How To Get a Great Job In 2019: A Guide For New Graduates

Are you looking for a great career?

It’s not easy out there these days. I wrote this post to help everyone that could use some guidance (and perhaps even some motivation) in navigating the job market in this crazy era of outsourcing, automation, and rapid technological change.

As someone that has interviewed dozens of people and worked in multiple industries, I have a fairly good grasp of what employers are looking for in candidates. Let’s get into it.

This article is divided into four sections:

  1. Selling Yourself in The New Job Market
  2. Writing a Resume That Will Get You Noticed
  3. Finding Great Jobs To Apply For
  4. Hacking the Job Interview

Note: most of my personal work experience is in the tech/startup industry, so the advice below might be slightly more applicable to that field. However, I believe just about anyone entering the corporate world stands to benefit from the tips below.

Part 1: Selling Yourself in the New Job Market

In many parts of the world, good jobs are hard to come by.

On one hand, more and more tasks are being automated away – any kind of repetitive work is better left to machines. At the same time, companies are increasingly outsourcing jobs to countries with cheaper labor. To top it off, there are more college graduates than ever before, eager to enter the workforce and clamoring to displace the old guard. Hiring managers sometimes receive hundreds of applications for a single position – it’s fiercely competitive out there.

So is it all doom and gloom? Not quite.

Despite our present economic struggles, it’s an exciting time to be alive. As the world becomes more interconnected, information travels faster – and with it, good ideas. New technologies are disrupting old industries at a breakneck speed, changing the way we live, move, and communicate. In short, there’s plenty of work to be done.

So what’s the secret to finding a good job?

Some say it’s education, but that’s only part of the answer. It’s true that certain college degrees can give you a significant advantage – with so many candidates vying for the same position, employers can afford to be picky, giving preference to those with the most relevant diplomas. This is why you hear so much STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) degrees – they are considered valuable because the coursework can be directly applied to industry needs.

So it’s not just a matter of getting any kind of degree (contrary to popular sentiment in the Western world, simply finishing post-secondary education does not entitle one to a job). If you don’t have an in-demand degree, don’t worry – there are plenty of other ways to set yourself apart.

Good connections can also be very helpful. There are many jobs that are never even listed on job boards or classifieds – instead, existing employees are asked to refer people they already know and/or have previously worked with. Referrals are more trusted from the get go, and are far more likely to get an in-person interview. The more employed people you know, the more likely you are to hear about employment opportunities.

Some are lucky enough to be born into a family with connections – interning for the family business is a great way to build experience early on. In short, there’s no shame in using every career connection you have.

But there’s something missing in the equation.

While education is about what you know and connections are about whom you know, your skills and abilities dictate what you can do. Another way of putting it: if you can deliver the goods, nothing else really matters.

The best way to become known as someone who gets things done is to solve people’s problems. That’s the real secret: be the person that can solve real, tangible problems. Instead of telling people about the great things you can add to their business (e.g. sales, marketing, design), sell yourself as a problem-solver – someone who makes the pain go away. An aspirin, not a vitamin.

At any given workplace, the truly indispensable employees are the people that can solve critical business problems (and do so on a regular basis). Real problems include: website/server downtime, payment processor breakdowns, lawsuits filed against the company, critical system slowdown, and so on. In short, any problem that threatens the operation and/or existence of the business or its sub-divisions. It could be as simple as high operational costs or slow product restock times – if it’s a major risk to the company, it’s a problem. Consequently, any employee who can solve these problems is highly valued (and usually very well compensated).

Those who can solve tangible problems have the best kind of job security – they have options.

Take the banking industry, for example.

In the world of finance, there is little room for error – system reliability and up time are critical to ensure transactions happen smoothly. Incidentally, many of these systems still run on archaic programming languages such as COBOL (as they serve their purpose just fine, there was never a good case for rewriting any of the code in a more modern language). In any case, all these systems need regular support and maintenance – this is how COBOL experts stay in demand.

There are examples of critical staff in every industry. While many employees are easily replaceable (if not downright expendable), problem solvers are valued and sought after.

You must market yourself as a problem solver. The more specific the problem, the better – the goal is to be seen as a domain expert (as opposed to a jack-of-all-trades generalist). Keep this in mind as you prepare your résumé/CV.

Where possible, refer to concrete problems you have solved in the past. Be sure to quantify key accomplishments (e.g. “reduced downtime by 80%” or “saved company 12% in quarterly operating expenses”). Demonstrate that you get things done and you will be taken seriously.

If you don’t have any applicable experience, take the time to acquire a few valuable skills.

Put yourself in the shoes of a business owner/operator. What do employers want? They want people who can keep their businesses stable and/or more efficient (e.g. reduce costs, increase profits, streamline processes, optimize headcount).

If you’re pining for a corporate job, for example, make sure you’re proficient with Microsoft Excel – just about every company out there uses it, and it’s a skill you can take with you to almost any office job in the world. This powerful spreadsheet software has a variety of uses, from basic metrics tracking to statistical analysis – it can even be used to set up basic “dashboards” for internal company use. Become an Excel expert, and make sure you practice your skills on real-life problems.

SQL (Structured Query Language) is another good tool in your toolkit – familiarize yourself with the syntax and common usage patterns (there are plenty of free web tutorials online). Even basic familiarity with relational databases (e.g. MySQL, PostgreSQL) will allow you to manipulate and analyze large data sets – a much-desired skill in today’s world of digitization and big data.

Above all, you have to develop the will and ability to adapt. The business landscape is constantly changing, as new tools and technologies come online and market needs shift. Don’t be surprised if your skills may become outdated with time – keep learning new tools/technologies, and practice the ones you already know. Education should not end with school!

Person typing on a laptop

Take the time to write a resume that will get you noticed

Part 2: Writing a Resume That Will Get You Noticed

Does anyone actually read resumes? Sort of.

It’s a competitive job market, and employers often have to sift through dozens of submitted resumes for each open position. While it’s a luxury to be able to choose from so many willing candidates, there’s simply no time to review each application in detail. Chances are, the hiring manager will skim your resume for a grand total of 10-15 seconds, at which point it will be placed in one of two piles: “follow up” or “discard” (trash). Only those in the first pile will be considered for an interview.

In short, unless you have connections or extensive experience in your field (i.e. recruiters contact you, not the other way around), submitting a good resume is a necessary first step to landing a job.

So how do you write a “good” resume?

  • Make it simple and easy to read. Black text on white background, size 10-12 font, single-spaced (i.e. the default settings in Microsoft Word). No fancy fonts – go with Arial, Times New Roman, or Georgia. 1-inch margins. Avoid paragraphs – use bullet points whenever possible.
  • Keep it concise. Unless you have more than 20 years of experience (or have authored numerous academic papers), keep the whole thing to one page. There are very few exceptions to this unspoken rule. There are plenty of hiring managers out there who won’t even read past the first page. If you are having trouble cutting it down to a page, focus on removing all but the most relevant information.
  • A good resume is well structured. Your name, address, and contact information go at the top. Everything else follows. I recommend having three main sections: Experience, Education, and Skills. Each should have a title, and a blank line should serve as a section separator. All dates (or date ranges) should be in line with each other on the page.
    1. Experience – this is where you outline your current and previous employment, presented in reverse chronological order. This is the most important section, and should be placed at the top – immediately after your contact information. For each role, specify the employer (company) name,  your title, dates of employment (e.g. 2017 – 2019), and which city you worked in. Outline your major accomplishments in each role, using present tense for your current job and past tense for previous jobs. Don’t write paragraphs – use bullets. Try to be brief: 4-5 lines per position is plenty (very few people are going to read past that).
    2. Education – this is where you list all your degrees. For each one, specify the name of the institution, your degree/major, dates of enrollment (e.g. 2012 – 2016) and location. Leave out anything prior to college/university (unless you’re still in high school). If you got good grades, go ahead and mention your cumulative average (e.g. “3.6/4.0 GPA”). You can also include any notable coursework and/or projects. Again, be brief and make sure any extra information is relevant to the job you’re applying for.
    3. Skills – use a new line for each sub-category (e.g. software, soft skills, languages). Separate skills with commas. Example:
      • Proficient in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Axure, Balsamiq, Powerpoint, and Excel.
      • Skilled in HTML, CSS, Javascript. Familiar with jQuery, AngularJS, Python, Java.
      • Fluent in French and German.

Important: don’t underestimate this section. Recruiting/talent staff will look for particular keywords as a way to filter candidates – look at the requirements of the original job posting to see what skills they desire.

Pro tip: if you’re submitting your resume online (e.g. through the employer’s job portal), you’re probably uploading it through what is called an ATS – an Applicant Tracking System. If you want your resume to even be noticed, you absolutely have to make sure your resume matches as many keywords from the job description as possible. Employers receive hundreds (sometimes thousands) of resume for each position, and HR personnel don’t have time to look through everyone. Some people get around this by directly copying and pasting skills and requirements from the description into their resume – use your discretion here.

In any case, be prepared to answer interview questions about anything you list on your CV!

  • All content should be relevant to the job you’re seeking. This cannot be stressed enough. The best resumes are tailored for a specific job opening. Put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager – they are mostly interested in whether or not you will be able to do the job. Anything else is usually superfluous. If you’re going to list your hobbies and/or interests, do it all the way at the bottom (and keep it to one line).
  • Don’t write in the first-person. In fact, avoid all personal pronouns or articles (e.g. “I” or “we”). For example, “I developed a new tool that saved employees 10 hours per week” should be changed to “Developed a new tool that saved employees 10 hours per week.”
  • Finally, proofread it before sending it out! Spelling and/or grammar errors will hurt your credibility in the eyes of the employer. It’s just one page – keep it professional!

