Veni, Vidi, Amici

As I get on in life, I get to spend time with some interesting, clever people. But they can come with sizeable egos. And that can translate into ‘High Status Behaviours’.

That’s not necessarily a problem. ‘Happy High Status’ is feeling good enough about yourself that you can feel relaxed and good about the success and contribution of others. But not everyone manages to keep the ‘Happy’ in High Status.

The alternative is less attractive – being so concerned with your own status that you need everyone else to recognise it. Or worse, to knock down others to assert it. I wonder if there’s a Greek term for that? Narcissism is one.

But whatever you call it, loneliness seems to me to be an inevitable by-product. I think dominant High Status behaviours are completely missing the point of life.

For Aristotle, that central point is to attract and nurture better friends. Friends care for our virtue and excellence, as we care for theirs. The best of friends are the means and end of it all.

But, as Aristotle said:

No one loves the man whom he fears.

He who hath many friends hath none.

No one would choose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world.

So why do smart, successful, powerful people sometimes behave in ways that seem to get in the way of true friendship?

Seeking power, wealth and acolytes has always been a primal driver. And on the face of it, it helps not to be too sentimental. But an instrumental view of others – that they are means to your end, hammers useful only as long as there is a nail – is missing the point I feel. As Aristotle also said:

My best friend is the man who in wishing me well wishes it for my sake.

Friendship of this type is earned, nurtured and freely given, not bought, demanded or taken. About the best thing in life, I reckon, is true Aristotelian friendship.

A contented ego is a prerequisite, but a conceited, instrumental or selfish one just gets in the way. Friendship, not conquest, is the purpose of the good life.

Belisarius

Belisarius, the last great Roman general, retook Rome for Constantinople twice. He fought off barbarians in a dozen lands. He took on impossible numbers and outmanoeuvred them. He took on increasingly unrealistic ‘asks’ from the Emperor, and, through his great skill, made them seem almost reasonable. As his reward he had both his eyes poked out by Justinian for the injustice of ‘lessening his Emperor by comparison’ with his virtue and deeds.

The moral of the story? Perfection in the loyal knight holds up an unflattering mirror to the king. Many transactions between people are about status, and for many people they are zero sum games – an exchange can only enhance my status if it diminishes yours. Like Belisarius, if you succeed, I am lessened.

‘Zero sum’ is a habitual but dumb human behaviour. I suspect, sadly, it’s also hard wired. You win, I lose. I niggle you and you might screw up. I mess with your mind and you’ll lose your head. You are shining, that’s making me look dull.

Why do we do it to each other? ‘Happy high status’ is the ‘positive sum’ posture – I’m good, you’re good. I’m happy you’re good; it makes me feel even better, which makes you feel better. And then, who knows, we might do something great together. But ‘happy high status’ needs to be met in a reciprocal spirit. Which is why it’s so rare. Like a true smile you can’t fake it. You’ve got to feel good about yourself to feel good about someone else’s success.

It is hard to keep ‘up’ when people are doing you down, but seeing it for what it is – substantially other people’s insecurity – helps me cope.