The Prestige Paradox: Keeping on Running, Going Nowhere

What is prestige? Why do we chase it, and why does it so often lead us astray?

I recently came across an article in the Harvard Crimson from back in 1998. Written by Rustin Silverstein (himself a Harvard college and Harvard law graduate, who later went on to work at the Boston Consulting Group and start his own companies), the column discusses the problem of prestige at any institution where your classmates will end up running countries, or at least enormous companies and government departments. He calls the problem the “prestige paradox”, and says it works like this:

“An enterprising, promising high school senior manages to secure admission to Harvard. Soon, this lucky kid is greeted with admiration and awe by those who hear of this impressive honor. The glow continues to follow our golden child throughout her college life. Every time she meets someone on an airplane, runs into an old friend from high school or talks to Aunt Clara, she is reminded of her special distinction. She can’t help but begin to define herself by it.

The Prestige Paradox Harvard
Harvard graduates’ competition. Tough to match. Photo by NPR.

Unfortunately, however, once inside the Yard, this identity is complicated by the hundreds of other golden children that surround her. She is then faced with a problem: the rest of the world defines her by this admittedly arbitrary and superficial standard of success. But once here, this distinction is no longer so distinctive. In the midst of this impressive bunch, she must figure out how to maintain this hollow distinction.

This worry leads to irrational obsessions about how to maintain the shine of the Harvard status badge when everyone else is also wearing one. For example, you can’t be satisfied, the thinking goes, with just any grad school—anything below the mythical “Top Five” (or whatever standard is in fashion) might not cut it in the need-to-impress game. Similarly, getting a job is great, but unless it’s with a Goldman Sachs, a McKinsey or a Microsoft, survival in the prestige scene might prove difficult.

I think that describes it perfectly. It’s not that there is something inherently better about jobs at these institutions or organisations (in fact, the work itself might prove to be soul-destroying). It’s that in our desire to be loved and respected by others, we come to see only certain organisations and institutions as providing that kind of respect. And the only respect that now matters is the respect of our classmates and colleagues who are at the same institution as us—the respect of others who didn’t make it into an elite college now seems less important. So we all end up chasing the same things, competing for the same jobs, and running in the same direction.

“It’s not the case that less-prestigious alternatives wouldn’t satisfy”, Silverstein says. Rather, “satisfaction with anything less than what the conventional wisdom deems impressive raises fears of losing standing in the rat race. Contentment with less than the best might imply a slacker’s complacency, a willingness to give up on the race. Or worse, it might reveal that you couldn’t compete in the race at all.” Thus,

The only way to maintain this fragile, prestige-based self-image, then, is to acquire more prestige. Hence, the paradox: The constant hunger always leaves one, well, hungry.

We keep running, yet we get nowhere, for everywhere we go we find the same need to keep running.

At Harvard, Silverstein says, “it’s hard to resist becoming a rat”:

“The temptations to run in the rat race while here and after are all around us, with constant talk of “elite” grad schools, firms and fellowships. Running is both socially acceptable and promoted. A regular dose of healthy perspective of life outside the walls of the Yard is needed as an antidote to these temptations.

The prestige paradox is of course not unique to Harvard, or just to elite schools. The grails are largely identical today as they were when he wrote in 1998. The prestige paradox exists at every “rung” of a social hierarchy, each with their own slightly different grails. But no matter what rung you stand on, whether you’re winning the rat race or losing it, it’s fundamentally the same: you just need to keep running, but you’ll never get anywhere.

One of the final things I liked about Silverstein’s article is how he notes the positives of prestige, how it “inspires great things, like putting a man on the moon, founding a Silicon Valley powerhouse or discovering a cure for cancer.” It’s not that prestige is in itself evil, to be avoided. It’s that left to its own devices, without wisdom and perspective to keep it in check, we risk throwing away our time and our lives in pursuit of something ephemeral, feeling like a failure whenever we cannot match the heights that hard work and luck has propelled our classmates to.

In addition to the inevitable chasing, then, we should spend time at college and university discovering what helps us keep those tendencies in check. Maybe it’s in literature, or philosophy, or painting or acting; it doesn’t matter where we find respite, so long as there is some vantage point from which we can see ourselves and our own incessant chasing clearly.

Rustin’s column is worth reading in its entirety, and for another perspective on prestige, read Paul Graham’s essay where he says, “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy.”

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