Unorthodox Status Games

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book review / philosophy / reading

I definitely don’t get inspired from writers easily nor do I make a habit of putting people on pedestals. I don’t watch inspirational videos nor motivational speeches. Yet, when encountering the blog, Ribbonfarm, written by Venkatesh Rao I could see writing of a different quality – a veneer of criticism carefully slathered over any topic he touches. Others take themes and concepts for granted, as they are. But, Rao makes sure to add in his brush strokes in whatever he sees: a renegade Picasso.

“When you understand everything, you can forgive everything.”

– Madame de Stael

Ribbonfarm, whose tagline is refactored perception, is a haven for those who grew up on Sci-Fi, work in technical fields, and most importantly, take life with a pinch of humor. It’s a critique on life and the things we hold sacred. In his essays, nothing is off the table.

As I finished Rao’s book, Be Slightly Evil, it opened up a wide world of thinking. Some say the best books give you five more to read, but Rao demonstrated an entirely different style.

Perhaps it would be most similar to having grown up on Baroque art only to have your conceptions shattered by seeing a postmodernist painting. Growing might be exploring all of these different avenues: how to pick the hobbies or jobs that optimize for growth rather than stagnation.

I’m an avid reader of non-fiction, but this book opened my eyes to a whole new world. Be slightly evil encompasses many strands of thought, but one of the best parts of the book for me was the essay – Status, Harmony, and Conflict.

When we meet others, it’s a battle to gauge the status of others and even self-assess our that of our own in their eyes. Rao argues this resembles a group of for me/against me and better than me/worse than me. Now, we end up with this matrix.

  • Condescension: Better than you and for you
  • Contempt: Better than you and against you
  • Supplication: Worse than you and for you
  • Insolence: Worse than you and against you

With this framework, I can probably judge > 90% of my own encounters with people even though this is just a rough archetype sketch. As I’ve brought up before, I try to remove interactions with people who I see as only providing validation-seeking (read: closed) interactions. They might speak to me for knowledge transfer or for sympathy. But, it will never be reciprocated. These people often compel you to act in times of their need, which is a full-time job in and of itself.

One good heuristic is to ask: after an encounter that you “win” in some sense, does the other person feel like they learned something valuable at a reasonable price or that they were played for a sucker, or paid too high a cost for the learning?”

So how should you structure your social groups with this in mind? I would go more for those who are better and me and on the border of contempt and condescension. The way we learn is through setting rigorous goals and striving to meet them. If we’re better at what we do than everyone around us, or falling into the trap of Dunning Kruger, refinement will always escape us. And the world is built off the backs of incentives.

My friendships are all like this:

“Two people who can be brutally honest with each other, knowing that the other can take it, is a very powerful combination.”

Providing a language to talk about ideas is one way that authors can achieve literary immortality. Rao isn’t a convenient author, but his language should definitely be continued, and not just in the context of status games.

“Relationships based on false harmony and denial of ideas, or worse, one party cravenly abandoning their own ideas in the interests of preserving the relationship, are fundamentally weak, and not worth very much.”

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