart
How industry tricks you into feeling inadequate everyday and how few bright minds find ways to over come it.
It's a part of the human condition — the need for status.
We see it pronounced in the animal kingdom in a simpler fashion. The Alpha Silverback gets the best produce and the Alpha wolf gets first pickings after the hunt. They get to eat first.
For humans, this need to eat first takes many different forms however. We measure ourselves at the dinner table; the Patriarch will traditionally cut the turkey during the Thanksgiving Feast, and we can pit ourselves to one another in other ways that we don't often recognize:
- We measure status by our rank or title within a business.
- We measure status by how much money we have in our bank account.
- We measure status by how attractive and desirable we deem our mate to be to others.
- We measure our status by our physical strength or athleticism within the confines of certain games.
We are always sizing up one another in some way shape or form. Capitalism is built upon the need for status.
The need for status and recognition is magnified in the life of a creative.
Shit, I measure myself constantly to the amount of followers one writer might have over me and how many ebooks I've sold or the size of my email list.
So much of the narrative of our lives is dictated by our perception of where we stand.
What causes our instinctive and relentless need to gain a higher status than that of the people around us?
The psychology of shame
Shame, one of the 6 primary emotions, has a lot to do with our seeking of higher status.
PsychologyToday defines shame as,
The painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.
This emotion is carried with us day by day and is magnified by the social elements we cannot escape from.
- We can feel dishonored when we don't accomplish some specific professional goal.
- We can feel improper when we don't show up to the cocktail party with the correct and appropriate attire.
- We can feel ridiculous when we are still using the Nokia 6350 flip phone when all of our friends are sporting iPhone Xs.
The trap marketers have you in
Marketing and advertising agencies have been exploiting status and shame against you for decades in order to bolster their product sales.
Do you remember the genius advertising campaign Apple ran about a decade ago to combat the technology of it's arch-rival Microsoft (and all PC's in general)?
The advertising campaign was called Mac vs. PC. It ran with a series of 66 commercials that illustrated a magnified status exchange between the hip, young, aspiring Mac (portrayed by comedian and actor Justin Long) and the drab, old, and boring PC (portrayed by John Hodgman).
The status battle was clear here: the Mac always had the high ground intellectually, he was always more adept with the current technological trends and equipment, he was leaner, faster and overall portrayed to be the Alpha.
The PC on the other hand was always clunky and slow. He would show up to the commercial with a lack of resources and information on the discussion at hand.
What was this commercial campaign trying to convey?
It was trying to convey the emotion of shame within you — the consumer.
Hell, I felt it. I came from a PC family. I remember the first time we got a computer in our house — a Packard-Bell (labeled #1 on the worst PCs of all time according to PCWorld). It was everything the ad campaign illustrated above: slow, clunky, loud, unattractive and drab.
It needed too many upgrades to count in order to keep up and made me feel lesser than all the other people around me who were with the times sporting their macs (this was even before mac had the prowess that it has now).
I felt immense shame by not being a hip, technological student of the future — Job's future.
Extrapolate all of this out to the other ad campaigns that you're exposed to on a daily basis:
- One laundry detergent will make you feel better than another.
- You won't perform well unless you are using "this" specific baseball mitt during practice.
- You're a shameful human unless you eat this lower-calorie ice cream.
The list goes on and on and it appears that we are trapped.
We find ourselves chasing this never-catchable rabbit in thinking that the next purchase or gain will bring us the satisfaction we so desire.
We are told that if we get this, we will finally "be there."
The road never ends.
A different narrative for the creative
As a creative starting out, one can experience a lot of shame in their work.
The traction for the project isn't taking hold with an audience that you thought it would. You have been grinding away and things aren't taking shape. People have been negatively criticizing your hard work.
All of this compounds into a state of feeling the lowest levels of status mixed with the highest levels of shame.
I suggest, this is due to our idea that we need to be the "next big thing."
We need to be known and we need to have all the eyes on us — our status depends on it and we are force-fed this idea through the easily accessible exchange of information and narratives.
The odds are drastically stacked against you, however. According to research, only 21 out of 7,000 bands that can headline a show of a capacity of 3,000 can actually "make it."
What if there was a different way to have our status needs fulfilled on a more modest scale, yet also generate a living?
What if instead of looking to capitalize on the masses of 1,000,000 people or perhaps a 100,000 people we started with just 10?
All we did was show and tell just 10 people about our work. We made sure to tell first the people that we loved and trusted. Maybe then, if the idea works — it will be spread.
The aim for the creative is to tap into that special community of people that long for the work you are producing — not everyone with a beating heart.
“Once you free yourself from the need for perfect acceptance, it’s a lot easier to launch work that matters […] Everyone is not your customer.”
— Seth Godin
From there, you can grow. You can test if your work is worth its salt. Furthermore, you can build and look to solidify your 1,000 true fans.
The trap of feeling shame and inadequacy is only relevant and real if you choose to buy into it.
Forge your own path as a creative.
Keep doing the work that you are passionate at. Get better at this work. Share it with the people that are looking for it. From there you will turn your creative work into something that can support your life.
And beyond, who knows?
Maybe you will "make it."
But that's not the aim.