Pay more attention to people who are just a little bit ahead of you
Gen. Douglas MacArthur wearing his office uniform, meeting the Emperor Hirohito in a formal coat and tie, is a superb photographic example of the countersignal. My grandfather worked for MacArthur in Japan and raved about that photo. Although he did not use the word "countersignal," that is how he describes it in his memoir. Grandad went on to a career in corporate boardrooms after 1951 and eventually made a fortune as a consultant on Japanese business practices, among other things, so he paid attention to the visual language of power.
I'll attempt to paraphrase:
So incremental steps keeping in step with what the Jones are doing wins the long game. No countersignaling until you've made it.
There's a lot of good stuff in this article, thanks! The beginning sticks out the most to me, "Humans haven't been successful because we are innovators". I disagree, but in a weird way. Because humans are more effective innovators, we've naturally become more precise replicators. Kids precisely mimic adults because that behavior yields gains that the chimp wouldn't receive, if it were mimicking other chimps.
Humans innovate in more precise ways than chimps, therefore we need to be mimicked more precisely (by other humans) in order to have that innovation replicate. Really good innovation encourages really precise mimicry. If humans weren't successful through innovation, we wouldn't copy each other so precisely.
So I guess my assertion is "Humans have been successful because some of us are innovators, and many others precisely copy that innovation." Remove either side of the equation and it falls apart. Mimics waste energy unless copying something valuable, and innovation is useless if it never spreads.
But to address the broader point, yes, mimics definitely outnumber innovators in human society, by necessity. Nice to see an article that seeks to guide that imitation to places that it will bear fruit!
Regarding the last paragraph. One thing to consider might be how long the purple belt has been reaching for that red belt. Asking for advice from the person only a little ahead of you, if they've been in that position for a long time, might not be the best route to take.
Status is an interesting concept because the scale of status differs greatly depending on the social climate. Familial and/or religious status is a different ballgame from corporate status or public status.
What I would love to know is if there is a link between one’s perceived status and happiness or life contentment. Does the achievement of whatever life and status you envisioned for yourself in your youth matter, and if so, how does it impact mental health if there is a perceived failure?
From my very unscientific observations within my community, it seems that contentment with a stable lower status is more highly valued than someone who has that status and then seeks a higher public profile. I have several family members and friends who are instagram influencers, and though they have great social status with followings, I find that the local talk around such figures is almost entirely negative.
This phenomenon is also exclusive to women in my world because achievement of that higher status is associated with having to sacrifice duties of motherhood. Status gained by men, no matter the sphere, is laudable.
Asking for advice remains a dangerous activity...
I accidentally followed this advice when I was young. As a traumatized, messed up, addicted, homeless, mentally unstable young woman, it never even occurred to me to try to copy a high status person. I had no choice but to look barely beyond the end of my toes.
In 12 step groups (which are not for everyone) they ask you to seek a sponsor who has something that you want - not everything - just something.
Anyway, I consider myself Queen of the World today, and I act like it. Tiny half steps following people who had something I wanted led me to a place I never dreamed I'd reach.
Thank You for sharing your fascinating research; I cannot wait to get my hands on your book!
So basically go the Mohammed Ali route? 'I AM the greatest!!!' Just kidding.
It is a tricky balance to find, being modest to the right extent but not too much. I was raised to not talk about yourself and that it's not nice, especially to brag about yourself. But I did get some advice about job interviews a while back, where I was told basically to never pass up a chance to say why you are the best candidate for a job. Seems obvious in retrospect but before I was told that I thought it would look arrogant to say how i'm the best option, without even knowing who the other candidates are.
Another great example is J.K. Rowling’s Twitter bio, which says “Writer sometimes known as Robert Gilbraith”. Since everyone already knows who she is, she can write whatever she wants in her Twitter bio. But the same doesn’t apply to fledgling writers.
"Successful people can afford to engage in countersignaling—doing things that signal high status because they are associated with low status. It is a form of self-handicapping, signaling that one is so well off that they can afford to engage in activities and behaviors that people typically associated with low status."
This explains a lot of Adam Carolla's rich man/poor man observations about similarities between the two.
Perhaps the "culture of the static and the settled" is just what it sounds like. And, perhaps this is clearly demonstrated by Nobel Laureate in Economics, Edmund Phelps in his two most recent books. "Mass Flourishing" and "Dynamism" wherein he makes the convincing argument that there has been a material decline in the values that drove the U.S. and other Western countries to the top that commenced in the late 60's to early 70's.
Great topic. I like how you were able to separate the signaling and counter-signaling strategies. I do remember many times, even within the past few months where an interview of a successful individual would give the daily schedule, including what time they woke, how much time exercising, reading, breakfast and so forth. Indeed, I think the advice you gave, to follow those still climbing the ladder, still “hungry” would be better. Not only are they still making forward progress, they are likely doing so on merit rather than reputation.
Great post. Do you think successful people also counter-signal as a way to misguide those copying them—throwing them off their scent, so to speak?
