On the Social Ladder and Value

A note on self-promotion, eliteness, and leadership


In the popular CBS show Madame Secretary, the Secretary of State’s staffer, Matt, replaces his boss to deliver graduation remarks (37:53 min). He begins: “…this is probably the first moment in my adult life that I’ve stood in the spotlight. Truth be told, it’s probably gonna be the last. Why? Because I’m one of those people who works in the dark...”

Matt continues: “In this world of relentless self-promotion, we’ve all been raised to think that the limelight is the only light worth seeking. But that isn’t the case. And if I can impart one thing today, a small, simple truth to carry with you as you walk through those gates, it’s this: Achievement is often anonymous. Some of the greatest things have been done by people you have never heard of… quietly dedicating their lives to improving your own.

These words mark a powerful challenge to human conceptions of value and achievement. As humans, our notion of what is valuable has varied. But our desire to be known and valuable has not. Instead of embracing anonymity — being a small part of a bigger purpose — humans often believe to be valuable is to stand high on the social ladder of meritocracy where everyone can see.

This definition of value has implications for daily life and political organization. It encourages a practice of self-promotion that divides people, calibrates “eliteness” around questionable values, and cripples leadership. Instead of approaching problems collectively, we promote ourselves. The professions that assume the mantle of leadership — law, politics, and business — are frequently exemplars of such self-promotion.

The Average in Average Joe

According to a 2014 Success Project Survey, 90% of surveyed Americans believe that success is more about happiness than power, possessions, or prestige. Dr. Michael Plater, President of Strayer University, believes that these findings indicate that, “It’s no longer about the car or the house…people are focused on leading a fulfilling life, whether that means finding a better career, achieving personal goals, or spending more time with their families.” A 2004 Gallup survey of 21st century American teens, who are now becoming leaders in the workplace, found that they “don’t necessarily equate fame and fortune with success.”

At the same time, researchers labeling millennial as “Generation Me” have found that narcissism, defined as excessive interest in oneself, is on the rise. Their researchers state, “millennials and Gen Xers viewed goals concerned with money, fame and image as more important, and goals concerned with self-acceptance, affiliation, and community as less important.”

Source: Gallup

These surveys provide a glimpse into the complex tension between external (objects and status) and internal (happiness and self-exploration) indicators of value. Several average citizens just want to be content and live an American dream of opportunity. This desire is in tension with social structures that encourage us to determine value through comparison and to climb the social ladder if we want to be seen as valuable.

Average Americans have often felt obliged to convince “society” that they, as individuals, matter. Material wealth used to symbolize value to others. Today, the interconnected world we inhabit has brought more ways to compare oneself with others. Millennials, for example, have access to social media platforms that facilitate self-promotion. Snap this. Instagram that. Tweet it. Facebook Live it. Now, social forces pressure us to ground our value in what we do and experience — and how others perceive that.

Humans will always compare ourselves to others, creating separation across social lines. But social structures make it easier. We should try to find value in our interdependence with others and our collective strength. Otherwise, the average will eternally feel average or succumb to the self-promotion that is almost a requirement to be elite. Americans will not be one body, growing together, but disparate parts competing for their own interests.

Climbing the Ladder: To Be “Elite”

As organizers of political, economic, and social norms, the “elite” are largely responsible for the dominance of self-promotion. The elite have questionable ideas about value. By definition, to be elite is to be above others; to have the truth, the intellect, and the solutions, and to help those who do not. There are many people in the elite who are good people with great intentions. But in striving to fix the world, they lose the forest through the trees. They get caught up in self-interest, and overlook mutual interest.

Rising through the education system, American children are constantly compelled to climb the social ladder if they want to make it to the halls of power. Many young adults, including myself, have gone through life feeling that we have to start something, be featured in a news article, or earn a prestigious award. We yearn to be validated. Even more so, we feel we must self-promote to be found. This is how we have structured the social ladder and defined elite eligibility. You must have the resume, the social capital (connections and knowledge), and the confidence to climb the ladder. But as William Deresiewicz notes, “young people have a stunted sense of purpose.”

“Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege…great at what they’re doing but with no idea why...” — William Deresiewicz

I have struggled with the social ladder throughout my life. I have questioned what makes me valuable. There is nothing inherently wrong with the confidence, drive, and pursuit of knowledge that eliteness incites. But the elite’s current notion of value tempts people to practice destructive comparison and embrace graceless arrogance. To be valuable is to contribute by yourself, in the limelight, not to collaborate with others in the dark. Eliteness leads us to forget our purpose — and the people around us — in search for status and achievement. We become “excellent sheep.”

At the World Economic Forum 2008, Bill Gates said, “There are two great forces of human nature — self-interest, and caring for others.”

When we embrace a culture of self-promotion, self-interest thrives. Caring for others becomes more about being the person who cares than the actually caring and helping others. Humility and compassion are hardly valued for intrinsic value — if anything, they are a means to an end of self-promotion. Instead, an elite grounded in publicity, money, and status take the cake.

In America and several countries, social norms and institutions almost require individuals climbing to the elite ruling class to promote themselves. You can’t have it all , they say— choose between family, rewarding work, and being known. Put more bluntly, you have to have an ego. In politics or business, psychological research has shown that politicians, and especially presidents, are narcissistic. We have no reason to expect otherwise.

It is hard to climb the ladder to a place of influence without self-promotion and arrogance. Social norms tell us that we should solve the world’s problems in our own shiny way. People are pressured to find a niche and be the one to change the world through it. As branding strategist Terri Trespicio points out, some people are not like that. Many Americans just want to pursue what they value and live life. But to be elite — to lead — is to shine.

Leading from the Ladder, but Forgetting Those Below

Shining bright, America’s leadership suffers. The elite, who occupy the social ladder’s perch, fail to effectively lead their communities. The meritocratic have made it to the highest echelon of social circles: the Washington insiders, financial giants, and educated elite. These “leaders,” the crème de la crème, are generally well-intentioned and hard working. Yet they have bought into the social ladder and the perils of pursuing the limelight. They believe that they are the solution. Don’t we all want to be? So, collaborative leadership plays second fiddle to popularity and accomplishments.

Average citizens have tried to trust the pursuit of a normal life, but wrestle with the social ladder themselves. Meritocracy rewards self-promoters. Many average Americans have felt, as author J.D. Vance notes, that “the modern American meritocracy was not built for them.” This is partially the reason behind the emergence of Trump, a President that has embraced a large role in addressing the America’s problems.

The elite often become separated from the rest, intellectually and socially. They have become too great for criticism and too important for teamwork. A long climb on the social ladder of self-promotion disposes leaders to entitlement and aggrandizement. But as Transparency International notes, the most “Populist” leaders promoting themselves as solutions to the people’s problems often have the dismal track records. The society suffers, often becoming fed up with the system and society they inhabit.

Historically, it has happened in religious institutions, racial relations, and the private sector. Religious elite have used self-centered judgement to separate the jews and the gentiles, the genuine and the fakers, the workers and “believers.” Judgment can be helpful, but only if it is a shared process. Businesses have developed cut-throat environments where employees subvert others and sell themselves. Competition has benefits, such as spurring innovation, but if it permeates an entire society and its communities, selfishness thrives. Social bonds bound by trust are broken. Over the history of racial relations, blacks have felt white supremacy, Sunni and Shia have wrestled over control in the Middle East, and Israelites have been oppressed by Egyptians. These groups can’t forgive sins of the past.

The American social ladder delivers a simple message: sacrifice humility and collaboration, and promote yourself to make it. Play the game. Then you will matter. Then you can have a real and valuable impact . Ponder this question: Is such a system and culture not corrosive? It is evident that America has been divided, trust is broken, and leadership is lacking. Human decency, restraint, and a willingness to listen is often faint, but the light is dwindling.

An elite will always exist, and we will always have leaders. But we should resist identifying those social circles — those jobs, scholarships, and social status symbols — as inherently more valuable than others. We should reject equating leadership with self-promotion. People may have earned their spot, but they are not entirely responsible. Their social connections and context — their interdependence with the world around them — matters. As the African concept Ubuntu translates, “I am who I am because of who we are.”

If we self-promote instead of value community, we will continue to walk the path of self-interest, not compassion. America will continue to undermine community and collective progress. Self-interest is natural. But remember: we are no one without each other.