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Some Thoughts on Prestige

November 20, 2012

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

That’s what 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.

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

Similarly, if you admire two kinds of work equally, but one is more prestigious, you should probably choose the other. Your opinions about what’s admirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige, so if the two seem equal to you, you probably have more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one.

-from “How to Do What You Love” by Paul Graham

4 Comments
  1. November 20, 2012 2:31 pm

    Thank you for this. I think about this often. It reminds me of this. http://www.wimp.com/noobject/

  2. summer permalink*
    November 20, 2012 2:54 pm

    I forgot about that video! Thanks for the reminder. It’s all good and it’s all true!

  3. Jenny Parsons permalink
    November 20, 2012 6:45 pm

    This is so true! I think pride is our biggest stumbling block. I remember back to first going to college and going through rush to join a sorority. Forgive me! I had to choose between two houses at the end of rush and I picked the more prestigious house. I cried all night, knowing I had made a mistake. The next day I was asked to join the less prestigious one and I was so thankful that the more other one turned me down. Yeah!

  4. November 20, 2012 7:06 pm

    Summer – Thanks for posting this. I think I’d read this before, but it’s a good reminder. I battle with a day job that I’ve worked hard at to get promoted, and my closet life as an artist. I would love to make the choice that resonates with my heart someday.

    Erin Elisse – Great video. Thanks for sharing!

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