Competence and prestige

The phrase “downward nobility” is a pun on “upward mobility.” It usually refers to taking a less lucrative but more admired position. For example, it might be used to describe a stock broker who becomes a teacher in a poor school. (I don’t believe that being a teacher is necessarily more noble than being a stock broker, but many people would think so.)

Daniel Lemire looks at a variation on downward nobility in his blog post Why you may not like your job, even though everyone envies you. He comments on Matt Welsh’s decision to leave a position as a tenured professor at Harvard to develop software for Google. Welsh may not have taken a pay cut — he may well have gotten a raise — but he took a cut in prestige in order to do work that he found more fulfilling.

The Peter Principle describes people how people take more prestigious positions as they become less competent. The kind of downward nobility Daniel describes is a sort of anti-Peter Principle, taking a step down in prestige to move deeper into your area of competence.

Paul Graham touches on this disregard for prestige in his essay How to do what you love.

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.

Matt Welsh now has a less prestigious position in the assessment of the general public. But in a sense he didn’t give up prestige for competence. Instead, he chose a new environment in which his area competence carries more prestige.

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8 thoughts on “Competence and prestige

  1. Gene Woolsey once wrote that “the trick in life is to find out what what you think is play that the fools think is work so that they will pay you to do it”.

  2. It is quite telling that while Paul Graham could be a college professor, the CEO of a large corporation… or pretty much anything he wants to be… he choses to do things that may not appear to be very prestigious.

    If you are outside the tech. industry and you try to understand who Paul Graham is… you’d have to say that it is someone who built a small company, sold it… then wrote essays online and a book (that sold a so-so number of copies)… and then launched a start-up incubator.

    That does not sound very impressive, if omit the fact that he earned quite a bit of money. But even though he does not hide the money he has… he is not exactly making a show of it either…

  3. What if the play that fools will pay for is maximum prestige with minimum competence/actual work? Maybe that’s just a way of saying the some people play the Peter principle as a game because that’s what they most love to do.

    Have you encountered people who just don’t understand that some of us actually do love what we do for intrinsic reasons and not for the prestige/fame/fortune?

    They pity us and we pity them ;-)

  4. I wouldn’t disagree that my move to Google was a step down in terms of prestige. I’m no longer called “professor” and no longer immediately command respect of cowering throngs of undergraduates as I stroll through the corridors of Harvard. On the other hand, that kind of ego-stroking only gets you so far in life. Once I realized that really loving my work day-to-day mattered more than holding a “prestigious” position, I was able to let go and find myself in a much happier place.

  5. John, Matt:

    Is it really true that being an engineer at Google is less prestigious than being a professor at Harvard? I’d guess that working at a place like Google or Apple has a lot of prestige. I’d think it would be enough to say that working at Harvard or working at Google are two different kinds of cushy, wonderful jobs, and that, of those of us who would be lucky enough to have the choice, some are better suited for one job, some for the other.

  6. Andrew: I’d guess that most people would consider being a professor at a community college to be more prestigious than being a software developer anywhere.

    I’m not saying that’s how it should be, or even how it is in some communities, but I think that it’s true for the public at large.

  7. Very good jobs, for sure: interesting, well paid, at least reasonably high-status, some prospect of making the world a better place. But … *cushy*? I would expect that both Harvard professors and Google software developers generally work extremely hard.

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