By following the advice above, you invariably will have a better resume than most.

Want to truly stand out from the competition?

An ideal resume should be accomplishment-based, not duties-based.

Don’t just list your responsibilities and past projects – instead, write about the results of your efforts. In other words, focus on what you have achieved (problems you’ve solved at past jobs). By doing this, you will immediately stand out as someone who gets things done.

If at all possible, quantify your accomplishments. Be specific!

Instead of simply stating “Decreased production costs,” include the amount: “Decreased production costs by 13%.” Including numbers immediately adds credibility to your claims, and is much more likely to pique the employer’s interest. Don’t be afraid to highlight these accomplishments – bold any relevant numbers or amounts.

A good resume is like a good first impression – it sets the tone for all your future interactions with a potential employer. Make it count!

So what’s the deal with cover letters?

In my experience, cover letters are becoming less and less important. People simply don’t have the time or inclination to read page-long personal introductions anymore.

With that said, it certainly doesn’t hurt to write 2-3 paragraphs to go along with your resume – if anything, you will stand out to employers who specifically look for enthusiastic candidates (and good writers). Be direct and to the point.

You can start by stating how you found out about the position, making sure to call out if you are a referral of an existing employee. Then, call out any experience and/or skills you have that are directly related to the job. Assert that you’re the right candidate – show that you’re confident, ambitious, and highly interested in the role. End with your contact information – don’t be afraid to directly ask for the interview (“Please call or e-mail me to schedule an interview”).

Unless you’re in a more traditional industry (e.g. law, banking), there’s no need to attach a separate cover letter – anything you wish to say can go directly into the body of the e-mail.

Part 3: Finding Great Jobs to Apply For

So what’s the best way to look for jobs?

It all depends on how desperate you are.

Be honest with yourself: how soon do you need to start making money?

If you’re badly in need of cash, there’s no time to lose – any income is better than 0. If you already have a decent job, however, you can afford to be more picky (i.e. go for the most promising positions). Your approach should be depend on your situation.

Scenario A: you need money right now

This is how you get a job in 1-2 days:

  1. Make a general-purpose resume – highlighting your communication and teamwork skills. Provide examples of how you have successfully worked with others (if possible, be specific about the goals you achieved as part of a team). If you have any sales or customer service experience, include it – even if you think it was minor or trivial.
  2. Be sure to include any leadership and/or sports experience. In short, advertise anything that makes you a good team player. Leadership experience shows you are able to take initiative and make decisions, while participating on sports teams demonstrates you work well with others, can follow directions, and are able to commit to a schedule.
  3. Assume your resume(s) will be looked at for a maximum of 20 seconds. Be brief. Important: double check to make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors!
  4. Print 10-15 copies of the resume you have made. Put them all into a folder. Put on smart casual or business casual clothing (for men: slacks and a collared shirt).
  5. Go get yourself a job in retail! This means physically going in to local coffee shops, department stores, etc. It may not pay well, but it’s the easiest kind of job to get – there’s constant turnover in retail, so positions open up all the time. If you’re willing to start immediately, you may be able to get a shift within 48 hours of applying.
  6. When you walk in to a business, ask to speak directly to the manager (don’t just drop your resume off with regular staff, unless they absolutely insist that is the procedure). Be polite and professional – quickly introduce yourself, state that you’re looking for a position, and hand them your resume. Be positive – smile. Thank them for their time. In general, just leave a good first impression and move on to the next store/business.
  7. Note: if you are embarrassed or nervous at the idea of working in retail… don’t be. It’s how many of us got started (myself included). While it can be frustrating dealing with irate clients and customers, it’s great for strengthening interpersonal skills. You will learn how to handle money, deal with shipments/inventory, address customer complaints, and more. You may even make some great friends!

Scenario B: you want a better job

Maybe you have a job that you feel is going nowhere (e.g. retail), and you want better – more pay, more benefits, and career potential.

This is how you get a job in a few weeks:

  1. Get your online presence in order. Prospective employers are going to Google your name – don’t give them a reason to discount you based on what they find. If you have a wild Facebook profile, lock it down so it’s only viewable by your immediate circle of friends (look up Security and Privacy settings). Make sure your profile picture on all public social networks and websites is work appropriate. If you don’t have one already, create a LinkedIn profile (more on this in Scenario C below).
  2. Make two general-purpose resumes – one highlighting your communication and teamwork skills, and the other focusing on your analytical abilities. For the first one, provide examples of how you have successfully worked with others – if possible, be specific about the goals you achieved as part of a team. For the other (“analytical”) resume, present yourself as a quantitative problem solver – someone who can be relied upon to accurately interpret data.
  3. As you prepare these resumes, try to think like a recruiter – they are looking for all the hot accomplishment-signaling keywords (e.g. sold, assisted, increased, managed, led, reduced). Where possible, bold your achievements. In the “skills” section, be sure to list out all the general computer programs you are able to use (e.g. Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint, SQL). As always, be brief and to the point.
  4. Perform a search online for “[your city] staffing services” – within seconds, you will have a list of local recruitment/placement agencies (e.g. Kelly Services, Robert Half). Get the names, phone numbers, and website URLs of at least five such companies. One by one, call them and tell them that you are seeking employment, and are able to start immediately. They will likely request your resume (or even an in-person meeting to discuss your qualifications). Remember: it’s in the agency’s best interest to get you a job as soon as possible (this is how they make money), so be prompt, professional, and courteous in all your communications. Bring up the fact that you have two resumes, one for customer-facing positions, and the other for any kind of analytical work – they will appreciate your versatility.
  5. Don’t assume victory just yet. As the recruiting companies process your application, start working on a back-up plan. I recommend reaching out directly to close friends and acquaintances – state that you’re actively looking, and inquire about any open positions. Internal referrals are a great way to get your foot in the door, and you may very well stumble upon a great job opportunity.
  6. At this point, you should hopefully have some interviews lined up – whether through an employment agency or from referrals. Make sure you are familiar with everything on your resumes – you will be asked about it. Good luck! (Interview tips are in Part IV below)

Scenario C: you want the dream job

Maybe it’s been a few years since graduation, and you already have a half-decent job (or considerable savings), so you’re looking for something truly great – a career that will fulfill you. You’re willing to dedicate a few months or more to finding this job.

Note: there are entire self-help sections in the bookstore devoted to this subject. Finding an “ideal” career could very well take years, so don’t be discouraged by early setbacks. There are many possible routes here, and no single blanket solution can be prescribed to everyone. With that said, I offer a path that I believe will work for many.

  1. As described in Scenario B above, take control of your online presence – get all your public profiles are in order. Assume that recruiters and hiring managers will look you up online. Make sure there are no red flags. Google yourself before they do!
  2. If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, set one up. At the very least, make sure you specify your degree(s), employment history, and basic personal details (real name, location, and industry). LinkedIn has become the network of choice for working professionals – and recruiters actively scour site profiles to fill positions in their company. It’s akin to not finding out about parties and social events if you’re not on Facebook. If you’re going to join only one social network this year, make it LinkedIn.
  3. (Optional) Looking for a highly specialized position (e.g. user experience, data science, web design)? Showcase your work online! Certain positions all but require it – and your application won’t be considered complete without links to past work. If you’re gunning for a design position, an online portfolio is a must. Software developers will likewise benefit from linking to a GitHub account. Planning to write for a living? You better have a blog, or some way of linking to finished pieces. You get the idea.
  4. Before you get into full-on job-hunting mode, ask yourself: is there an open position at your current employer that would fit the bill (e.g. in another department)? Find out about the company’s internal transfer policy. If others have moved teams, talk to them about their experiences. There could very well be a team or project that’s much more suited to you – and the experience you have already accumulated gives you an advantage over other hopefuls. If you are adamant about switching employers, however, keep reading!

    Venn diagram about identifying career sweet spot

    What’s YOUR career sweet spot?

