The Prestige Myth: Providing Structure to Structureless Forms

Prestige is something that tempts us all. A good job, a good house, a good car — they are signals, signals to others that we’ve seen success and we know what we’re doing. But how did they originate, and why have we become so addicted to them?

The answer, I believe, lies in existentialism.

Alright, stay with me here. Existentialism primarily derives itself from the idea of the crippling nature of human existence. In other words, the fact that we have an infinitely many series of decisions to make throughout our lives generates stress beyond a doubt.

Heuristics help us with these infinitely many decisions. It cuts down the workload and allows us to make decisions that are “good enough”, which is good enough. Prestige, in this way, is a heuristic. If you must grapple with the questions of “What is success?” and “What is happiness?”, it is going to take you a lot more time to come up with a solid answer rather than if you just accepted that “Success is owning a Porsche” or “Happiness is having a job at McKinsey”. A hunt for prestige is what allows us to find easy answers to the big decisions. Prestige is not inherently bad, but it can leave some people disappointed when they find out the answer isn’t there.

Prestige provides structure to structureless forms. The infinitely many decisions, the answers to these big questions, are inherently without form. They are relative, differing from person to person. A true answer is a lot harder to define than most people give credit for. It is also personal — you cannot find yourself by finding God. God and the church may help you, but you are ultimately in it alone. 

Structureless things are scary. Uncertainty is scary because chaos may be hiding underneath it. Adding a light to the darkness, adding structure to structurelessness, helps reduce the fear. If you see that investment bankers make a lot of money and live in mansions with fine cars, then you know that ought to be the answer to your problem. 

So, why is prestige a myth? Because, obviously, that statement I just made isn’t true. Investment bankers aren’t happy, most of the time. Happiness is not having a job at McKinsey. Success is not owning a Porsche. The myth is in the fact that prestige is a truth, rather than a heuristic. If you acknowledge its existence as a heuristic, then there is nothing to fear. You just can’t get too caught up in it.

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