Friday, September 02, 2011

Status Anxiety

Earlier this week I had a pair of meetings right on top of each other that made for a hell of a contrast.

The first involved a discussion of academic programs that haven’t been achieving the results they should. When I suggested that years of sustained underperformance constituted a pretty good case for trying something different, I was upbraided by a long-tenured professor who was Shocked and Appalled that I would dare to suggest that the program was anything less than perfect. As far as she was concerned, the only possible formula for improvement involved more of the same.

Later that day I had a meeting with a hotshot young entrepreneur with audacious plans. He was relaxed and confident, and while I can’t say I was entirely persuaded, I couldn’t help but enjoy both his energy and his ambitions. Without spilling any beans, I’ll just say that he’s attempting to create an entirely new category of company, and it actually makes sense.

And I thought, hmm.

The key difference wasn’t so much age or gender; I’ve seen energy and ambition cross those lines over and over again. It was the presence, or absence, of status anxiety.

The entrepreneur was utterly confident that he was on the right track, that the future would be better than the present, and that one way or another, all would be well. His primary frustration was speed; he wanted things to move considerably faster than they already are. The fact that the current company exists in a hovel, and that nobody has heard of it, bothered him not at all.

The professor, by contrast, seems to think that the only options are either preservation or decline. She has been doing the exact same thing for many, many years, and as far as she’s concerned, her dues are paid. At some level, she must know that the world doesn’t quite believe her, so she scrambles to squash any audible echo of her own doubts. Initiative is crushed by fear; even the possibility of change is taken as a direct threat.

All of which is to say, status anxiety is self-destructive.

If both of them get what they want, in a few years the entrepreneur will be running a successful, rapidly growing company doing a new and exciting thing. The professor will be doing exactly what she is doing now.

I’ve never had much truck with Platonism, and I’m not about to start now. The idea of the Fall from the Golden Age is paralytic, if not fatalistic. It prevents the creation of anything new. Worse, it even forestalls serious discussion of how to improve what’s already there. If all change is decline, then the best that can be done is to strike a tragic, if dramatic, pose as the doomed champion of a fading, imaginary past, raging against the dying of the light.

Worse, it seems to me that even doing traditional education well requires a real faith in the future. The very act of teaching is a sort of bet on the future, a devotion of resources that could have been otherwise engaged to something with a long-term payoff. If there’s no sense that the future will be better, why bet on it? What’s the point?

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen successful ways to help people get past their own status anxiety and focus on the future? Or is it just an occupational hazard that slowly overcomes people who once knew better?