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Welcome to Doodlecat, where we enjoy the pleasures of life (with a slight bias towards the outdoors). This page is regularly updated with news and views plus information about any additions or changes to the various parts of the site. It acts as Doodlecat’s Blog too, so the odd rant considered opinion may pop up from time to time.

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Monday, August 2, 2010

Status Anxiety and how to avoid it.

rucksack and poles by a tree
"What do you get out of it?". I suppose we've all been asked that question by people who cannot understand the appeal of nights alone in the hills, and whatever answer you might give, the chances are that they will remain unenlightened. For some of us it's to find that small part of ourselves that is easily smothered in the hurly burly of what passes for life. Call it what you will - soul if you must - but without it we are surely diminished.

I guess it must have been ten or twelve years ago, when things were really on the up and up and buying a new car or whatever was a matter of writing a cheque, that I realised that life had somehow become pretty miserable. I was putting in overlong hours and dealing with difficult people for much of the time. Still I carried on. Money and ambition are curious things and cause us to behave in curious ways – good and bad. Yes, they can drive us on to achieve great things and improve our lives. But the compulsion to succeed can also drive us slightly mad.

I went slightly mad.

The only periods of sanity were when I went up to Scotland on the sleeper to go backpacking for a few glorious, liberating days. Taking part in the TGO Challenge was just fantastic – two weeks of freedom from the fax, email and phone (I told the office that none of these worked in the Highlands. I didn’t tell them that they didn’t work because all the devices were switched off and in a drawer at home).

I loved backpacking, especially the enforced egalitarianism of having nothing but what you can carry. No matter how much money you might have, you can only carry so much stuff. In fact, carrying too much is likely to provoke ridicule – quite the reverse of ‘normal life’ where the main point of toil, beyond survival, is the accumulation and display of as much stuff as possible.

Gradually, gradually, walking changed my life. Five years ago I disposed of my company and you could say I retired. The truth is that I just stepped off the treadmill for a while and (so far) have never felt the urge to get on it again, although I do the odd job to keep ticking along.  I soon discovered that living simply isn’t terribly expensive and is vastly more pleasurable.

Now, at this point it might appear that I’m about to say that I’ve become a monk, wear a hair shirt and eat berries and roots gathered from the woods. Not so. In my work I still like to excel, and, as anyone who knows me is well aware, I love my luxuries and take great pleasure from them. The difference lies in being able to distinguish between personal luxuries and status symbols.

The breakthrough for me was the realisation that the pleasure gained from acquiring some expensive gewgaw tended not to add greatly to my stock of satisfaction and happiness – at least not after the first rush of delight. So I just stopped pursuing them. Miss W is of a similar mind. In fact she got there before me. And many people that I meet when I amble across Scotland on the TGOC are seemingly made this way.

Comfortable in their own skin.

Cover of book entitled Status Anxiety
Beyond the basics (food, shelter, security, sex) many people are driven not by personal goals but by the craving for high social status, whether merited or not. If one can’t acquire genuine status and respect, then the next best thing is to acquire the badges of status. This, no doubt, is why so many run up huge debts just to parade around in designer labels, drive expensive cars and mortgage their grannies to buy unaffordable houses filled with plasma televisions and the like. Lives dominated by the fleeting triumph of having the latest must have, and the misery of envy as a friend or colleague trumps them.

“It may be tempting to laugh at those afflicted by urgent cravings for the symbols of status: the name droppers, the gold tap owners. … Rather than a tale of greed, the history of luxury could be more accurately read as a record of emotional trauma. It is the legacy of those who have felt pressured by the disdain of others to add an extraordinary amount to their bare selves in order to signal that they too may lay a claim to love”

Alain de Botton.

That's Status Anxiety. We've all suffered from it from time to time and Alain de Botton analyses the angst that this condition provokes. I read his book shortly after my own period of readjustment and thoroughly enjoyed it. For a book by a philosopher it is remarkably readable, and neatly points up the diminishing returns of increasing wealth. It won’t change your life, but it may make you think about it ...

