writer and domestic dude

Why Prestige Gets in Our Way More Than it Helps Us

As a part of continuing to share his new ideas and on his David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants book, Malcolm Gladwell speaks at Google’s Zeitgeist 2013 conference and begins by discussing why he came to this conference to speak when he wasn’t getting paid–and didn’t have any books to sell either. A big part of what sustains him as a writer is getting paid to come and speak at conferences, so why did he come to this one in which he wasn’t. “What does this say about Google,” he asks, “and more importantly what does this say about me? In fact, it’s costing me to come to this conference!”

My decision to do something that is not in my best interest has to do with what I want to talk about. Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder. What if we freed ourselves from the scourge of EICD?

We have a problem turning out enough science and math students. We have a persistence problem. Why do so many kids drop out? Well, science and math are really hard. So, do we have enough smart kids?

He uses this anecdote to illustrate a fascinating insight some recent economists have uncovered about success. The name given to this phenomenon is called Relative Deprivation Theory. We do not form our self assessments based on our standing in the world, but on our immediate circle, those in the same boat as ourselves.

What’s the implication? Relative position is better than absolute position. If you want to get a science and math degree don’t go to Harvard. Another game-changing takeaway from Gladwell: research proves that if you really want to succeed you shouldn’t go to the very best places. You should go to the second or third choices on your list. And for those who hire just based upon where you come from is completely mistaken. What matters is how well you did amongst the peers in your immediate group.

So why does EICD exist when it’s so plainly irrational?

As human beings we dramatically underestimate the costs of being at the bottom of a hierarchy.”

Gladwell’s thoughts on this subject are amazing and applicable to a lot of fields. If we take it to publication, for instance, we can see that the dynamic times of the publishing industry have plateaued, haven’t they? It’s no longer the wild west that we were dizzy with expectations for like the previous decade. Things are still crazy with new technology, no doubt, and there are plenty of writers, especially in genre writing who are finding niches and brands all on their own. But here’s a bottom line of human behavior: We need hierarchies. We need status places so as to know how to assess ourselves in comparison to others.

And that’s exactly why Gladwell says he came to speak at the Zeitgeist conference. When we get an opportunity to something that is prestigious, we’re enormously flattered and pleased with ourselves and we do things that are completely irrational.

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