Do you ever think about your social status? I do, and sometimes I find it corrosive

Examples of thoughts that might come up:

  • Should I share X doc/idea with Alice? Her feedback might be useful, but it might make her think worse of me.
  • Why did my friend Bob get invited to X event and I didn’t?
  • I wonder if Carol has a negative impression of me. 
  • David responds to my friend but not me. Why?

In many situations, these thoughts are helpful. For example, it might be good to occasionally examine if “Carol” has a negative impression of me, especially if Carol is someone I respect, because it might help me find areas where I can grow.

But sometimes, these thoughts are unproductive, limit my thinking, or distract me from more important tasks at hand.

In the rest of this post, I’ll describe some techniques/frames that I’ve found helpful when I notice status coming up in corrosive ways.

Note: If you haven’t read “PR” is corrosive; “reputation" is not, I suggest reading that first.

My Rob Bensinger shoulder model 

My Rob Bensinger shoulder represents integrity, honesty, and transparency. He tells me things like:

  • What do you actually believe? How can you communicate it accurately?
  • What kind of community do you want to foster? Do you want to be in a community where people are afraid to voice their true opinions?
  • Sharing our beliefs and ideas openly is how we get closer to the truth.

“Be the sort of person internally who you would find most admirable and virtuous. Be brave, be thoughtful, be discerning, be honest, be honorable, be fair, be compassionate, be trustworthy; and insofar as you’re not those things, be honest about it.” -- Rob

When I talk to my Rob Bensinger shoulder model, he reminds me that the options are not merely “think about how others perceive you” vs. “don’t pay attention at all to your self-presentation.” There is a nice third option which looks something like “imagine a person who is scoring well on a bunch of virtuous axes, and aim to be that person. Be honest, share your views, and aim for integrity rather than likability.”

Habryka’s comment about identifying as an EA

When it comes to status concerns, my Habryka shoulder model is based on one comment he wrote in 2021. He reminds me to notice if my attachment to the community is harming my ability to think and act in the world. And he reminds me that identifying strongly as part of the community (and carrying the weight of thinking about how my actions will reflect the community or be perceived by the community) is ultimately my choice.

An excerpt from his comment:

I have found that when I identified as an EA, I had a lot more unproductive critical voices in my head that prevented me from considering a lot of potentially good ideas, and it exposed me to a lot of people who would get angry at me if I did anything that "damaged the reputation of the movement". After many years of actively carrying EA as part of my identity, I had noticed that my ability to take directed action in the world had very greatly atrophied, I was much more anxious and risk-averse, and it took me at least two years of internally distancing myself quite a lot from the EA-identity cluster before I felt like I could have novel ideas again and start working on ambitious projects again. 

See also: Use your identity carefully

The status equation

Someone told me that they see status through the following equation: 

Status = Goodness of your thinking + Goodness of your actions + Something About Your Vibes™

When thinking about status, beware of spending too much time thinking about the third thing. Use the part of you that cares about status to improve your thinking, learn more, understand the world more carefully. Use the part of you that cares about status to launch new projects, form new partnerships, work harder, and find ways to improve the world. 

Be careful if you’re thinking too much about your tone, or the particular “vibe” of your social interactions with others. These things matter, and some people draw their status from this source, but this is not (primarily) what you’re aiming for. You're aiming to be a better thinker who takes wiser actions.

Is status the true bottleneck?

Suppose you come up with a plan that would significantly reduce AI x-risk (or make the world a better place in some other way). But the issue is that you need buy-in from important stakeholders. The plan fails because you lack the social status/social capital to get it implemented. If only you had more status...

There's an important thing about this story: you already have a fantastic plan. Most of us do not. Most of us would benefit from thinking much more about the world, learning about new fields, and getting more contact with the territory. We're not bottlenecked (primarily) by status; we're bottlenecked by not having good enough ideas.

Also, when I actually think about what it would be like to have a Plan That I Truly Believe In, it doesn't really seem hard to get it on the desk of The Important Stakeholders (or someone who knows someone who talks to The Important Stakeholders).