  5. Take a look at the Venn diagram above. It’s hard to argue with the message: if you find a job you enjoy doing (and are good at) that also pays well, then you’ve hit the career sweet spot. The trick is sitting down and having an honest conversation with yourself. It goes back to goal setting and picking the right things to pursue (read this post for more on goal setting). You must identify what you’re naturally good at, and then look for a job where your talents and strengths will be rewarded. For some, this is easy (for example: do you enjoy negotiating and winning people over? look for a sales position within a growing company). However, this kind of exercise often results in even more confusion (e.g. “I love photography, but how will I make a living from it?”) While just about anything can be turned into a career, there are many fields that a long time to break into – and where most of the rewards are concentrated at the very top of skill and ability (professional sports, acting, art, music). Some may also require additional schooling. The best way to break into such a field is to seek advice from those already doing it.
    Tip: if you’re unsure of what kind of jobs to apply for, try taking the Holland Code and Myers Briggs personality tests to get some ideas. While these are by no means perfect, they are great for getting some initial ideas. Both are online, free, and take just a few minutes.
    Warning: be careful when it comes to turning your favorite hobby into a job – it may very well end up with you no longer even enjoying the hobby (and needing a new one).
    If you’re still stumped, don’t worry – there’s another approach. On to Step 6.
  6. Try approaching the problem from the opposite direction: first determine market needs, then figure out how you can best contribute. In short, take a look at who’s hiring and work backwards: see if any of their open positions appeal to you. The key is to aim for positions in rapidly growing companies – where you can make a big contribution, learn a lot quickly, and rapidly rise in the ranks (if that’s what you want). Companies experiencing rapid growth can be crazy places to work – but there’s opportunity for those who can navigate the chaos. Begin by searching online “fastest growing industries in 2020” – compile a list of the industries that are already big (>$1B market size) and growing fast (>10% year/year growth). The results will also greatly vary by location – legislation in certain countries can have a bit impact on adoption rates of alternate energy sources, for example. If you’re in the USA, check out SortWork to see which jobs are going to be the most promising and highest paying.
  7. Be methodical. Pick five rapidly expanding sectors that appeal to you, and get a list of the 10 most promising companies in each one. Only interested in two sectors? Get 25 companies from each. Either way, compile a list of 50 companies. Start a spreadsheet with the following columns: Company Name, Industry, Location (city), Website, Position, Date Applied, and Notes. This will be useful for tracking your job application progress.
    Note: 50 may seem like too many, but it really is a numbers game – even though most of these companies are likely hiring as fast as they can, there are many hopefuls out there with the same idea as you.
  8. Start applying. Go down the list, and make an effort to apply to at least two companies a day. Where possible, customize your resume to match the job requirements. Do not be afraid to apply for positions that look out of your league (e.g. “minimum of 3-5 years of experience in [x]”). Apply anyway! Even if all the listed positions seem too junior, send in an application anyway – there’s a good chance there are more positions that will be posted soon, and this way the company’s HR team will have your resume/CV on file. Remember to track everything in your spreadsheet.
  9. (Optional) If you’re particularly enthusiastic about a company/position, it may make sense to take a more surgical approach. Before you apply, look the company up on LinkedIn – check to see if you already know someone working there, or if one of your connections can refer you to someone (networking, baby!) Chat to someone at the target company, and get the scoop on internal company culture and hiring practices. Demonstrate that you’re interested in working there, and ask if you can be referred (many will be happy to do this, as there are often cash bonuses for successful company referrals). As long as you’re polite and professional, there’s really no downside to this approach – the worst they can say is no.
  10. Keep the momentum going – apply to all 50 on your target list of companies. This seemingly “blind” approach is actually anything but: by working at one of the fastest growing companies out there, you are giving yourself a big career boost. Furthermore, most of these industries are relatively new – just a few years of experience will make you a domain expert. This is the other way of thinking about career satisfaction – just pick something and become great at it. Your efforts will be rewarded, and you will in turn develop passion for what you do. And a company with a fast growth trajectory is the fastest way to see this in practice. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Finally, if any of this sound like generic career advice – that’s because it mostly is. The difference will come from you do – simply reading bullet points and nodding will not bring you any closer to a dream job. Take action!

Don’t wait for the “perfect” time to look for a good career – that time is now. Rid yourself of self-limiting beliefs – go after what you want, and start punching above your weight (go for jobs that will push you out of the comfort zone).

Woman being interviewed by two other women in an office setting

To do well, think of the job interview like an elaborate  theater performance

Part 4: Hacking the Job Interview

A job interview is a performance.

The show begins as soon as the interview starts. Regardless of how she feels about it all, the interviewer must do her best to represent the company and its interests – her role is to appear professional, organized, and confident. Similarly, you – the job seeker – are expected to be polite, courteous, and enthusiastic about just about everything.

As in any theatrical production, the acting is enhanced with props and costumes. The job seeker dresses up in formal clothing to demonstrate that he is serious about the role – a suit, tie, and leather case complete the look. Meanwhile, the interviewer will bring a notepad and pen for recording important talking points (or doodling, most likely). Additionally, at least one hard copy of the candidate’s resume will be placed on the table in the interview room – this is crucial to keep the conversation moving along when either party runs out of things to say. At some point, a glass of water is offered to the interviewee. In most cases, there’s also a time limit (~30-60 minutes per interview).

There are usually no surprises. Both parties are well aware that any deviation from the norm will be noted and remembered.

So why do we still bother with this antiquated, predictable ritual?

Because it works.

Much like a first date, a job interview is a situation that reveals how we behave under immense pressure to perform. It’s a societal rite of passage during which we show off our best side.

It works often enough that, in most industries, this remains the norm. At the end of the process, employers usually get what they want: a candidate who is willing to conform to the rules and expectations of the company.

While the resume/CV is a way to screen candidates for basic competency (“can they do the job?”), the interview process is designed to identify people suited to the particular work environment (“are they someone we could work with?”) Despite obvious flaws (e.g. interview skills being a poor predictor of long-term job performance), it makes sense in our heads – and so we stick to it.

If the job or industry is particularly competitive, employers are known to complicate the interview process to filter out more candidates. Microsoft, for example, pioneered the practice of asking job candidates to solve brainteasers and puzzles during the interview. Much to the annoyance of job seekers, this has now become standard practice across the tech industry – there are now books designed to prepare you for an interview at Google (all the interview questions are known, which makes it just like studying for a college exam). The process filters out all but the most enthusiastic – those willing to participate in the charade of pretending to solve problems during the interview (having already memorized the answers). Every slip up mid-interview can thus be used as an excuse for rejecting the candidate altogether.

So how does someone stand out in this sea of desperate and eager job seekers?

Here’s the plot twist: even though all of the above is common knowledge (and has been covered ad nauseam by just about every career advice blog/book out there), many remain unprepared – poorly formatted resumes are still the norm, and interview performance is all over the place. It’s an inefficient market – just as employers take advantage of the fact that there are more willing workers than positions available, an enlightened job seeker can aim for positions that are out of their league. If you’re great at interviews, there’s a good chance that you will be selected over more qualified (but less socially aware) candidates.

If earning money through employment is at all important to you, becoming better at interviews should be high up on your list of priorities. It’s really not that hard, either – in economic terms, there’s a high ROI (return on investment) associated with practicing interview skills.

I recommend a methodical approach: study the system, find a way to hack it, and mercilessly exploit its weaknesses for your own gain.

As you go about securing the job you desire, I encourage you to stick to a system. By and large, companies have a lot in common with one another: there’s an executive team at the top, a bureaucratic layer of middle management, and a large base of front-line workers at the bottom. People work set hours, take the occasional vacation, and follow a booklet of company rules. All this may vary across industries (and geographies), but this is typically the way humans have chosen to organize work environments. In short, you can apply a successful approach just about anywhere you go – which makes it a good idea to develop a systematic method.

What follows is a system that I have developed for myself. It’s scarily effective, and I recommend it to anyone interested in securing a well-paid job. There are three parts: research (information gathering), preparation, and improvisation.

Note: as ridiculous as the modern corporate interview process is, I strongly encourage you to take every interview seriously. Even if you’re just doing it for practice, try your best to actually secure an offer (i.e. “oh, I didn’t want the job anyway” should not be your excuse). Go into every interview assuming you will get the job, and be confident in yourself and your abilities.

People having a meeting in a corporate office

Corporations are made of people: do your due diligence on them before going in!

Research

Think of yourself as a secret agent, on a mission to infiltrate an enemy organization.

If you are going to successfully pass for one of them (“he would be a great fit here!”), you must become familiar with their culture, history, and values. The internet makes this very easy – a few online searches about the company will get you most of the way there. With a piece of paper handy, write down all the useful company/industry you can find.

Some ideas to get you started:

  • From the company website: jot down the name of the leadership team (e.g. CEO, CFO, CTO) and the previous positions they held. Summarize the company’s history (where/when was it founded, and what markets it has served in the past). Skim through any recent white papers and/or press releases, if readily available. What’s their mission statement? Tagline?
  • Look them up on social media. If there’s a Twitter/Facebook feed, scroll through it to see what’s been happening recently – you will quickly determine how much they value customer service and public perception. Make a mental note of the image that they project to the world – are they strictly business, or do they try to appear quirky and different?
  • Find their LinkedIn profile and look up the profiles of employees with similar job titles to the one you’re applying for (to stay anonymous, copy the profile links and read them in a different browser – where you’re not logged in to the service). This is particularly useful if you know who will be interviewing you. For each person of interest, write down their job history and make a note of anything extra they have on their profile (e.g. interests, skills, hobbies, publications).
  • Look the company up on Glassdoor. This is an invaluable resource: you can read reviews of the company written by past and current employees, get a sense of salary ranges by position, and read about previous candidates’ interview experiences (complete with interview questions and answers). Note: smaller companies may not yet have a profile.
  • Google them. See what others (e.g. blogs, publications) out there are saying about the company. This is for getting a sense of their business practices, growth trajectory, and their place in the industry/market. If they are a large enough corporation, you may be even able to find out things about them by searching directly on news sites.
  • Look them up on any industry-specific websites. If it’s a tech company, for example, look them up on Crunchbase. Here you will be able to see all relevant company news/announcements, track the investment history (e.g. if they have raised outside capital), and find out about their main competitors.

If you do even half of the above, you will already be way ahead of the competition. By learning about the company in advance, you will come into the interview already speaking their lingo. Interviewers are always impressed by a candidate’s knowledge of the company – it’s one of the easiest ways to win them over to your side (“oh look, they already know about our unique values!”).

Preparation

Even if you consider yourself a great salesman (a “people person”), you must still get the basics right – run through the following checklist prior to your interview date:

  • Make sure you look the part. If you’re a man, you can’t go wrong with a dark (charcoal or navy) suit. A light-colored (blue, white, pink) dress shirt and simple tie complete the look. There’s no need to get fancy here – save the bright purple socks for another occasion. Dress as if you were meeting the company’s board of directors. Outside of highly creative fields and/or intentionally casual work environments (e.g. a 3-person tech startup), no one will fault you for dressing to impress. At the end of the day, people are still conditioned to respect authority – and a suit is a perfect representation of it.
  • Have all your props ready. Print out two copies of your resume, and bring them with you in a folder. Optional: bring a pad of paper and pen – even if you don’t plan to actually take notes, this will make you appear more serious.
  • Review your resume again. Be ready to talk about anything you have listed on there. Get your story straight – prepare to explain what you do at your current position, why you’re looking for a new job, and why you would be suitable for the new job. It’s usually too late at this stage to make any edits (they already have a copy of it!), so be ready for anything.
  • If you have any inside information about common interview questions, run through the answers once again. Simply writing them down on a piece of paper will make you more likely to remember them on the day of the interview.
  • Double-check the logistics. How are you getting there? What time do you need to be there? Aim to arrive 10-15 minutes early (even if you’re late by just a few minutes, it will be counted against you).
  • Sleep well the night before – you should look alert and energetic for your performance!