... and maybe understand why the people you see inside the most expensive cars always seem to look so damn miserable!



Anonymous David Albon said...

Nice one Phil! Thanks for posting this.


August 4, 2010 at 5:29 PM  
Blogger Alison Hobbs said...

Very well written. I like this.

August 5, 2010 at 4:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spot on as always, Phil, and thanks for writing it ♥

Having over the course of the last 10 years dumped two high status, but unloved, jobs in an attempt to spend what remains of my life doing things I enjoy, rather than dashing around the country in a frenzy of guilt and anxiety, I'm entirely in favour of this approach.

Looking back, I think the happiest time I've ever had was the 2.5 months I spent on South Water Cay in Belize, back in 1990, on a diving expedition. All I had with me was my dive kit, several pairs of shorts and T shirts, a personal stereo (as they were then called) with about 5 cassette tapes and a few good books. The relief of freedom from a great weight of possessions was quite fantastic!


August 5, 2010 at 10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the difference between enjoying posessions and bing possessed by them.

August 5, 2010 at 1:41 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Good to see we're all such well adjusted people here!

August 7, 2010 at 10:15 AM  
Blogger cwlh said...

Hello Phil. Sorry to disprove the assumption in your comment that you have well-adjusted readers but I feel I ought to comment.

I think your posting misses one point: status without anxiety. The tacit implication you make is that if someone seeks a particular status then some form of anxiety comes with that search.

Consider the open source movement. I have contributed to it but am not a hard-core contributer as are many people I know (and with whom I work). As is described in the wonderful video


the impetus for contributing open source is, in large part, personal status. The status of those in the inner circle of the Linux kernel (committers), for example, is known and respected throughout the civilised world.

However, I can't see any of the people I know getting into a pother with anxiety. They are the best, they have demonstrated that they are the best and have received the resulting status within their community.

I work in the kernel group of an operating system company. The real gurus in that small group enjoy a status well above any normal mortals but, as far as I can tell and I work with the daily, don't feel any form of anxiety. They can do the job better than more-or-less anyone else in the world and are accorded the appropriate authority.

So, I think "status" in your posting is something other than the "status" I see around me all day. I fly with excellent pilots who are accorded the appropriate status. I code alongside excellent programmers who are accorded the appropriate status.

You say, "Beyond the basics .... many people are driven not by personal goals but by the craving for high social status, whether merited or not." Perhaps I have been abnormally lucky but I must say that I can't remember ever meeting any of them.

Thinking back, I've recently met people driven to gain a better understanding of causality, to attack the Riemann hypothesis, to play Brahms' 3rd Violin Sonata, to reduce the interrupt latency on an embedded kernel, to put the Schubert quartets into their correct historical context and to determine exactly what happened on 28th May 1453 in the Hagia Sophia (yes, I'm in there somewhere). If successful, each of these would bring increased status within their peers. But I can't think of any anxiety involved.

And, please do not start me on that old fraud, Alain de Botton. I am very much against book burning in general but perhaps the world would be a better (certainly a cleaner) place without his.

August 9, 2010 at 12:11 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

Thanks, Chris

Interesting points that lead us deeper into the nature of status, although I didn't think that I had implied that all quests to excel neccessarily lead to stress and anxiety.

I was directing the post at the desire for status within society at large, and more particularly the craving for symbols of status - the venal rather than the spiritual.

Shame we can't meet up for a few beers to chew this one over :-)


p.s.I reckon you're the Schubert man btw.

August 9, 2010 at 8:59 PM  
Blogger Alison Hobbs said...

Well done, Phil. That's what I've been trying to get across to Chris for the last couple of days. You have inspired quite a debate in our household! Pity you can't pop over just like that, but we shall keep the few beers in readiness for when you next cross the Atlantic. Then you could meet Elva too, who's another of your regular blog-followers.

Chris wants to know if books come into the same category as plasma TVs (we still don't have a TV of any description), posh cars and the like. He's the Hagia Sophia man, btw. The Schubert expert was a girl we met.

August 10, 2010 at 2:57 AM  

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