Periscope Depth

come talking that trash and they’ll pull your card

Ilkka recommended the following blog post about hacking the status game a few weeks back. The “status game” in question is an improv exercise, in which every player takes a playing card and puts it to their forehead, face out, without looking at it. Their status corresponds to the value of their card. The object of the game: to guess your own status based on other people’s reactions to you.

Almost every person correctly guessed the number on his or her forehead, or was off only by 1! Could this mean that it wasn’t a game we were playing for the first time? Could it be that we’re playing that game over and over every day?

We went to that stage preconditioned to accurately guess how we stack against others based on how they spoke to us and treated us. And that random number that we were holding on our foreheads didn’t just change how we deal with others, it changed how we perceived ourselves when others reacted back to it.

What was equally fascinating was when I decided to go against my guess, and acted as higher status than the other person no matter what their status was. A person who was confident he was an king and went around stage acting like one, started yielding when I consistently used a high posture and tone of voice during the conversation. Another who was a 5 suddenly started taking advantage of the situation when I lowered my voice and avoided eye contact.

The author goes on to talk about the ways we visualize status in work and relationships: posture, eye contact, tone of voice, and the like.

I imagine most people who read that article (including Ilkka) (no offense, man) took away the idea that smart players can hack their own status. Just walk around all day like you’ve got an Ace plastered on your forehead and the world will fall into line behind you. It’ll take some coaching, perhaps: staring at yourself in the mirror with a deck of Bicycle cards in your hand, soundtrack to the latest Guy Ritchie film blaring from your Macbook. But eventually you’ll be able to bulldoze the betas and get the 9s and 10s falling into bed with you, right?

I took something different. To me, learning that you can hack status means learning to esteem yourself.

The sorry news: you will not be the Ace in every situation. You can surprise people with confidence, perhaps. But there are times when existing hierarchies, the current circumstances and what you had for breakfast that morning will keep you from rising to the top. If you’re going on a sales call with a new supplier and you’re the junior executive – the least necessary person in the room – rolling in all flash will confuse more people than it impresses.

Or let me give you a more concrete example:

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. I haven’t been down to jiu-jitsu as often as I’d like. My technique has been slipping. Everyone can sympathize with this. If you don’t go to the gym for a few weeks, your body feels mushy and stiff. Dried Play-Doh. But add to that the fact that my “workout” at the “gym” consists of black-belt level material. Counters to techniques I learned four years ago. Advanced grappling. In the hands of a samurai these things take years of practice to master. And I was a clumsy enough child that I got my hand shut in a car door, through sheer absent-mindedness, twice. So I’ve got work to do.

Last week I made it down. I found myself with a rare opportunity to get some detailed coaching from the ranking senseis on the things I need to see. This was after I’d read the Khella article above. I realized I needed to shed my pride, admit I needed work, and ask the stupid questions. I needed to watch these techniques with the wide-eyed wonder of a brand new student.

Tonight, I thought, I’m going to be a 6.

Seriously. I visualized the six black clubs held up to my forehead. And my night improved as a result.

I’m convinced that status messes with people not because they don’t like their position, but because they don’t know what their position is. Nothing’s scarier than uncertainty. You show up at a new job: what sort of behavior are these people cool with? What’s expected of me? How soon can I kick back and show my “true self”? It’s the uncertainty that kills you, not being new. Being new isn’t a mystery. You know you’re new. That’s what it says in your e-mail.

So the next time you find yourself lost or confused in a social scene, pick a card. Any card. Pick a status and own it. If you want to be humble, be humble. If you want to be proud, then strut. But don’t fake it. Everyone can tell a phony. Commit to a character (to bring this back to improv advice) and enter the scene.

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