What does it look like to be obsessed with success and prestige? It probably looks a lot like me at the moment. A guy who starts many endeavors and side projects just because he wants to be known as the creator of something. This a guy who wants to build another social app, not because he has an unique problem that’s unaddressed, but because he wants to be the cool tech entrepreneur who everyone admires and envies. This is a guy who probably doesn’t care for much of what he does, but continues to do so for the eventual social validation of society and his peers.
On top of that, this is a guy who would not pursue anything unless he knew people cared about it or there was money attached to it. Should I learn to make pasta from scratch? No, that’s crazy. Nobody cares if you can make pasta from scratch and it’s not going to make any money.
I am not alone
Here is the headline of a top post on r/cscareerquestions (a subreddit dedicated to career advice for computer science students):
Here’s the part which I strongly relate to:
Got an awesome internship at an interesting company? Well, it wasn’t FAANG, so who cares? Got a FAANG internship? Well it wasn’t one of the good FAANGs, so if you really think about it, you really didn’t accomplish anything. Got into a “Good FAANG”? Well, the other intern works on his own startup idea when he goes home. Why aren’t you working on your startup idea? Do you even have a startup idea? Are you even trying?
What is surprising is the amount of people who relate to this post. At first thought, you could probably dismiss this as a whole bunch of undergrads who are still transitioning in life. But after finishing the book Bad Blood, I realized this isn’t unique to college undergrads.
Bad Blood is a book about the corrupt startup called Theranos. One of the reasons the company fell apart was because its CEO and founder, Elizabeth Holmes, was more obsessed with becoming the female version of Steve Jobs than building a reliable product. She indulged herself in the celebrity image and admiration despite knowing that her company was a fraud.
I also learned about a now infamous technology YouTuber named Siraj Raval; known for his quirky and energetic videos on machine learning. It was recently revealed that not only did he steal code for lots of his videos, he also plagiarized a paper, and ripped students off from an online course. In one of Siraj’s interviews, he blames it on the (self-imposed) pressure of getting to one million subscribers. He was burning out and taking short-cuts because he just wanted to reach that number. In his apology video, he also admitted that many of the topics which he made videos on were purely for the views, not because he actually cared about the topic. His critics often pointed out that his videos showed he lacked a significant understanding into how machine learning actually worked.
So why are we all doing this? Why do so many smart people fall victim to this trap of chasing success and prestige purely for the sake of it?
In Paul Graham’s essay on, How to Do what You Love he warns us about the prestige trap:
[It] leads people to try to write novels, for example. They like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you’re going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.
From a young age, I was taught that I needed to be successful. Admittedly, it was my mother who implicitly bestowed this anxiety upon me. She would constantly remind me of successful people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. She was also the type of mother who would brag non-stop about me whenever I made any type of quantifiable accomplishment.
I once earned multiple awards in middle school. Keep in mind, it was middle school so you can get an award for just about anything. However, my mother was so proud that she would count my awards repeatedly and emphasized the fact that I won seven awards. Well, when I was a freshman in high school a year later, I only won one award. My mother wasn’t as enthusiastic as I hoped.
She would say, “Dave, you only got one award this year. Remember when you won seven last year?”
Looking back, I also feel like I was frequently compared agaisnst other children. As a reminder that life is a competition, and you don’t want to be behind.
If it wasn’t that, maybe it was also because I am gay. My mother was never really happy about this, and for me it always meant that I was starting out below everyone else in value. Like, I was already a stain on society so I needed to do more in order to validate my existence.
I’m not blaming my mother for everything though, because I continued to get implicit signals from society that success and prestige is the ultimate goal. Everything from learning about the “The American Dream” to reading TechCrunch.
As I became more submerged into the tech scene, I started reading story after story about these young guys who all created their own million dollar startup. I envied all the comments of praise and admiration that these people received.
I realized that I needed to be this. I needed to be the next Elon Musk. So what did I do? Started working on projects that I found passionate regardless of the outcome? No. I started consuming useless content from YouTube and the internet. Articles and videos like, “The Habits of Successful People” and “Tips to becoming Successful.” In my mind, I was doing steps to achieve this enlightened state of being.
Unfortunately, after a year of purposely trying, I was still not becoming Elon Musk nor any other “successful” person. Despite reading everyday, meditating, getting up early, taking cold showers, and many more things. But what makes these guys successful anyway? Their fame? Money? Contribution to society?
Recognizing the problem is always the first step. Yes, the simple solution is to stop caring about what other people think and to define what success means to you. Actually enforcing this into an actionable plan everyday is pretty complicated. I wish I could tell you that I’ve found a solution, but I’m still searching. I’m considering everything from therapy to giving all social media (including tech stuff) a break. Luckily, I do have a good support system of people around me who I look to for encouragement. If I make any breakthroughs, I will update this post. Thanks for taking the time to read this 😊.