I found the chimpanzee study very interesting. As others have suggested, it is probably due to us humans replicating things more precisely. I would like to add that it allows us to do complex things without the understanding of what we are doing. Especially over generations in a culture. We can have complex ways of doing things that we don't fully understand the significance of as each generation has added something along the way. I guess we are figuring out that now as we strip away our culture and reinvent the wheel.
I have seen people (myself included) who decide a computer process could be better or more efficient. As we found out later, it was actually doing something that our pride didn't account for. I have learned that it is best to avoid changing anything until I am rather familiar with it. Sometimes though, it's best to just change it and see what happens, you will quickly find out why the wheel was there in the first place.
This is very interesting, but I find myself thinking that these are not so ubiquitous traits of humans, but maybe more common in systems that reward resources for a better life based on class hierarchy. This connects to my worldview and explanation for why the US rocketed forward to become the most successful in the known history of human existence... because the US, throughout its short history, has been more a pure meritocracy rewarding people for actual material accomplishment and achievement... and not for their ability to mimic people higher in class hierarchy.
In other words, for the US before the last couple of decades: "Humans haven’t been successful because we are innovators. Rather, we are successful because we don’t think for ourselves, and save time and energy by copying others."... this wasn't really accurate. The Great Experiment was a system designed to stop that and allow people to have a good life just based on merit and productive achievement. "Copying" was secondary to, and in support of, productive achievement.
Frankly, I have always had a very strong bullshit and faker filter. I detest actors that are not genuine in their role... that don't really produce anything of worthy value... or that lie, steal and cheat and then turn to expect others to be impressed with their position. Someone asked me who my mentors have been and the only person I can think of is me. It is me observing everyone else and learning more what not to do, how not to behave... identifying all the people lacking complete control of their objective thinking apparatus and thus succumbing to primitive emotional and psychological pushes and pulls and ending up really a mess because of it. It used to be that THOSE people were handicapped in achieving the higher social status they believed they deserved... because they could not get the hell out of their own way. Now they rule, and because of it, the rest of us are screwed.
Now, there is another lane here... the one of culture, customs, norms. I love a rebel that is capable and productive in non-compliance and disruption. But my view of customs-compliance is that they are an end to a means of social status, but a calculated component of material production achievement. When hired to a new position in a new company one must first keep one's mouth shut and one's eyes and ears open... to learn about the company culture, process and norms... and to seek a path of compliance that best optimizes success. BUT, not at the expense of material productive achievement... as that would spell doom for the company.
I think this is where the breakdown is happening in our country... we are now a media-driven entertainment economy where followers and likes returns wealth and social status without the connection to material production achievement. And conversely, someone with massive achievement in material production can be shredded because they don't demonstrate high compliance (don't imitate high status). Elon Musk is a perfect example.
This is all messed up. Because the US is so young and diverse, without that common path of rewarding the achievement of material production, we are breaking apart in tribal warfare over demands for this or that particular brand of compliance and imitation, and then leverage it for popularity points.
Just look at Harry and Meghan. Instead of pursuing a path of achievement where they would have worked at material production in the job of British royals, they instead they imitate and leverage the woke brand of tribal compliance... they attempt to entertain and not produce. And it is working as they are becoming the most wealthy of all royals second only to King Charles.
Connect to writing, it is now corrupted the same. There is the history of simply becoming a good writer that produces excellent products that sell because they are excellent products... and today the writer getting enough media attention to sell the product. And the effort shifts toward the latter... the game of getting media attention is the bigger need than is the quest for material production... in the case of the writer... just writing the best book he/she can write.
And you can see the result of this... music and literature today frankly sucks relative to the quantity being put out. The early Internet dream was to enhance the meritocracy... Amazon reviews, etc... word of mouth over the new sensation... things go viral because they are good. But the corporatist machine took over, and now entertainment by virtue signaling for high status has become the primary driver for high wealth achievement. I'm sorry, but aside from a handful of good songs, Taylor Swift does not come close to deserving her fame and success... but boy are there a lot of people trying to imitate her. I told my wife that the Ticket Master crisis over her ticket sales was probably manufactured and staged PR event to help her and her corporate overlords sell more.
My recommendation for everyone coming out of school and launching their career is to focus on a foundation of mastery to a means of production while developing skills for playing the acting-behavior game needed to rise up in their chosen field. I tell them that skipping the first step and instead focusing on just the superficial likes and clicks reward by virtue signaling popularity risks them crashing and burning as these things can be fads that fade and change. It is like a Ponzi Scheme where only a few well-timed participants make off with the top spoils and leave a large population of losers on the ground. Those losers without a foundation of real productive capability are going to be sorry.
I really detest our modern tendency to reward the relatively-talent-less and unproductive Kardashians while someone like Elon Musk has to fight to not be destroyed. WTF?
Great read, Rob. Did enjoy your reasoning and presentation of personal anecdotes. Even though, I feel there can be another side to the coin. Imitating high-value, countersignaling folks is just too tempting. And maybe this temptation is natural as in saying that it can be a possible avenue for self-development.
Maybe there is a point to be made that imitating countersignaling can be a shortcut to upgrading yourself into the ranks of your countersignaling object by activating a speed-growth mode justifying your inner capabilities to your outer imitation. ASAP.
“Fake it till you make it”-kind of style.