Everyone’s playing a game, whether we realize it or not. Most of us are average players, with scores somewhere in the middle. Very few of us are winning big. Others, failing at one game, leave and try another.
But we’re all playing, and we’re all comparing. Because the thing about these games is it’s a direct competition. No two people can be #1. For you to be in the Top 100, someone must drop out so you can take his place.
What are these games, you ask? They’re status games. The games we play comparing ourselves to those around us. It’s only natural for human beings to compare — to try and win. But what games are being played and are they good for us?
1. THE MONEY STATUS GAME
The easiest example of a status game is the one we all think about, but try not to say out loud.
Who makes the most money?
It’s hard to not get sucked into this game. Firstly, because money is so important in our lives, it’s almost branded into our brains to look for the money angle. See something nice, “Can I afford that?” See someone successful, “I wonder how much money she makes?” Wanna get a loan? The bank asks, “How much money do you make?”
As someone once said: “Money is an imperfect metric, but it’s the only one we’ve got.”
But the problem isn’t the metric. Yes, you should keep a detailed score of the money in your life. The problem is when we start competing with others.
Indeed, people use money status games to evaluate all sorts of things. From “Do you make enough money to marry my daughter?” to “Can you afford to hang out with us?”
Taken to the extreme, people fight to show off how rich they are. And since it’s socially unacceptable to brag about how much money you make, money status games usually show up in the form of its bitchy younger cousin: materialism.
2. THE MATERIALISTIC STATUS GAME
What do you do when you’re rich and wanna brag, but don’t wanna share screenshots of your bank account? Right, you buy luxurious things.
Some common examples:
- Luxury cars
- Branded clothes
- Designer handbags
Again, I’m not saying any of the above is bad. Some people buy expensive stuff because they love high quality — which doesn’t come cheap.
But I’m questioning the intention. If we’re being honest with ourselves, when buying something branded is not at least 10% of the motivation: “I’ve made it now, I can buy expensive shit”? “Imagine how cool I’m gonna look bro!”
For a lot of people, it’s probably much higher than 10%. And the problem is compounded by peer pressure. Like if all your bitches are hanging Hermes leather around their shoulders, even Coach feels low class.
Done wrongly, all status games can lead to ruin. But materialistic status games are (rightly) the first thing personal finance gurus will ask you to stop playing.
3. THE INTELLECTUAL STATUS GAME
The next status game is one you were forced into playing, whether you liked it or not. The one where they judged your position in class, by how good your grades were. Do well, and you get put on a privileged path. Stumble at the beginning, and you’re forever chasing an uphill battle.
It’s supposed to answer the question “How smart are you?” (Though maybe it answers the “How privileged are you?” question better.)
When you grow up, it comes out in other ways. Like the people who brag they read 100 books a year. Or the certification addict — who keeps completing more and more certifications so he can add them to his LinkedIn profile.
Your parents likely wanted you to win the intellectual status game. They’d be super proud if you have a Ph.D. and people have to call you “doctor.” Other common routes to win are the holy trinity of: lawyer, doctor and engineer.
I used to be a champion of the intellectual status game. Top 1% all the way from primary school to university. But now I’ve fallen behind, because “all” I have is a bachelor’s degree while some of my peers finished their MBAs years ago. I keep thinking I need to make a comeback and excel in some incredibly difficult course with a 50% failing rate like a CFA.
But then I realize that’s probably the wrong motivation.
4. THE SOCIAL STATUS GAME
Talking about education — you knew this one growing up: who was the most popular boy/girl in school?
Or put another way: in your social circle, who has the most power?
It’s still being played out every day at work. There’s the formal management structure — where if you get promoted, then people have to call you “boss.” Then there’s the shadow economy, where everyone knows who the most influential people are, even if they don’t have a title.
This is the also the source from which politicians draw their power.
Out of all the status games, social status is the most ancient. 20,000 years ago, we might not have had money or nice things — but in every human tribe, everyone knew who the leaders and influencers were.
5. THE SOCIAL MEDIA STATUS GAME
Today, we have the modern twist to social status: How many social media followers do you have?
Gain enough, then you get to call yourself an influencer — and have big brands throw money at you.
Interestingly, any of the other status games can also show up in social media. Like the materialistic bragger who “accidentally” shows the LV logo on her purse beside her iPhone X, hashtag #style. There’s a millennial twist to this too of course, because blatant displays of stuff aren’t cool anymore. Now we also compete on “experiences.” Yeah you’ve got a BMW, but did you travel to 30 countries — and log it on Instagram with 30k followers — before you turned 30?
The tech visionary Eugene Wei wrote a brilliant article here about status games and how we go for the easiest ones. When I read it, I understood why millennials don’t engage as much in materialistic status games as older people.
Because… we can’t afford it. So what do you do when you’re losing at one status game? Right, switch to another one where you can “win”: I can’t have a double-story house, but at least I’ve got 10,000 followers on TikTok!
6. THE “RELIGIOUS” STATUS GAME
Not everyone is a religious person, but everyone knows a “religious” person who judges others.
You’d think that status games and competition only play out in the evil, materialistic world of men. But somehow, it exists in the realm of religion too: who’s the most righteous of them all?
Note that I’m not talking about morality here. There’s a real difference between being moral and religious. Like how you can be a kindhearted person who doesn’t believe in God (moral but not religious), or a crazed terrorist who prays before shooting innocent people (religious but not moral).
I’m not gonna pretend I’m an expert on religion. But based on the few religions I know a bit about — apart from basic concepts — even religious scholars don’t agree on everything. How then can we judge other people? (Maybe leave the judging to God?)
I think the better question here is: does your religious practice make you a better person, or does it make you an asshole? Because if it does, you’re likely practicing it wrong.
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Am I saying that everything about status games is bad? No. Biologically, it seems that humans are primed for hierarchy. We want to compare and know who’s Number 1.
I think it’s important to recognize which status games we’re playing though. To understand our deepest motivations; what we’re really looking for in life.
I used to think I was super cool because I never played the materialistic status game. I was arrogant — thinking I was better than the common person. But I’ve recently realized I was only replacing it with other status games. In fact I’m a huge offender — I’ve indulged in every other status game apart from the materialistic one.
If you look at yourself honestly, what are the status games you play?
More importantly, are they making you happy? Because if the games we play don’t bring meaning to our lives, what’s the point?
I can actually only think of one status game worth playing. And that’s the game you play against yourself. When we strip away all our pride and egos, I’ve found the below to be the only comparison that matters: “Am I a better person today than I was yesterday?”
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Aaron Tang is the founder of mr-stingy.com, where he writes about optimizing Time, Money and Relationships.