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Diderot's cautionary tales: We must question what we pursue

BY: Mohammed Issa
Denis Diderot, French philosopher
Denis Diderot, French philosopher

For the past 10 years of my life, I’ve riled against the pursuit of status. I equated it to chasing money and the alluring things that money brings. I lived it and found the lifestyle superficial, meaningless and soul-crushing.

Paradoxically, I still find myself trapped in it a lot of the time. I’m conflicted because building a successful company has afforded me both a lavish lifestyle and a meaningful journey that has helped me become a better version of myself.

On the one hand, I’m grateful for the money I’ve earned because it has given me a rich life materially and with the peace of mind that has enabled me to live well and support my family with the best medical and educational care.

On the other hand, I can’t help but feel stuck in a never-ending pursuit of success, money and the bling culture that comes with it. On those days, I despise myself for playing the status game. I also feel shallow, small and insignificant.

It’s a fine line between allowing success to set you free and independent or letting the success get to your head, becoming enslaved to society’s latest whims and desires.

Diderot effect

Denis Diderot was a famous French philosopher who lived in poverty for the majority of his life. He didn’t care much for material possessions until he received a new scarlet robe as a gift from a friend.

Diderot was so taken by the robe that he replaced most of his old belongings with newer and finer ones. He bought a large mirror to hang over the fireplace, a leather seat and a writing desk to fill the corner of the room.

In his essay, “Regrets for My Old Dressing Gown,” he expressed his regrets for being in debt so quickly. “I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of the new one,” he wrote.

Trap

Diderot’s story demonstrates how we can easily fall into the trap of materialism as each new purchase can easily lead us to the acquisition of other items.

Unfortunately, savvy marketers have taken advantage of this social phenomenon to get us to buy more items by making it easy to buy with just one click and by appealing to our emotions rather than reason.

The most dangerous aspect of wealth is that our material possession becomes intertwined with our identity. We use our possessions as self-expression to reflect our tastes and standing in the community—we start using our possessions to signal virtue.

The Patek Philippe watch on a wrist, the Channel handbag or the Ferrari car quickly open doors to elite clubs and make many gawk. With those shiny objects, we announce to the world that we are unique and at the top of the ladder while they are not.

The quest for status is not limited to wealth but extends to many other aspects of our lives. In the last 10 years, I’ve dabbled in both literature and spirituality, and I’ve seen similar status games involving players trying to one-up one another.

For example, at my MFA retreat three years ago, I argued with a literary professor who was mocking Mark Manson’s writing ability. “Surely, Manson is impacting the world since he has sold over 10 million books,” I reasoned.

Similarly, last year, a middle-aged blonde with several bead necklaces said to me in a meditation workshop. “Oh, you don’t look like the meditating type. How long have you been in practice?”

“Oh, I didn’t know I had to bring my beads and dress the part,” I smiled back.

The truth is that status is merely a measure of how much our society values us, which has been ingrained in us since our evolution.

We chase status and buy things to signal virtue.

Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist, wrote in his book, “Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Behaviour”, “Humans evolved in small social groups in which image and status were all-important, not only for survival, but for attracting mates, impressing friends, and rearing children.

Today we ornament ourselves with goods and services more to make an impression on other people’s minds than to enjoy owning a chunk of matter — a fact that renders ‘materialism’ a profoundly misleading term for much of consumption. Many products are signals first and material objects second. Our vast social-primate brains evolved to pursue one central social goal: to look good in the eyes of others.”

Impress

In order to impress their teachers and peers, new meditators try to spend more time on the cushion. To be accepted into the writers’ club, new writers want to show how good they are with elaborate word choices and complex storylines.

People in business want to make so much money that they can own a private jet and reach ultimate adulation.

They all miss the point. It’s about the love of the process and not the pat on the back. Chasing status to get others approval is tiring and leaves us feeling miserable.

We need to accept that our pursuit of status will not stop. However, when we take a step back and question what we value and truly want for ourselves, our goals become more apparent.

In doing so, we avoid virtue signalling and modify the chase to play a bigger game—we pursue activities that are intrinsically valuable to us.

At 52 and after much learning, I’ve come to reconcile my feelings towards success and making money. I’ve admitted that it’s not necessarily meaningless to be successful and make money—instead, it’s all about the meaning we give it.

My most prominent teacher in life has been the business journey I’ve taken through the ups and downs of my company.

I’ve realised that I run my business for the love of the game. In that regard, I’m in it not for the money; rather I’m in it to build a well-run company that serves its customers, employees and community while maintaining a healthy bottom line, in that order.

I also know that when I get caught up in the status game, I quickly self-correct. This is because I’ve intentionally created systems and surrounded myself with people who remind me that I’m the only person who can be the source of my self-esteem.

In doing so, I’m not concerned with the approval of others.

What kind of status game are you chasing? Are you sure it’s the right one for you?

The writer is a motivational speaker/CEO, KIMO Home. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.