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Status is a False God

By Marty Nemko

Wow, what we do for status!

People spend $50,000 on a Mercedes when, according to Consumer Reports, many under-$20,000 Toyotas are much more reliable, lower-maintenance, and perform wonderfully. People pay $180,000 for a bachelor’s degree at a brand-name private college such as USC or Boston University when a not demonstrably worse, sometimes better, education can be had at a UC for less than half the price.

Even more people choose their careers based on status--to great detriment. For example, millions of people have killed themselves to get into law school and endured years of often boring classes, mounting up mountains of student debt. And for what? Too often, for a job that consists mainly of fighting with a shark so the corporation you represent can get money from the corporation the shark represents.

Even if you are smart and aggressive, it’s tough to succeed in a high-status field such as law. A client of mine has a bachelor’s from Cal, law degree from Boalt, works a million hours a week as an attorney in a law firm, is personable, and by all accounts is a fine lawyer in an in-demand specialty. He has been trying for 15 years to make partner, but fails because he is not a good rainmaker. Headhunters say he is not marketable—competition in high-status fields is fierce. So, he’s stuck in the dead-end track. It’s not surprising that 75 percent of lawyers say they wouldn’t choose the same career again. Yet, ever chasing prestige, generation after generation of status-seeking sheep continue to flock to law school.

The situation isn’t much better in other top-status professions, for example, medicine, investment banking, and architecture.

Of course, many people pursue such professions not just for status, but for the money. But there are many easier, more pleasurable ways to make good money—if you’re willing to forego status.

Run a “dull-normal” business, for example, a warehousing business. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts high demand.) Many people who own low-status businesses are as bright or focused as those in high-status professions, so it’s easier to compete successfully. Some of the most successful people I know own such businesses. Indeed, the book The Millionaire Next Door found that many of the 750 multi-millionaires surveyed were owners of dull-normal businesses: sandblasting, used truck part brokering, mobile home park maintenance, etc. Not only were these people successful, they liked their careers. No one ever grows up excited about a dull-normal business, but when you have lots of satisfied customers eager to keep giving you fistfuls of money, and feel you’re more expert in your field than are your competitors, you get excited. Bonus: Own a business and you’ll never have to worry about your job being offshored.

Be a skilled tradesperson. Is it easy to find a competent, reliable handyperson? Hardly. Nor do hospitals and manufacturers find it easy to find reliable, high-quality technicians to repair their complicated mission-critical machines. To make good money in the trades, you need to be self-employed and willing to market yourself intensively.

Become a consultant in a low-status field. So many graduates of top colleges want to become consultants in a high-status field such as management, health care, the environment, and children’s issues. No one has ever graduated from Berkeley wanting to be a consultant on dashboard manufacture. Yet, every truck, car, boat, and snowmobile manufacturer needs someone who knows the intricacies of extruded moldings, the pros and cons of different kinds of foam and vinyl, approaches to attaching dashboards to the chassis, etc. If you want to be a consultant, consider becoming an expert at something that is essential but under-the-radar.

Government jobs. If you’re not entrepreneurial, consider government jobs. It is your best shot at job security, in part because government is less likely than the private sector to offshore positions. To boot, government jobs pay better than you may think. Don’t insist on the perfect first job. Just get into the system. Once in, you get preference in applying for many other government jobs. Sixty percent of federal job openings are on; the other 40 percent are on individual agency websites. A portal to those is at And don’t forget about state and local openings. Check out for state jobs, and for a portal to local municipalities’ and agencies’ websites.

Advice I’d Give My Child

Amy, status is a false God. Often, status is the enemy of success and happiness.

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