You must also prepare your mind.

It’s all an act, remember? As a performer, you must get yourself into the right mental state for the show – in other words, truly become the character you are playing for the duration of the interview. If you’re faking or overly exaggerating, it will show (many people actually have great  bullshit detectors).

Here’s a secret: good acting is not about how well you lie, but about how well you tell the truth.

In short, try to make the following be true for your new character:

  • You are a responsible, conscientious person. When it comes to doing work, you prefer to start in advance – so that you will finish before the deadline. If something needs to be done, you are one of the first to volunteer.
  • You are respectful of authority. If your boss tells you to do something, you do it – and to the best of your ability. You know your place in the hierarchy, and take care not to overstep your limits. You recognize that “paying dues” is an important prerequisite to advancing.
  • You are a positive, enthusiastic individual. You don’t let setbacks or inconsistencies discourage you – instead, you expect that it will all improve with time. When you meet someone for the first time, you smile and shake their hand. You know the power of positive thinking, and don’t hide it – for every apparent setback, you are quick to point out how you have learned from it (and grown as a result).
  • You value the opinions of your peers. While you are confident in your abilities, you know that the team can achieve far more by working closely together.
  • You are practical and straightforward. You don’t make overly sarcastic remarks or let yourself become cynical. You recognize that political correctness is an important part of maintaining harmony in an organization. You avoid stirring up conflict of any sort.

Generally, the above mentality should serve you well. Remember: they are looking for someone compliant, obedient, and diligent. Appear as that person, and you are ahead of most.

Well, that’s enough preparation – time to take center stage!

Improvisation

A typical interview lasts about 30-45 minutes. After taking away the time wasted on niceties, hellos, and goodbyes… this leaves about 20-25 minutes for the actual Q&A. Simply put, it’s not nearly enough time to make a good prediction about someone’s job performance in a full-time role. There’s simply too much left to chance – making a decision off of a single meeting means that anything could easily sway things either way (e.g. the interviewer’s mood that day). This is why it’s important for you, the job candidate, to put every minute to good use.

Your one and only goal during an interview is to get the other person to like you.

That’s it.

You could try to impress them with your deep industry knowledge, or prove that you would be the clear choice over other candidates (with similar credentials). You could even demonstrate that you’re a big advocate of the company already, and that this is a natural fit for both parties. None of it will matter if they don’t like you.

At the risk of encroaching on the realm of professional con artistry, here are some basic tips:

  • Smile and shake their hand as soon as you walk in. Make eye contact as you do so – even if only for a split second. This creates a basic level of trust, and at minimum ensures that the interview is off to good start. Make it a habit to make eye contact with the interviewer when you’re talking to them.
  • Be brief when talking about yourself. They are not interested in your life story, or a play-by-play account of every past position you may have held. Play it cool – keep the answers short and bring the conversation back to the present day as soon as you can.
  • Mirror their energy level. If they are upbeat and talking in rapid fire, make sure you pick up the pace. Conversely, calm down and relax if they are taking it slow. This will make you much more likable, and maximizes the chances of the conversation moving to a personal level.
    Note: this is different from physically mirroring the interviewer, a tactic that is all too obvious and, if discovered, will make you look ridiculous.
  • Seize every opportunity to move the conversation away from you. Inevitably, their first few questions will be about your suitability for the role – past jobs, project experience, problem solving skills, etc. The goal is to get past that as soon as possible (remember: be brief in all your answers). Exhaust all their prepared questions. Eventually, they will ask if you have any questions for them. Which brings us to the next point.
  • When given the chance, ask questions about their personal experience. People love talking about themselves. Ask about their experience at the company. Get their opinion on the company’s work culture here. Carefully pry about their career choices (e.g. why they chose to work here, and why they still do). Subconsciously, the interviewer will like you more and more – for caring and listening.
  • Act as if you already got the job. It sounds ridiculous, but it works. Assume the mental state of someone who has already gotten an offer – and is now just discussing details. Pretend that the whole interview is just a formality – this will help you relax and stay confident. Most importantly, this approach will make the interviewer see you as an equal (i.e. someone they can respect – and therefore work with).

People buy on emotion – and then justify it with logic.  (If you want any evidence of this, just ask a man to explain why he bought that shiny new sports car).

If an interviewer likes you, they will go on to vouch for you internally. Simply being likable can overpower many other apparent shortcomings (e.g. not solving a brain teaser correctly). People will make up all sorts of excuses to justify hiring someone who they felt they had a personal connection with.

Similarly, even the most qualified and genius candidates can get turned away by coming across as weird, rude, or overly nervous.

Simply put, it’s all about being great with people. Those skilled in sales or customer service will have a natural advantage here (there are many parallels to draw with seduction, too).

Mastery of this game comes with experience. Hardly anyone gets it right the first time around – it’s important to practice your interview skills on a regular basis (whether you have a job or not).

Part of it is learning to quickly recognize the type of person you’re dealing with – and to adjust your approach accordingly. Yes, we are all unique and special. However, there are certain types of people that crop up again and again in office settings – and there’s a good chance you will meet them at the interview stage, too. If you stay employed, you will get to know them quite quickly.

Man dressed in suit and tie

You can win over any type of interviewer – read on to find out how

Here are my recommended approaches for a few of the more difficult personalities you’ll encounter during an interview:

The Cheerleader

A common type on client-facing and administrative teams (including HR), he or she is overly excited about The Company and everything it stands for. They are full of energy, and can go on for an hour about how amazing their work is – often parroting lines found on company marketing materials (“we’re saving the world”). There’s a good chance you will encounter this person as part of the interview process, so it’s critical that you learn how to deal with them.

For best results, dumb down your act: big smile, a lot of nodding, and agreement with everything they say. Emphasize that you’re a team player, and that you like seeing everyone succeed – together. Do not say anything negative, and don’t try to get creative (i.e. funny, snarky, or sarcastic). Play along, and you will be golden in their eyes.

The Hard-Ass

Often an insecure individual from the ranks of middle management (this type is rampant in competitive, zero-sum fields like banking and management consulting). He or she will try their best to make it difficult for candidates – because only the “worthy” should be allowed to join. The Hard-Ass enjoys asking trick questions and brainteasers to get the unprepared to trip up. The trick with them is to not lose your temper. Play it cool, calmly answering their questions.

When faced with a quantitative problem, ask if you can solve the problem “out loud” by talking through your thought process as you work towards a solution on a piece of paper (or whiteboard). Hard-Asses get weak in the knees at this, as it is exactly how they have been taught to solve problems. They will be in awe if you can show them that you are a clear, rational thinker that can handle anything they throw at you.

The Napoleon

This is your classic, type A, power-tripping company executive. He or she is at the interview for one of two reasons: he is either pretending to be a Hard-Ass (see above) to raise the hiring bar, or to sell the candidate on the role (by using grandiose language and making sweeping promises about the company’s future). In any case, it does not matter – your approach with this individual should be the same.

Do not try to impress them with your knowledge of things they don’t personally understand (for example, bragging about you knowing Java will remind them of something they can’t do). Don’t try to be a rebel here – just listen, nod, and show them that you are curious and get things done. They love seeing signs of humility and a strong work ethic – qualities that they like to attribute their own success to! Most importantly, do not appear weak or helpless – there is a fine line between humility and submission.

Keep in mind that the Napoleon is the closest thing to a company celebrity – if you try to suck up to them, they will notice (and won’t like it). Ask open-ended questions.

The Einstein

As the resident Mr. or Ms. know-it-all, this person will not hesitate to rattle off  information they have memorized about the company’s structure, products, processes. etc.

He or she does not particularly care what you know (or claim to know) – they assume that they know more than you possibly could and, if challenged, are get very defensive. Usually (academic) overachievers, the Einstein types are commonly found on Engineering and R&D teams -where they routinely get into inane verbal spars with each other.

Recognize this type early.

The idea is to put them on a pedestal. Act like a student would – ask questions, take notes, and show amazement at their responses. If they ask you about your research, be clear and concise but don’t forget to also downplay it – talk about the weaknesses in your work and how you would improve things down the line. Be sure to praise the company, and thank them profusely for their time – almost all of these characters think their time is very valuable.

In short, act as if you’re dealing with a University professor (coincidentally, this is the job that The Einstein wishes he or she was actually smart enough for).

The Skeptic

The Skeptic is an overly cynical employee, typically disillusioned with the job and everything related to it (industry, products, coworkers). He or she does not actually care much about your resume, what you say, or how enthusiastic you are about the job.

The Skeptic often looks uninterested and detached from the conversation – if there’s a window, they will be looking out of it. While there’s a good chance that they will quit by the time you get hired, it’s still worth it to learn how to win them over.

Being able to spot them is practically the entire key to success here – after all, mistaking any of the other types for a Skeptic will end badly. Signs include: slumping in chair, monotone voice, overly casual clothing, bored expression, breaking interview protocol (e.g. checking their phone), constantly looking at the clock, etc. The trick is to appear as human as possible – if you use buzzwords or marketing lingo, the Skeptic will immediately dismiss you as yet another boring corporate drone (i.e. what they fear of becoming).

