Peculiar Books Reviewed: Alain de Botton's "Status Anxiety"

Originally published June 2, 2014

I went to a conference earlier this month where everyone was uniformly lovely and brilliant and interesting and everyone agreed that it was an excellent conference and damn near everyone felt like surely, soon, all the other uniformly lovely and brilliant and interesting people would realize that they, and they alone, didn't belong. If you, gentle reader, have never felt anything like this then, bless your heart, may you never. Everyone else, if you don't know, this is called Impostor Syndrome and it's generally understood to be an inability to properly accept one's accomplishments and talents as one's own, believing that the recognition of such from others is a mistake. This conference I refer to was Write the Docs in Portland, Oregon and the unique thing about it, in my experience, was how open and communicative the crowd was with one another. Fitting, I suppose, for a conference dedicated to communication. After a speaker admitted feeling like a fraud, one of the large side-conversations of the conference, as you might expect from a room full of people who care deeply about communication, folks began sharing their like feeling, admitting it with palpable relief. It was a singular experience.

Throughout, I thought of Alain de Botton's "Status Anxiety". It's a charming book, split into two parts: the first, is a historical discussion of the changing standards of high-status through history and the second a series of themed essays for resolving the personal anguish caused by having low status. To say 'resolve' is something of a mistake, however: Alain de Botton is no Tony Robbins. "Status Anxiety" works as a survey of historical thought--trailing off somewhere in the early 20th century--and doesn't instruct readers so much as puts them in a reflective frame of mind. If de Botton attempts to stress anything as invariant through time it is the universality of concerns about status and the variability of just what it is that 'status' means.

Different societies have awarded status to different groups: hunters, fighters, ancient families, priests, knights, fecund women. Increasingly (status in the West) has been awarded in relation to financial achievement.

Stopping as it does in the early 20th century, de Botton's text sets the stage for considering one's own Impostor Syndrome but does not address it. de Botton leaves off with the Industrial era, money and it's accumulation are the primary indicator of status and the lack of it a sign of moral deviance or other personal failings.

If the successful merited their success, it necessarily followed that failures had to merit their failure. In a meritocratic age, an element of justice appeared to enter into the distribution of poverty no less than that of wealth. Low status came to seem not merely regrettable but also deserved. ... To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now added the insult of shame.

Perhaps Impostor Syndrome is unique, a new thing we're adding on top of the mountain of anxieties--money, religious morality, personal appearance--that our species has accumulated as it's built more and more complex societies. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as de Botton remarks on at length, asserted that in mankind's most simple states we had perfect wealth--and, therefore, no status anxiety--as our desires were exactly matched by our meager ambitions.

For the benefit of those who might wish to explain this away as the absurdly romantic fantasy of a pastoral author unreasonably ... it is worth nothing here that if the eighteenth century paid attention to Rousseau's argument, it was in part because it had before it a single, stark example of it's evident truths, in the fate of the indigenous populations of North America. ... (Native American) society ... (was a) materially modest yet psychologically rewarding ... Even a chief might own no more than a spear and a few pots. ... Within only a few decades of the arrival of the first Europeans ... (w)hat mattered most was no longer an individual's wisdom ... but ownership of weapons, jewelry and whiskey.

Later in the argument,

(T)he Indians, no different in their psychological makeup from other humans, had succumbed to the easy lure of the trinkets of modern civilization.

It seems rather more likely that Impostor Syndrome, rather than being a totally new thing, is rather a very old, latent behavior waiting for the right circumstances to become evident. Impostor Syndrome very often coincides with anxieties about intellectual prowess or experiences that might lead to greater intellectual ability. The modern professional workplace, in which duels to the death are discouraged as a way of defending or gaining status, provides a perfect environment for noticing and fretting about the distinctions in intelligence or know-how (along with all the other status fixing concerns like wealth, appearance etc).

For example, I have a friend, a mathematician by training, that regrets that his childhood lacked 'practical' preparations. This admission occurred when I casually mentioned that I could repair drywall and had learned to do so when I broke a wall as a child and patched it up before anyone was the wiser using the craftsmanship books my father had on hand. My friend, you see, grew up relatively well-off in an urban environment and I did not on both counts. Where his parents focused on the common concerns of the Politically Correct in the 1990s, my own stressed individual reliance and deliberate progress. My friend the mathematician argues that these are a 'simpler' kind of values--hear the drums of Rousseau's Primitive Man pounding in the distance--and are, therefore, to be envied. Worse, my friend feels behind the curve on becoming a Whole Person for the lack of these practical sorts of skills and despairs of ever learning them. The curious thing here is that I envy my friend his more esoterically intellectual childhood. I should have liked to have learned a foreign language and cannot speak one now. I have never been outside of the United States--save the time I accidentally invaded Canada in the Boy Scouts. I feel, analogously to my friend, behind the curve on being a Whole Person. Each of us, I think, looks out onto the world and feeling desire feels oneself to be short of that desire, peculiar to each.

Impostor Syndrome is a reflection of this affliction, combined with an overconfidence in the contentment of our fellow humans. To feel before a crowd that you don't Belong is to think, surely, that they must have their acts together, they who are so uniformly lovely and brilliant and interesting. The trick here is that they do not, not if there's any ambition in their hearts. Excepting the rare stoic--and perhaps even then, felt if not expressed--each member of the crowd will look out with fresh eyes, weigh themselves against an immediate, superficial impression and find themselves lacking in some measure which is close to the desire of their heart.

Software Engineering is a profession struggling to gain diversity on every front. It strikes me that this shared recognition of Impostor Syndrome at Write the Docs is remarkably important. There, a few hundred people all came together to speak about documentation and ended up largely agreeing that, "Yes, I feel pretty awkward and scared most of the time," and it wasn't that big of a deal. Folks empathized, shared their stories and what suggestions, however meager, they had for overcoming status oriented discomfort.

However disgruntled or puzzled a social hierarchy may leave us feeling, we are apt to go along with it on the resigned assumption that it is ... somehow natural. ... (U)nderstanding may also be a first step towards an attempt to shift, or tug at, society's ideals, and thus to bring about a world in which it will be marginally less likely that veneration and honor will be dogmatically or unskeptically surrendered to those who are (already honored).

The craft of putting software together is a task of cooperation, between ourselves in the moment and those strangers in the future that will inherit our systems. To value those that can produce the most code or stir up the most controversy with aggressive rhetoric--to call this natural--is to lose those who write contemplatively or speak rarely and passively. If you enjoy programming machines but don't much care to "crush code"--what does this even mean?--by no means does that make you a fraud.

(Philosophy, art, politics, religion and bohemia) have helped to lend legitimacy to those who, in every generation, may be unable or unwilling to comply dutifully with the domination notion of high status, but you may yet deserve to be categorized under something other than the brutal epithet of "loser" or "nobody". They have provided us with a persuasive and consoling reminders that there is more than one way ... of succeeding at life.

If you're different from me and we're different from all the other people we're building things of worth with, we'll probably make it, in so far as anyone ever does.