This doesn't work for all plans. Sometimes status is the true bottleneck. But you might be surprised at how far you get if you actually just ask yourself if status is really the primary thing that's bottlenecking you from coming up with better ideas or executing your plans. 

See also: Is that your true rejection?

Focus on the people you respect

There are some outstanding people in the community whose thinking & actions I greatly admire and respect. These are the people I should focus on.  

It’s tempting to get carried away thinking about what everyone thinks, or what “the community” thinks. Instead of focusing on “the community,” I try to shift my focus toward what the people I admire/respect would think.

(There’s a danger in doing this if the people you admire/respect the most also tend to agree with you the most. I try to be mindful of this, and make sure I include at least 1-2 voices I admire/respect but who generally disagree with me). 

Few books are worth reading twice

Sometimes, my concerns around status come up when I’m comparing myself to someone else. Maybe my friend Alice got invited to X event or got Y opportunity that I didn’t get. 

In these cases, I pull out a frame from my childhood best friend. He once told me something like this:

Here’s the thing, Akash. There are some incredible books in the world that both of us should read. But most books worth reading are not that good. One of us should read it, and then we should share the main insights and try to communicate >50% of the value. There are few books so valuable that it’s worth both of us spending our time reading them.

Thanks-- now I don’t have to do that!

Here’s another one from the same friend, that I also find helpful for social comparison situations:

Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a movie I might want to direct one day. And then a few months later, Christopher Nolan will release a high-budget film with the same concept, and he’ll execute it well, and I’ll be like darn, I wish I had the chance to do that. 

But then I’ll look back on my List of Films I Want to Make One Day. And I’ll notice that there are still plenty of options left. And I’ll remember all the work and time it would’ve taken to make that film. And I’ll cross it off my list. And I’ll say, thank you, Chris Nolan. You brought this into the world, so now I don’t have to. You’ve given me the ability to focus on something else.

Gratitude frame

People are imperfect evaluators. Sometimes, the community is going to make mistakes when conferring status. And sometimes, those decisions will be consequential. This sometimes makes me feel upset, disappointed, or annoyed.

When I notice one of these feelings (and I’ve deemed this feeling unproductive), I remind myself of some ways in which I’m grateful to the community.

Some examples of things I might think about:

  • I would not be here without the community. I did not independently discover the importance of existential risk from first principles. A lot of what I know and a lot of what I care about is based on the work of others in the community.
  • I imagine what it was like for people who began their journey in 2010, or even 2015, or even 2018. I’ve seen a snapshot of the community: a particular subset of people at a particular moment in time. And more concretely, the community I joined had money, office spaces, and a track record of making things happen in the world. EA, longtermism, and AIS are “weird”, but they’re much less “weird” and “risky” than they were 10 years ago. I’m grateful to the people who were willing to come into the community when there was more to sacrifice and less to benefit from. 
  • I imagine what it was like to work on reducing x-risk when we knew even less about what we were doing. I imagine all of the work that it took to learn about AI x-risk before we had large language models, deep learning, and many of the papers/posts that explain various aspects of the alignment problem. 

Conclusion + invitation to the reader

Many of these frames have come from talking with friends about their experiences with status, reputation, social comparisons, and related topics.

If you (yes, you!) have any frames/stances that help you handle these kinds of concerns, I invite you to offer them in the comments.

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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:17 PM

My favorite frame is based on In The Future Everyone Will Be Famous To Fifteen People. If we as a civilization pass this test, we who lived at the turn of history will be outnumbered trillions to one, and the future historians will construct a pretty good model of how everyone contributed. We'll get to read about it, if we decide that that's part of our personal utopia.

I'd like to be able to look back from eternity and see that I shifted things a little in the right direction. That perspective helps defuse some of the local status-seeking drives, I think.

I suspect that "just noticing" is the most important thing here. Here's what I mean.