When it comes to answering questions about your capabilities, get straight to the point: if something comes up that you can’t do, just say you don’t have much experience with it – but that you will be able to learn fast. Don’t ramble. If there’s an opening, ask them philosophical questions (“why did you choose to work here?” is a great one, as it show that you, too, seek to find meaning in your work).


Now get out there and get that job!

Your time will be far better spent getting actual interview practice. Be confident and bold, and never allow yourself to think that you are somehow “unworthy” of a job position/company. We’re all winging it.

Good luck!

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (Book Summary)

Spent (book cover)This is my book summary of Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (by Geoffrey Miller). I consider this a must-read book for anyone that recognizes the runaway, harmful effects of consumerism in modern societies. Miller goes into detail about specific tactics used by marketers to manipulate us into buying things we truly don’t need. The book is available on Amazon.

Summary notes below. All emphasis mine.


Everyone’s Goal

Our 1 central social goal: to look good in the eyes of others. Buying products is just the most recent way to fulfill that goal.

Fitness indicators: health, beauty, fertility, intelligence, openness to novelty. We buy things to reveal these fundamental virtues.

Maslow’s hierarchy is now outdated.

Updated Chart of Human Needs:

Deficiency Needs (pursued only if deficiency arises)Growth Needs (pursued only if individual is free to do so)
Physiological: breathing, drinking, eating, excreting, regulating temperature, having sexCognitive: to learn, explore, discover, create, acquire knowledge, increase intelligence
Safety: health, wellbeing, familiarity, predictability, personal security, financial security, insuranceAesthetic: experience beauty as found in nature, people, artifacts
Social: family, friendship, intimacy, sexual love, belonging, acceptanceSelf-actualization: to fulfill one’s potential and make the most of one’s abilities
Esteem: recognition, status, glory, fame, self-respect, self-esteem

Evolutionary Consumer Psychology

Big 5 Test + general intelligence (IQ) are an accurate predictor when used together

An individual’s ideology can be viewed as his ad campaign to attract quality mates

Why Marketing is Central to Culture

Democracy is marketing applied to government. 30,000 current denominations of Christianity: this is efficient market segmentation given diverse consumers of religious services.

Overall trend: transfer of power from service providers to service consumers.

Marketing revolution gives us a mirror: we can try different lifestyles and experience the results.

Marketing is the enemy of Buddha, as it perpetuates the delusion that desire leads to fulfillment.

Good marketing does not promote materialism; otherwise products are reduced to mere commodities. Instead, advertising/branding attempt to create associations between a product and the aspirations of a consumer (e.g. Smart Water vs. tap water)

Marketing’s logical culmination would be seductive immaterialism (e.g. The Matrix, Second Life)

Plato’s preference for government was a benevolent dictator (because the masses cannot be trusted to understand their own true long term interests).

Marketing dominates life on Earth.

Marketing vs. Memes

“Cultural Engineering”: intentional creation and dissemination of new culture units (memes) through advertising/branding/PR.

Remember: there are just 6 big media conglomerates and 4 big ad conglomerates for the entire world (and consolidation is ongoing).

This is Your Brain on Money

Narcissism: selfishness, arrogance, exceptionalism, sense of entitlement, admiration seeking, success fantasizing, grandiosity, victim mentality, anhedonia (inability to enjoy simple pleasures), emotional instability.

This leads to self-stimulation: fiction reading, TV, drugs, masturbation, extravagant parties, ego surfing, blog streaking

The 2 Faces of Consumerist narcissism: public status seeking and private pleasure seeking

All human brains have deep and abiding interest in 2 revolutionary goals:

  1. Displaying fitness indicators associated with higher social/sexual status
  2. Chasing fitness cues associated with better survival, social, social, sexual and parental prospects
    (Often to the exclusion of empathy, intimacy, friendship, kinship, parental responsibility & community)

Example: an iPod confers status (sleek design, brand recognition, expensive) and pleasure (your personal music)

Showing Off (Public)Self-Stimulating (Private)
Basic FunctionsTrait displayPleasure delivery
Narcissist symptomsGrandiosity, admiration seeking, status fantasies, arrogance, ambition, lack of humilitySolipsism, pleasure seeking, self-stimulation, perfectionism, irritability, lack of empathy
Associated sinsPride, avarice, envyLust, gluttony, sloth, wrath
Typical activityWork, socializingLeisure, dreaming
FoodKobe beef, foie grasLamb vindaloo
DrinkRare burgundy, red bullHot chocolate, margarita
ClothingBusiness suitLingerie
House featureEntry hall, dining roomMedia room, master bathroom
SoftwarePersonal pageComputer game
College mangerFinance, premed bioLiterature, psychology
Reading materialQuotable non-fictionEscapist fiction
Film genreForeign, classicAction, porn
iPod featuresSleek design, apple logoBattery life, lightweight, custom covers
Books addressing itSpentThe Evolutionary Bases of Consumption

A high proportion of products are designed and marketed for showing off  as narcissism projectors, trait amplifiers, and fitness indicators, signals of wealth, health or virtue.

Narcissism Premium for Cost-dense products

As cost density increases, so does narcissism. Same goes for cost per unit of time, or cost vs. cost of raw materials.

  • Living doesn’t cost much, but showing off does
  • Beyond our true necessities and luxuries (not biological adaptations), we get only a little added value from market-traded products.
  • Fools toast each other’s wealth, whereas sages toast each other’s health.

On Wealth

  •  Not all wealth is seen as “morally equal.” We make different attributions about personality, intelligence and moral traits of wealthy people based on the sources of their wealth
  • Many luxury goods are positioned to signal more specific aspects of the owner’s “identity”
  • Advertising creates symbolic associations between the brand and aspirational traits it embodies, including the specific source and form of wealth of prospective buyers

On Status

  • Status symbol: anything that provokes social interest, attraction, or deference
  • Products can act as status symbols, but they don’t quite confer status by themselves
  • Status is what we confer on one another (it exists in our minds as we observe others), usually through other individuals’ judgments on physical, mental, personality and moral traits.
  • Beauty raises status. Creativity raises status. Emotional stability and articulate leadership during group emergencies raise status.

On Taste

  • “Taste” is a way for us to sort one another out, to choose friends and mates based on similar aesthetic and moral criteria that reflect commonalities of intelligence, personality and ideology
  • Personal taste should not just attract like-minded individuals; it should repulse differently minded ones

Wealth, Status and Taste are merely pseudo-traits.

Most desirable traits: physical attractiveness, physical health, mental health, intelligence, and personality.

Consumerism’s dirty secret: we do a very good job assessing important traits through ordinary conversation, and goods/services we work so hard for are largely redundant and often even counterproductive!

Why do we waste so much time, energy and money on consumerist trait displays?

We overestimate how much people care about the products we buy.

3,000 ads per day are telling us that other people will care deeply about products we buy, display, and use.

Notice: we don’t remember who owned what products.

We notice only a few basic traits: size, shape, age, sex, race, familiarity, relatedness, attractiveness, special states of physiology (e.g. sleep, injury, sickness, pregnancy), emotion (e.g. anger, fear, disgust, sadness, elation), intelligence, mental health, moral virtues (beliefs)

All of the above are hard to fake with bought products, yet we still continue to try and fake them!

Behavior carries more reliable information when the subject feels that he is alone.

Major social rituals (e.g. dates, interviews, parties, banquets, holidays, weddings, honeymoons) are long, high stress, maybe include alcohol: they are designed to bring out the best and worst in us.

Fetishization of Youth and Disparagement of Wisdom

Ability to judge character used to be a major part of wisdom!

Agreeableness, emotional stability, intelligence: all indicators of wisdom.

Marketers replaced parental wisdom and advice. The pitch: “your purchase of this new product is a rebellion against old generation’s outmoded belief in existence, stability and heritability of personal traits.”

Example: rap music sold to suburban white boys to display their coolness/attitude/”street cred”

Goal of marketing: undermine people’s confidence that their traits are real enough to be appreciated without being amplified and externalized by careerism and consumerism.

The Fundamental Consumerist Delusion

Consumerism depends on forgetting a truth and believing a falsehood.

Truth: natural social behaviors that impress are language, art, music, generosity, creativity, and ideology

Two big lies:

  1. Above average products can compensate for below average traits when building long term relationships
  2. Products offer cooler, more impressive ways to display our desirable traits than natural behavior
    (any technical innovation or marketing innovation is pitched as an upgrade in signal effectiveness)

Advertising must hint at signaling functions of conspicuous consumption, but must not make quantitative claims about relative signaling frequency of different products, or of artificial products vs. natural human behaviors.

Example: sports cars. Ads must imply more attention from women, but must not claim it explicitly! Otherwise, such an explicit claim can be disproven quite easily.

Consumers must feel that they uniquely recognize the signaling potential of the product from the subtext of the ad — that their desire for social status and sex appeal is subjectively legitimate but publicly embarrassing, and that they alone can convert the products’ technical excellence into a display of personal coolness that yields social and sexual payoffs.

The consumers must feel that they can enter into a signaling conspiracy between themselves, the product, and some hypothetical audience of admirers — and that this conspiracy is racy, ingenious, and even subversive of capitalism itself.

Even “consumer rights” organizations are in on it – they never assess a product’s signal effectiveness in promoting the consumer’s social responsibility or sexual success!

Since most consumers are married, the only way to sell products that promise increased sex appeal is to make pitches below the radar of jealousy (spousal jealousy). Can’t simply say “this Corvette will get you laid,” but you CAN show technical specs (“500 horsepower”) and a female in passenger seat throwing up both hands in surrender. Gullible wife worries less, gullible husband fantasizes more.

