My Struggles with Prestige

I’m worried that people look down on me. It’s something that’s strange for me to explicitly write down since I don’t think I currently have a bad sense of self worth. In this arena, I actually feel like I’m lucky because I’ve never felt like anyone was inherently better than me. In fact, whenever I’ve been asked who my role model is, it’s been difficult for me to come up with an answer.

There are many people throughout history who have achieved a lot more than I probably will ever be able to, but I guess I attempt to see them all complexly since even if they’ve done a lot in their lives, that doesn’t mean they’re without flaws. And, while accomplishments and accolades could be one way to “measure” someone’s “worth,” to me that’s problematic in ways that seem fairly obvious, especially since nothing anyone does will probably matter in the grand scheme of things.

But, despite all of this, I still find myself wary meeting someone who has achieved higher levels of prestige than I have, such as going to a better ranked college than me or having a more prestigious job at a more prestigious organization. When I meet these people, I don’t actually think they’re inherently better than me but instead worry that they feel that they are.

I’ve found this to especially be a problem with those I perceive as being just as or more image-conscious than I can be because then I feel they are more likely to actually believe themselves to be better just because they’ve excelled more in society’s eyes. When I meet someone like this now, I will often preempt any judgment they may have about me by being self-deprecating, such as revealing that I work at a non-profit where I don’t earn a lot of money. While I also do this to make others feel more comfortable around me, I definitely mainly do it to disarm others. I’ve always thought that others will be less likely to believe they can really hurt me in any way if I’m self-aware of the various things I do that are “low-status.”

I realize that a lot of my worries about people looking down on me come from projection, or unconsciously taking unwanted emotions or traits I don’t like about myself and attributing them to someone else. I hate that I care about prestige since I really find it to have no intrinsic value other than signaling. This also elucidates the inconvenient truth that even though I’ve improved on my prestige-seeking ways over the years and see myself and others a lot more holistically, if someone has attained less prestige than me, I don’t think they’re inherently worse than me, but I don’t worry that they look down on me.

I struggle with being comfortable with discomfort as I’m sure many people do, but I understand that I simply need to be okay if others look down on me. In fact, I’m sure throughout my life, quite a few people have but were just good at hiding it, and ultimately, that was fine. I’ve still tried to live my life in a way that best suited me.

Something that has helped me in being okay with not being the ultimately prestigious person (if that’s even possible) is figuring out that my internal values largely don’t align with conventional measures of success. I elaborate on this in another post.

Another thing that has helped is thinking about how the institutions I’ve been affiliated with that are not considered the #1 most prestigious were often at least decent places for me to be in during the periods I was involved in them. For example, when I began college, I only wanted to do things there that were practical for being seen as a success in others’ eyes. My college required us to take many discussion-driven liberal arts courses that I initially thought of as nuisances. But, they ended up being the best experiences I got out of college. If I went to a better ranked college that allowed me to take most anything I wanted to take, I probably would have languished in the most practical STEM classes with material I would’ve forgotten 99% of after the final exam (which was my experience with most of the STEM classes I took in college).

It’s also been important for me to understand that standards of prestige are quite subjective. I realize that I mainly am wary of those who went to a better college than me because I was raised by first-generation Chinese American parents who saw education as the best way to elevate their lives (since that is more true in China than in the U.S.) and would get starry-eyed at the mention of someone getting into Harvard.

I don’t have the same amount of prestige-orientation towards the firms I ended up working at after college because my parents never gave me the impression that being a partner at McKinsey made you God’s gift to earth. As stereotyped for Asian parents, mine wanted me to become a doctor, which could actually be seen as not prestigious enough by others. For example, if I was taught that being president was the most prestigious thing I should aim for, I probably would be climbing the Capitol Hill ladder right now and jealous of those working for a higher profile congressperson than I was.

I’m not going to be a hippy-dippy person who says prestige doesn’t matter. It does. Attaining it has been the key to upward mobility for many and how various institutions and individuals have garnered and sustained their influence throughout history. But, personally, even though I’ll always at least slightly care if people look down on me, since who I am and what I want to accomplish don’t align with the somewhat arbitrary standards of prestige, it doesn’t make sense for my life to be guided by them.

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