Having the thought of "hm, maybe my desire for status is having a corrosive effect here" is one thing. What you do next -- asking what the Rob Bensinger shoulder model says vs what the Habryka model says -- is a different thing. I think that the first thing is both 1) a lot harder and 2) a lot more important.

Periodic journaling/reflecting seems like a good way to get yourself to "just notice". Perhaps with some sort of "status can be corrosive" writing prompt.

OTOH, getting yourself to notice in the moment -- ie. "I'm considering asking for feedback on this document, I wonder how my concern for status is affecting this" -- seems kinda impractical. Our minds are on automatic too much. It reminds me of the "every battle is won before it is ever fought" quote. When you're in the moment the battle has usually already been won or lost.

Totally agree with everything in here!

I also like the framing: Status-focused thinking was likely very highly selected for in the ancestral environment, and so when your brain comes up with status-focused justifications for various plans, you should be pretty skeptical about whether it is actually focusing on status as an instrumental goal toward your intrinsic goals, or as an intrinsic goal in itself. Similar to how you would be skeptical of your brain for coming up with justifications in favor of why its actually a really good idea to hire that really sexy girl/guy interviewing for a position who analyzed objectively is a doofus.

There is a teaching in Buddhism called "the eight worldly winds". The eight wordly winds refer to: praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, and fame and disrepute.

I don't know how faithful that verbiage is to the original ancient Indian text it was translated from. But I always found the term "wordly winds" really helpful and evocative. When I find myself chasing praise or reputation, if I can recall that phrase it immediately reminds me that these things are like the wind blowing around and changing direction from day to day. So it's foolish to worry about them too much or to try and control them, and it reminds me that I should focus on more important things.

Also, when I actually think about what it would be like to have a Plan That I Truly Believe In, it doesn't really seem hard to get it on the desk of The Important Stakeholders (or someone who knows someone who talks to The Important Stakeholders).

 

I think you can scream a Good Plan from the rooftops and often few will listen. See: Covid in January-February 2020.

In these cases, I pull out a frame from my childhood best friend. He once told me something like this:

Here’s the thing, Akash. There are some incredible books in the world that both of us should read. But most books worth reading are not that good. One of us should read it, and then we should share the main insights and try to communicate >50% of the value. There are few books so valuable that it’s worth both of us spending our time reading them.

 

I'll push back against just this one thing, I've never gotten anywhere close to 50% of the value of reading a book from just reading the summaries or talking about the book. This is obviously true for anything actually important like Information Theory textbooks, and it's certainly true for fiction books, where the value is that *you* get to read them for pleasure. The only genre of books where this has a chance of being true are non-fiction books and maybe classic fiction books that aren't that pleasant to read but impart good lessons. Yet even for those books, spending the time to read them is what instills their lessons into your mind. I can summarize everything in Atomic Habits in like 2 paragraphs, yet that would be useless to you because spending 8 hours reading the book is what will infuse those lessons at a sufficient psychological depth as to be useful, any summary will be quickly forgotten and have no chance of actually being implemented.  

The only genre of books where this has a chance of being true are non-fiction books and maybe classic fiction books that aren't that pleasant to read but impart good lessons.

Also: bad books, where the lesson to be imparted is "This book sucks, don't waste your time on it".  Or: "Book Y covers the same stuff but much better."  Which are valuable lessons if you were considering reading book X.

I think this is a reasonable critique.

The particular friend I refer to is unusually good at distilling things in ways that I find actionable/motivating, which might bias me a bit.

But of course it depends on the book and the topic and the person, and it would be unwise to think that most books could be easily summarized like this.

Notably, I think that many of the things that people commonly worry about RE status are easier to summarize than books. Examples:

  • Takeaways from a conference
  • Takeaways from a meeting with High-Status Person TM
  • Takeaways from a Google Doc written by High-Status Person TM

The main exception is when information is explicitly flagged as private. Even in these cases, I think people are often still able to reveal things like "the updates they made" without actually sharing the sensitive information. Or people are allowed the ideas but not their sources (e.g., Chatham House rules)

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