For women: L’Oreal lipstick. “This lipstick will signal your desperation and ovulation to sexually jaded husband and male neighbors/household servants.” What the ad actually says: “Micro-crystal technology.”

The trick: allow the most important things to go unsaid – but not unimagined!

Long-term relationships grow and endure through complex, ever-shifting sets of partly conflicting, partly overlapping interests. Repeated cycles of cooperation and conflict, trust and betrayal, intimacy and alienation. Influenced by arguments, explanations, apologies, resolutions, gossip.

The consumerist delusion that products/brands matter (that they constitute a reasonable set of life aspirations), seems autistic, infantile, inhuman and existentially toxic!

Flaunting Fitness

Insight: “individuals work hard mostly to show off to others, not for the good of the group.”

Fitness indicators (sexual ornaments) attract attention if they are costly, hard to produce and hard to fake. Ignored if too cheap, simple and easy to counterfeit. Effective fitness indicators from the natural world: peacock’s tail, lion’s mane, whale’s song.

Our faces, voices, hair, gait, skin, height are important.

  • Females: breast, buttocks, waist
  • Males: beards, penises, upper body muscle mass

Our capabilities for humor, language, art, music, creativity, intelligence and kindness are important.

Fake goods: as our capacities for judging others have improved, so have our capacities for deceiving. Example: fake rubies are “better” than real ones in just about every rational way.

Perhaps traits that began as fake alternatives (e.g. humor as defense mechanism) have become more desirable than the original traits were (humor now more attractive than physical dominance).

Given two spouses of apparently equal quality, we value the one from a “higher quality” family – full of successful and desirable blood relatives. We assess the family’s genes as a genetic guarantee of a mate’s quality.

Fitness indicators grow more costly, elaborate and precise over time as imitators reap the social, sexual, status benefits of such displays without possessing the underlying qualities being displayed (fitness, health, wealth, taste).

Signaling, Branding and Profit

If you want high profit, your product must have a special signaling value beyond its nominal function. Don’t try to appeal to everyone!

Create psychological links between brands and aspirational traits that consumers would like to display. These signaling links need not involve actual product. Example: Vogue ads show brand name + attractive person.

What matters in most advertising: learned association between consumer’s aspirational trait and the company’s trademarked brand name. One of the best examples: Proactiv (for acne skincare).

Celebrity endorsements are very effective. Mont Blanc uses Johnny Depp’s coolness, attractiveness, sense of humor, intelligence, authenticity. Great for demonstrating contributions to philanthropy, generosity… and consumers feel better about buying!

The ad viewer need not believe that brand has logical/statistical link to aspirational trait that he wants to display, but must simply believe that other ad viewers from his social circle will perceive such a link.

Example: most BMW ads are not aimed at potential buyers as they are to BMW coveters — to induce respect for the tiny minority who actually buy the car. In mainstream magazines, less successful peers are reminded that BMW is a coveted car!

Why Bother Signaling? Key Benefits of Signaling

  1. Quality signals can solicit parental care. If you can prove your prospects for survival and reproduction, you get more attention. “Hey mom, look what I can do!”
  2. Quality signals can solicit care and investment from other genetic relatives. Privileges, hopes, expectations and resources are redistributed according to quality inspections. We all want to look worthy to our relatives.
  3. Can be used to solicit social support, alliances and friendships from non-relatives. Young adult popularity yields midlife business contacts.
  4. Can attract and retain sexual partners.

Family/relatives all care about your physical attractiveness and intelligence. Your social and genetic value increases.

Signals of Body and Mind

Self-deception, encouraged by advertising.

  • L’Oreal says: “because you’re worth it”
  • What they’re really saying: “because you want to look younger than the skanky barista flirting with your husband”

Advertising euphemisms and peer pressure delude you your entire life.

Conspicuous Consumption as Fitness Signaling

Conspicuous consumption (in men) can be increased by thinking about mating opportunities, and can function as mating display

  • equivalent is conspicuous charity in women
  • key word is conspicuous – things that are public, costly displays

For short term fling, Porsche Boxster wins over Honda Civic, but doesn’t make the man a more attractive marriage partner. This interesting, because wealth is relevant for long term marriage.

Men who saw pics of attractive women became much more motivated to get whatever money they could in the short term — presumably to spend on conspicuous consumption to attract mates.

We’ve evolved to attract mates and friends through certain kinds of costly, risky behaviors that reliably signal certain desirable traits.

Conspicuous Waste, Precision, and Reputation

“Half the work done in the world is to make things appear as they are not.”

We don’t live in a truthful and perfect world –- survival/reproductive incentives for reproduction are too high.

Humans often show off the most expensive signals that they can afford:

Basis of comparisonConspicuous WasteConspicuous PrecisionConspicuous Reputation
Form of costMatter, energyAttention, skillCheater punishment
Form of signal quantityMass qualityInformation, brandRecognition
Typical cuesLarge size, costly materials, surface area, scaleSmall tolerances, accurate design, symmetry, reliability, intricacyLarge sales, distinctive design, fashionability, popularity, prototypicality
Displayer emotionsLargessePrideVanity, conceit
Audience emotionsAweFascinationFamiliarity, envy
Terms of praiseFancy, funFine, fitFamous, fashionable
ElementsGold (watch)Silicon (chip)Neon (sign)
FoodsPate de foie grasSushiPrime rib
WatchFranck MullerSkagenRolex
ClothesSable coatIssey Miyake dressArmani suit
CarHummerLexusBMW
House featuresGreat room, foyerKitchen, gardenFaçade, postal code
EducationOxford M.A.MIT Physics PhDHarvard MBA
CitiesL.A.SingaporeParis
Optional if the other two indicators are in playMost successful products display some level of conspicuous precision

Aristocrats differ from nouveaux riches: they prefer “finer things in life” (precision/reputation) over “crass and vulgar” (conspicuous waste).

Our own favored signaling tactics are the ones we are least likely to recognize as signaling at all.

We moved from conspicuous waste of Victorian ornamentation to conspicuous precision of design, form and functionality (e.g. Frank Lloyd Wright, Knoll furniture, Movado, Apple)

It can differ by country:

  • Conspicuous waste still favored in USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China
  • Conspicuous precision fetishized in: Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Europe

Conspicuous precision as worldwide fad threatened to halt economy, so we invented:

  • Planned obsolescence and wastefulness
  • Technological pseudo-progress and techno-fetishization of useless features

Let’s look at the Automobile industry. At this point, the only way to “improve” each year’s new model is through novel functions:

  • A/C (1941), power windows (1948), power steering (1951), cruise control (1958), airbags (1980s)
  • consumers go through so many as they continuously buy the newest models
  • conspicuous precision is quickly reaching limits of our visual acuity and fine motor control

Conspicuous reputation represents serious dematerialization of consumption:

  • Signal reliability no longer depends on capital invested in product (conspicuous waste) or in product’s design and manufacturing (conspicuous precision), but rather in the product’s marketing and branding.
  • The product’s reputability and brand’s equity exist not in the material form, but in the brains of consumers
  • Consumers are reached through advertising, product placement, opinion leaders, imitation, word of mouth
  • Companies with the highest brand equity: Apple, Coke, Microsoft, IBM, GE, Intel, Nokia, Toyota, Disney, McDonald’s, Mercedes Benz

Costly signaling theory highlights the fact that brand equity exists in the minds of signal receivers (observers of other people’s consumption). Best examples are from luxury goods industry: LV, Gucci, Chanel, Rolex, Armani, Prada, Bulgari, Hermes, Tiffany, Cartier, etc.

Typical luxury ad: highly attractive model dressed up as a high status heiress, wearing expression of contempt/disdain for the viewer. Instead of saying “buy this!” it’s saying “be assured that if you buy and display this product, others are being well trained to feel ugly and inferior in your presence, just as you feel ugly and inferior compared with this goddess.”

Critics of branding point to invidious social comparison effects:

  • oppressive feelings (I’m higher in status, sexiness, sophistication)
  • self-delusion (if observers don’t even grant higher status to you!)

Branding seems like a waste of human effort, attention and vanity in the zero sum game of social status.

One benefit of conspicuous reputation: smaller ecological footprint (vs. conspicuous waste and conspicuous precision).

Self-Branding Bodies, Self-Marketing Minds

Indicators of luxury:

  • Men: beards, large jaws, upper body muscles, longer/thicker penises
  • Women: enlarged breasts/buttocks, relatively thinner waists

“You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.” – Epictetus (a Stoic)

Notice the rise of triathlons (because a mere marathon is too easy!). Triathlons require more wealth, muscle mass, training — who but the rich has enough free time to train for one?

Strong signals drown out the weak

Facial Fertility Indicators and Cosmetics

Sexual selection focuses very heavily on facial appearance – we are highly social and visual. We care where others are looking and what our facial expressions are conveying.

  • Male features: prominent brows, jaws, chins, noses, deeper-set smaller eyes, beards
  • Female features: larger, prominent eyes; fuller lips, lighter/smoother skin

Females use cosmetics to optimize for young adulthood appearance: plump lips, large eyes, cheekbones, smooth/radiant complexion, thick & glossy head hair, minimal facial hair

It’s hard to “innovate” in cosmetic product world. Women will pay a high price premium for the brand they feel best expresses their personality.

