passion, drive, careers

The prestige trap

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

Paul Graham, the founder of Y-Combinator, wrote that in his well-known and oft-quoted article “How to Do What You Love.” I love that line, specifically, because it makes no bones about the driver being what you would like to like.

We all have ideas of who we would like to be and what life would look like if we were, or became, that person. It’s easy to choose high-status jobs as goals because:

  1. Our society worships at that altar, therefore
  2. It comes with a lot of social approval, and
  3. These days, social approval (and the ranking, measuring, tracking of it) is ubiquitous

However, doing a particular job or chasing a particular promotion because you would like to like it – or, really, you get approval from “random others” (I like to think of the random others as the unspoken “they” the drive checking statements from peers like “you’re not supposed to do that!“) – is an excellent way to live a terrible life.

How do I know this? Because the prestige trap is a good one and I’ve run afoul it more than once, not less than twice, and in ways small and large, it will remain a constant stumbling block because that’s just life in our modern, connected, prestige-worshiping world.

So, why talk about it then? If it’s so ubiquitous, if it’s just the normal way things work now, why even fight it? Why even address it? Oh, that’s easy, remember just above I said it’s “an excellent way to live a terrible life?” We don’t want terrible lives; so let’s not have them.


1. Be intentional.
Do you know what a default setting is? You can click the link for the detailed explanation, but the tl;dr version is just the standard way things are initially setup to work so that it’s easy. For example, get a new iPhone, it has a few default things (e.g. text notification sounds, the ringtone, etc.) Get into a new car and it has some factory settings on lights, how the alarm works, maybe even preset radio stations.

When it comes to your life (family, work, relationships, school), you can also have “default settings.” Ask of a group of first graders what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll probably get doctor, fireman, police officer, president, teacher, and singer. So by the age of six, little people are already ‘defaulting in.’

Why does this matter? Because as you get older, the defaults don’t stop. If most of your friends parents’ have a similar career, what makes you think you’ll choose something radically different? If most of your friends opt to go a specific city, what makes you think you won’t? Of course, nothing is set in stone, but there are far more ‘decisions’ we make that are more just going along and getting along than about who we are, what we really like, what provides us purpose, joy, and fulfillment, and really, consider the broader limits of what we can do.

That leads the next thing.

2. Ask why, often.
Toddlers are great because they take nothing for granted. They are not good with the default settings and the “known” things. Why? Why? Why? Why? By time we get through compulsory education, most of the desire to even ask why (let alone pursue it to a comfortable conclusion), has been trained out of us. It often feels like it is more important to get good grades than to be intellectually or emotionally satisfied with the answer, or even to question the premise of the questions being asked.

So, part of being intentional is asking why, almost reflexively leading with it. “You must be in SF to be a mover in the tech world.” Really…why? “The only way to have a secure job in the future is to study in a STEM field.” Really…why? “You have to stay at a job for at least two years otherwise no one will take you seriously.” Really…why?

The moment we are fully convinced that we know all there is to know, that is when we should all duck and run for cover, because that is when things start to blow up.

3. Find, and do, at least one thing just for you.
Ask yourself, most seriously, how much time do you really have for yourself in a day? Exclude time spent sleeping. Exclude time spent at work. Exclude time spent commuting to work (or at least discount it, unless you spend the entire time thinking about work, then go back to excluding it entirely!) Exclude/discount time spent commuting from work, most especially so if you continue to think about work after the fact. Exclude time spent engaged with family in the mundane. Exclude work happy hours. Exclude (or discount!) mundane daily chores like cooking, cleaning, etc. Exclude time passively watching television or taking in the news.

After all those exclusions and discounts, how much time do you have left? Probably not a lot. So much of our time is in service to others and even if those others are expressly meaningful like family and close friends, or necessarily meaningful like co-workers, managers, or professors, we will either fall into a default setting-driven life or simply go mad if we do not find protected time for ourselves.

How can you live a full, intentional, and purposeful life if you don’t even have the time to think about it for yourself? It is not in spare minutes caught between commutes and vacations and shopping and happy hours. Rather, it is dedicated, protected time that one should given over to the consideration of the various bits, bobs, and edges of our lives. Time given over to self-care and mental rejuvenation. Time specifically culled out from the required default mundanities of daily life for the purpose and set aside for the bigger questions and the bigger picture.

So, choose a hobby. Find a thing. Set aside specific time that is for that thing, which is really just a tool for you to have time for you. And protect that space if your life depends on it…because it does.

Escaping the trap
You may wonder how we got from “the prestige trap” to “your life depends on it” and that is easy: prestige is about external approval and if you live a prestigious life, chances are, you are living a terrible one. So, don’t:

  1. Be intentional about the choices you make; the jobs you take, the work you perform, the friends you keep, the things you do.
  2. Ask why, often, about things that are taken for granted.
  3. Find, and do, one thing that is for you and you alone because that will give you the space to think about what gives you internal approval.

Don’t live a prestigious life. Live a great one.


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