We heard a story last June from Rob Henderson about an academic he knew personally, who was being worked to death with a small-time teaching assistant job at the prestigious Yale University. Being paid a mere pittance for long hours and zero job security without any possibility of tenure. This, likely after amassing a king’s ransom’s worth of student debt in order to land his PhD.
A pretty grim situation, but luckily for him, the calvary came in at the last minute with a big-time tenure-track job offer at a mid-tier university in the Midwest, and along with it a large pay rise and actual job security. Happy Ending!
Except that it wasn’t. The fellow turned the offer down in the end, simply because he had gotten so enamored by being associated with the Yale brand, he couldn’t bear the idea of giving it up.
This happens a lot in the fine art industry too because it’s one of those businesses where if the artist is lucky enough to get paid AT ALL, they’re lucky if they’re making minimum wage. Sure, there are a few dozen superstars out there making serious money, but for the majority, it’s a horrible way to make a living.
And yet, critical and institutional recognition is EVERYTHING to these people, with nothing more despised than a fine artist who makes a lot of money but whose work is not considered very good. Similar hierarchies exist in essentially every other field too.
What does all this tell us? That for all the noble stuff we like to say is driving us (ie. the search for truth, making an impact, fighting injustice, teaching the next generation, pushing boundaries, changing the world, etc.) what we all REALLY like is status. Big, juicy, scrumptious status.
Yes, it’s pretty cringe to think about it. But even worse, according to the poet, Robert Bly, is pretending to ourselves that we’re somehow “above all that” because frankly, we’re not. It’s deep within our wiring.
The good news is that it’s not always as superficial as it sounds. We can often achieve truly remarkable things on our search for status and make the world a better place along the way.