From Signals of Bodily Fitness to Signals of Mental Fitness

We are actually very good at gauging true beauty, fitness and fertility levels:

  • Body display products don’t actually increase physical attractiveness
  • However, maintaining one’s physical appearance is an effective way of broadcasting one’s personality traits. Consistent and skillful use of fashion, cosmetics, hair products, razors advertises mental health, high self-esteem and conscientiousness
  • Older women do it to remind husbands that they are still savvy to make a useful ally in parenting or networking, or a formidable opponent in divorce court!
  • Older men do it to show moral self-restraint against gluttony or sloth

Notice: people pay premiums for rare virtual weapons in video games to impress each other. Just as in real world, the alleged “hidden quality and performance benefits” of luxury goods are typically illusory, and remain simply as vague ways for customers to justify their narcissism

The Body Goes Mental

Consumerism is not so much about owning material objects, but about displaying personal qualities.

Virtual goods + Avatars will prove this again and again in the future!

The Central 6 Traits

G = General intelligence (IQ)

Big Five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Stability, and Extraversion

Openness to experience: curiosity, novelty seeking, broad-mindedness, interest in culture, ideas and aesthetics. Seeks complexity and novelty, readily accepts changes/innovations, prefer grand new visions

Agreeableness: warmth, kindness, compliance, empathy, sympathy. Seeks harmony, adapts to others’ needs, and keeps opinions to themselves when doing so avoids conflict.

Low agreeableness boys/girls can be more attractive than “nice” ones for short term mating, as they are perceived as more assertive, exciting, cocky and self-confident.

High stability: “not all who wander are lost” and “smile and let it go”

We always prefer higher intelligence in those we are interacting with (unless we’re trying to take advantage of them!)

We prefer to date people with similar Big 5 Traits.

Openness : gossip heavily about avant-garde, culture, science, aesthetics

Introverted: stay home or go to the library

  • “impression management”: we learn to present our apparent big 5 traits in adaptively biased ways, to suit our audience, goals and environments
  • most dramatic shifts are “emotions” (“moods” are less dramatic, but last longer)
  • If we are only seeking a one night stand, we only pay attention to their current emotional state.

Quick Big 5 Self Assessment:

  • For each row in the table below (e.g. “does a thorough job) give yourself a score from 1 to 5
  • Then subtract the score of the bottom row from the one above (for each of the big 5 traits). Example shown:
Have an active imagination5Openness3
Have few artistic interests2
Does a thorough job4Conscientiousness0
Tends to be lazy4
Is generally trusting3Agreeableness2
Tends to find fault with others1
Is relaxed, handles stress well3Emotional stability0
Gets nervous easily3
Is outgoing, sociable3Extraversion-1
Is reserved4

The Central 6 Each form a Bell Curve

Most distinct personality types used in market segmentation are illusory.

It’s almost always more effective to measure Central 6 directly instead of relying on traditional segmentation categories to predict.

The Central Six are Fairly Independent

One exception: general intelligence is correlated with openness. Smarter people are more interested in new experiences, travel, cultures, aesthetics.

Open-minded people who are not very bright: an extremely profitable market segment! They buy fantasy novels, self-help books, nutraceuticals, facial piercings, Enya, homeopathy

General intelligence + openness = short term creative intelligence

Traits that Consumers Flaunt and Marketers Ignore

Instead of displaying “cheap talk” trait tattoos and bumper stickers, we buy and display costly products that we think will testify more reliably to our key traits.

Examples:  university degree, good credit score, smartphones, subscriptions to Wired, attending church, praying 5 times/day

Mapping Big 5 traits to Automobile choices:

IntelligenceHighAcura, Audi, BMW, Lexus, Infiniti, Smart, Subaru, VW
– Value, complex controls, reading lights, hard to pronounce name, room
LowCadillac, Chrysler, Hummer, Dodge, Ford, GMC
– Heavy, low down payment, dealer financing, size: reliability ratio
OpennessHighLotus, Mini, Scion, Subaru
– Eccentric design, foreign origin, ground clearance, moon roof, popularity among youth
– Liberalism, Eccentricity
LowBuick, Lincoln, Oldsmobile, Rolls Royce, Range Rover
– traditional design, domestic origin, popularity among elderly and royalty
– Traditionalism, Conservatism
ConscientiousnessHighAcura, Honda, Lexus, Volvo, Toyota
– reliability, child safety locks, anti-theft, mileage, daytime lights
– Responsibility, Caution
LowFerrari, Jeep, Mitsubishi, Pontiac
– cruise control, cup holders, high acceleration
– Impulsiveness, Recklessness
AgreeablenessHighAcura, Daewoo, Kia, Geo, Saturn
– eco-friendly, hybrid, payload to help friends move, smiley front
– Kindness, gentleness, altruism
LowBMW, Hummer, Mercedes, Nissan, Maserati
– hip, torque, intimidating size, menacing design, leather seats, sneering
– Aggressive, Dominance
StabilityHighAcura, Porsche, Scion
– Cheerful design, “happy” vibes
LowVW, Volvo
– safety, airbags, antilock brakes, electronic stability control, warranty
ExtraversionHighAston Martin, BMW, Ferrari, Mini, Porsche
– convertible, high watt subwoofers, vanity plates, ski rack, James Bond
LowAcura, Hyundai, Lexus, Saab, Subaru, Volvo
– tinted windows, neutral paintwork, quiet interior

Advertising Central Six Through Music Preferences and Web Pages

Higher intelligence: Bartok, Bjork, classical, alternative

People can judge someone’s personality very accurately by looking at the content on his/her web or social media profile page

Music is highly correlated: see work of Peter Rentfrow, Samuel Gosling

Why Marketers Ignore the Central Six

Marketers take into account “demographic variables” (e.g. age, sex, ethnicity, socio-economic status) without taking into account correlations with Central Six.

The utility of a product is often conflated with its conspicuous precision and reputation.

Talking about meaningful psychological differences between groups is taboo in American discussion.

Leading theory of advertising suggests that the content of ads and marketing is largely irrelevant. Rather, the costs that a corporation incurs through marketing are largely ways for the corporation to signal its financial strength to potential employees, investors and rival corporations (Conspicuous waste!)

A lot of pseudo-humility exists about IQ from educated elites. IQ actually correlates with: speed of basic sensory-motor tasks, height, symmetry of face and body, physical healthy, longevity, mental health, romantic attractiveness (at least for Long Term Relationships), overall brain size

Educational Credentialism

Top ranked universities are simply IQ guarantees.

It’s socially acceptable to talk about where you went to college, but not OK to discuss SAT/IQ scores.

Credentialism: 300+ “diploma mills” exist online today ($549 for an online PhD, given in 7 days)

There are much more efficient ways to learn career relevant skills than going to school: reading books, watching documentaries, talking with experts, finding mentors

Other views:

  • Warehousing: “mass public education is just cheap child care for working parents”
  • Conformism: “school socializes children to be reliable, politically pacified wage slaves. Most students just take the easiest classes possible to maximize GPA anyway.”

“A gentleman need not know Latin, but he should have at least forgotten it.”

Higher education is an absurdly expensive, time consuming way to guarantee intellectual/personality traits that could be measured far more cheaply, quickly and accurately by other means!

Other Intelligence Indicators

  • News magazines, non-fiction books, adult education classes, private pilot’s license, Discovery Channel (paying for cable), home astronomy with expensive telescope, strategy games
  • Online day trading (everyone actually knows market is random and best bet is index tracking fund with annual expenses <0.5%)

Connotations of using word “intelligence” in ad copy are risky, so…

  • We use the “smart” prefix (e.g. smartwater/smart money/smart bar
  • We use the “i” prefix (i = intelligence). Examples: iPad, BMW 550i
  • Tech savvy males aren’t actually going to use the product’s features, but they need them to talk about the product! “these features can be talked about in ways that will display my general intelligence to potential mates and friends!”

You can also rent intelligence! Genius is expensive, so it’s valued for its rarity. Example: the wealthy have always commissioned works from the greatest geniuses they could find.

Intelligence Boosting Products

Intelligence peaks in young adulthood: usually all the outpour in music, art, humor happens at a young age

Products:

  • Decision aids (e.g. calculators, Excel)
  • Time allocation aids (e.g. watches, diaries, calendars)
  • Communication aids (maps, books, phones, email, PowerPoint)
  • Social reciprocity aids (money, invoices, checks, debit cards)
  • Mozart music, Nintendo Brain Age, LEGO
  • Drugs: 20th century (caffeine, nicotine, cocaine) vs. now (energy drinks, smart drugs, Ritalin, Adderall)
  • New possibilities: genetic enhancements, implants, etc.
    (It doesn’t matter whether it actually makes the customer smarter– as long as the implant is expensive, exclusive, well marketed and clearly branded, it will sell as a costly, conspicuous, limited-reliability signal of high intelligence)

Trait: Openness

The more you deviate from an average level of openness, the fewer people you attract

Open cities: Amsterdam, Vancouver, Bangkok (San Francisco? Rio? Sao Paulo? NYC?)

Open music: indie, alternative, jazz, world, hip-hop
vs.
Conventional music: pop, country, gospel, classic rock

Open fiction: contemporary, science, erotic
vs.
Conservative fiction: romance, mystery, military history, fantasy

Why Parasites Reduce Openness

People in high parasite regions will benefit from becoming more xenophobic and ethnocentric. On the other hand, if environment is hostile to parasites (e.g. cold, dry north climates) people are more cosmopolitan

Higher openness drives people to seek out new ideas, experiences, places, cultures.

Higher extraversion drives people to seek out new mates, friends, and allies

Collectivists make strong distinctions between in-group and out-group, and they highly value tradition/conformity. Examples: China, India, Middle East, Africa

Individualists do the opposite. Examples: USA, Western Europe (esp. Scandinavia)

In USA:

  • Collectivism: Republican, fundamentalist, pro-military and/or anti-immigration
  • Individualism – Democratic, secular, internationalist, anti-racism

An individual’s self-rated susceptibility to getting colds, diseases, infections predicts his or her xenophobia

People’s openness, extraversion and individualism tend to peak in young adulthood, then decline through middle age.

