Somewhere in my 20’s or 30’s I became enamored with the idea of prep schools and elite colleges. I’d never gone to either of those, so it wasn’t nostalgia. And I didn’t really know about them growing up, so it’s not as if I was bitter about missing a tangible opportunity.
I didn’t even know I was supposed to go to college, let alone a prestigious one.
The feeling was more of a slow-building envy for something that I imagined to be extremely pleasurable.
I think the catalyst may have actually been Harry Potter. I loved everything about the process he went through. He gets selected into an elite school that only certain people can go to. He shows up and there are uniforms, there are special magic classes, and the dorms are split up by age. Then there’s the sorting hat, and the Quidditch team, and the special courses like Defense Against the Dark Arts.
It hit all the right “arrival” notes on an instrument within me that I didn’t know existed.
The military is full of nested tiers of eliteness in various areas.
Now that I think about it, I didn’t have the prep school experience, but I had something similar through the military. In the Army I was in the 101st Airborne, and I was lucky enough to get Airborne and Air Assault qualified right out of basic training, and most newish people thought I was something special because of the two winged badges on my uniform.
But there are many levels above just the 101st. There are Rangers (which I passed all the excruciating mental and physical tests for but couldn’t proceed in due to an earlier injury), then there’s Special Forces, then there’s Delta. And it’s the same in the Navy and Marines and Air Force—they each have their elite, elite of the elite, and then elite within that.
Something about that has always appealed to me. As I think about it, it reminds me of Abercrombie and Fitch marketing, when I used to walk through the mall when I was in the military. The models there often had the prep school look. The northeastern, yachting, rowing, “I got into that elite school” look about them, which is why they call them models, and why they call it marketing.
They’re selling a better version of yourself, a version that you wish you were.
It reminds me of how they told me in elementary to fear junior high, and junior high told me the same about high school, and so on through college and the real world.
And this doesn’t stop with prep schools or the military. Oh no. It just keeps going. As soon as you think you’ve hit some sort of plateau, where you can be happy with your accomplishments, that’s when you learn about the tier above that you’re not yet a part of.
This is quite strong in the tech industry. Oh, you’re in tech? Cool, are you a developer? What language do you use? Do you work at one of the top 5 tech companies? Do you have stock? Did you start a company? How much money did you raise? Do you have an exit yet?
If you look at any industry, or any social structure, you can see instantiations of this. Hollywood has the awards, and the ratings, and the dinners, and short lists of top directors and actors.
I have a new goal of getting something published in the New York Times. Anything really.
Writers can be respected for getting published, but where did you get published? Salon? Oh, that’s nice. I was in WSJ. WSJ? That’s nice. I was in the Economist. It’s very exclusive. That’s cute: I have a column with the NYT. And on and on it goes.
Of course there are multiple tiers of authors as well. It’s one thing to have a book on Amazon, and it’s another to be top in category. But the real question is whether you’ve been on the New York Times’ best sellers list. Oh, you were there? For how long? How many times? For how many books?
Oh, you have a podcast? Where are you on the charts? How many subscribers? How much do you make from sponsors? Oh, you’re a painter? How many showings have you done, at what locations? Who showed up at the afterparty?
These are all instances of evolution playing its only hand, which is prodding you towards higher and higher tiers of greatness, only to remind you immediately—if you do in fact make it—that there’s another level just beyond. Our genes can only high-five us for a brief moment, after which point your current level of success becomes the new baseline, and it’s time to start hustling once again.
Social media so addicting because it’s emulating this loop.
This is why prep schools, and uniforms, and special badges and challenge coins are so coveted: they’re the visible accouterments of a status plateau that others can look up to, even if you are already searching for the next ladder.
I know it sounds like I’m assigning agency to evolution, but I’m not.
We are exoskeletons for genes fighting to propagate. All those little squirts of happiness are part of the gamification system that genes—using evolution—created to inspire us to be their unknowing champions.
Some see this as reductionist—and perhaps it is—but I don’t see it as a cause for nihilism.
I know that beauty and friendship and love are—in some sense—illusory constructs designed to inspire our ambition, which in turn helps our genes to win.
But I don’t care.
I’d characterize this as Absurdist because it’s simultaneously accepting bleak truth and embracing the enjoyment of life.
These exoskeletons are all we have for now. They’re our whole universe. You could tell me that love is a chemical, or that a flower is a configuration of atoms. Or that these things only exist at a very specific size scale. Go down to the atomic level, or up to the planet level, and flowers have little meaning.
But so what? That happens to be the exact level of the genebot. And it’s pretty glorious.
The genebot level is where love and flowers and poetry are the most spectacular things in the universe.
Yes, it’s an illusion created to serve another life form, but it’s still pretty remarkable. And compared to being nothing, I’ll happily take it.
At least until I find something better.