Conservatives prefer goods and services that are heavy on matter and habits, and light on cognition and imagination:

  • rural towns, chain stores, chain restaurants
  • formulaic TV series, romantic comedies, military thriller novels, local newspapers, church

Openness is strongly correlated with creativity and psychosis (loss of contact with reality)

Consumed by highly open: Tarantino, David Fincher, Jeff Noon, Salman Rushdie, Ursula Le Guin, Beck, Tricky, Gorillaz, Foucalt, Derrida, Amsterdam, ibiza, raves, clubbing, Vegas, Burning Man

Dangers of openness:

  • can lead to physical danger and addictions (extreme sports)
  •  highly open consumers may be highly profitable, as they can be really gullible (see: alternative medicines)
  •  early adopters and fashion followers always “want to always own something a little newer and a little better, a little sooner than necessary.” So businesses must seek “planned obsolescence of desirability.” (see: rise of fast fashion brands like Uniqlo, H&M, Zara)

Trait: Conscientiousness

  • Integrity, reliability, predictability, consistency, punctuality
  • Predicts respect for social norms and responsibilities, and likelihood of fulfilling promises/contracts
  • This is a trait that evolved only very recently in humans
  • For most of adulthood, people strive to maintain a façade of high conscientiousness

High Maintenance Products:

  • Products that are too easy to maintain lose their value as conscientiousness indicators, and lose status and reputability
  • Even as technology makes it easier to maintain each square foot of house, we increase total house area so we can maintain it!
  • The less food people prepare themselves, the more space and money they tend to devote to displaying potential food preparation

Pets as conscientiousness indicators:

  • home aquarium
  • single young man with no houseplants or pets is viewed as poor boyfriend prospect by young women
  • dogs are even more demanding (single people with dogs have high social and sexual popularity)
  • artificial analogues do the job too (see: Tamagotchi, Neopets)

On Collecting:

  • OCD: acquiring many products in one category, and discussing them with other collectors
  • we all learn to rationalize our collecting

Personal grooming: everyone spends a lot of time/money/energy maintaining their hair (a conscientiousness indicator)

On Unused Exercise Machines:

  • “Sometime, when I have more time…”
  • Exercise salespeople are really selling the delusion that high sunk costs will force people to exercise
  • the machines can only increase fitness when used by the highly conscientious
  • We infer that if their capacity for guild and foresight can drive them to regular exercise, it might protect us from being exploited or abandoned by them
  • Industry is threatened by “exergaming” – DDR/Wii Fit (’cause it’s actually fun, addictive, effective, and popular!)

Your Credit Rating:

  • keeping up with a good credit score is important to middle class, and requires a lot of diligence/effort
  • Manifest through one’s ability to acquire costly, credit-demanding products

Formal Education and Employment

90% of success is just showing up!

High intelligence + low conscientiousness = almost unemployable.

Self-employed, small business owner, and creative class (writers, artists, marketing consultants) have a special challenge: demonstrate conscientiousness through long periods of diligent work, unreinforced by bosses, tight deadlines, and social pressures.

School, work and credit are the most reliable and conspicuous indicators of conscientiousness. They are fundamental to conspicuous consumption as all other purchases depend on them!

Trait: Agreeableness

  • Personal capacity for kindness, empathy, benevolence, desire for social justice
  • Our last, best hope for the salvation of our species, but also persistent source of hypocrisy and runaway self-righteousness

Agreeable Economy:

  • ritualized occasions for gift giving (holidays, family remembrances, rites of passage)
  • De Beers pitch: “a diamond is forever” (two-months’ salary!) Average engagement price of $6,400
  • “etiquette”, or how to emulate tacit social norms of the ruling class

Indicators of Agreeableness vs. Aggressiveness:

  • Goal in age 18-34 male group: invest the most time/energy/money in the mating effort, often swapping back and forth from agreeableness (to ensure girl’s confidence in you) to aggressiveness (to win her over initially)
  • Most attention placed on automobile: notice the mostly aggressive naming and styling.

Displaying Agreeableness through Conformity:

  • Mating minded males must display low agreeableness through anti conformity (risk taking)
  • Mating minded females must display agreeableness through conformity to peer influence

Ideology as an Agreeableness indicator:

Public displays of ideology (rallies, protest) often result in many new relationships!

Males have much more to gain from intercourse with many women (they can have many children) than the other way around

  • Conservatism is read as: ambitious, self-interested personality that will excel at protecting and provisioning a sexual partner
  • Liberalism is read as: caring, empathetic personality that will excel at child care and relationship building

Men favor younger, more fertile women. Women favor older, richer men with higher status.

Personality Indicators associated with religions:

  • Quakers: agreeable, intelligent
  • Satanists: disagreeable, impulsive
  • Zen Buddhists: open, stable
  • Orthodox Jews: conservative, conscientious

Signaling Failures in Ideology

Dominant ideologies can maintain their monopoly power as signaling systems: they can portray alternative ideologies as signaling undesirable traits, and thereby pre-empt any signaling benefit of switching ideologies.

The Centrifugal Soul

Runaway consumerism leaves us feeling superficial and empty, because we project ourselves too promiscuously and desperately.

The Renunciation Strategy (monks, puritans, hippies) is self-deceptive as they don’t actually escape conspicuous self-display.

The standard strategy: seek highest-paying employment permitted by one’s intelligence and personality, and use resulting income to buy branded goods and services at full price.

As self-display strategy, buying products at full price is inefficient – no story to it!

  • what can one say about the skills required in making, finding, acquiring, maintaining or repairing it?
  • all typical store purchases are generic and similar, not worth talking about.

Other options:

  • Just don’t get it. Consider whether it’s really worth the cost.
  • Instead of going out to spend money, just exercise! Or spend time with someone.
  • For many products, long-term net costs of ownership/consumption far outweigh short term benefits
  • Find the one you already own
  • Borrow one from a friend, relative or neighbor–this also builds social capital (reciprocity, trust, bonds)
  • Rent it. Rent a Ferrari! You don’t ever own anything anyway (everyone dies), housing, vehicles, tools, electronics, handbags. Rule of thumb: rent it for a week and see if you like it.
  • Buy it used. Overcome the irrational premium we put on pristine condition! The fear of symbolic contagion (by socially inferior or ethnically different pre-owners) is the enemy of rational frugality
  • Buy it in generic, replica or trickle down form! Premium branding is becoming less distinctive as objective marker of quality and/or novelty

Another alternative: make stuff yourself!

  • Hobbies and crafts allow one to display intelligence, creativity, conscientiousness
  • easiest, most frugal and most effective when skills are easily learned but seldom mastered, and when the things are usable, visible, and beautiful.
  • Examples: Furniture, cooking, sewing, jewelry, pottery, PCs
  • Note: don’t spend $3000 in tools to make a book-case that would cost $80! Borrow the tools instead.
  • If you can’t make it, commission it from a local Artisan (this displays one’s resourcefulness, creativity, taste and social skills in collaborating with the artist)

Mass designed houses lose value and are poorly built. Instead, design one together with an architect, you’ll love the process and understand the house better. A custom home requires creativity, openness, agreeableness, extraversion.

Wait 3 years before buying new technology -– early adopters recoup cost of company’s R&D efforts. 2-3 years results in a 80% price drop. Waiting is hard, so instead seek out what is just hitting the mass market.

Ask to get it as a gift: this amplifies personal display value as testament to one’s lovability and popularity

Acknowledge the display premium built into most retail products. Can you think of nothing better to do with the premium you are paying?

Just buying products offers no value w.r.t. narration, but only reveals your gullibility, conformism, and unconsciousness as a consumer.

More time-demanding tactics are often not just more romantic, but more rational! As we all have limited time in the developed world, giving gifts and acquiring goods that require high personal time investments are much more credible, impressive signals of generosity and taste.

Without human language to weave stories and connections around products, the products are mute. Otherwise, they can be powerful conversation starters.

The Promise of Mass Customization

Just like bespoke suits or custom yachts, there’s a big benefit to companies that can offer customization options

What anti-consumerist protestors are doing wrong

  • Their targets (multinational corps and faceless institutions) simply don’t care about “going green”
  •  Informal sanctions only work when you hear it from your in-group (your “network” of 150 people)
  • Moments of 1-on-1 consciousness raising is how any major change or movement ultimately begins

A friend or lover can imply that we have wasted our lives chasing consumerist dream world mirages; as long as he or she assures us that we still appear intelligent, attractive and virtuous.

Multiculturalism vs. Local Social Norms

  • Communities with a chaotic diversity of social norms don’t function very well–they exhibit lower levels of “social capital” (trust, altruism cohesion, and sense of community)
  • The only way to signal in multicultural communities is to rent or buy at a particular price point
  • With wealth being the only differentiator in such communities, people turn to conspicuous consumption and materialism.
  • You have to be able to choose your tribe! Need social norms for every scenario, decision or event that the community agrees on
  • Some attempts at setting up tribes: gays in NYC/SF, Mormons in Utah, co-living (frats, co-op, communes)

Going Virtual

Cell phones, social networks, MMORPGs are ubiquitous. It’s now possible to live in a social world of one’s own choosing, without regard to location.

Older generation always scoffs at young one for “wasting it’s time on new technologies” — because mew communication tech renders obsolete most traditional aspirations, values, skills, and status criteria.

Yale degree? How about a personal blog.

Endless revolution in tech and economics:
We went from Hunting & Gathering -> Herding -> Farming -> Factory work -> Corporate careers -> Credentialist professions -> Electronic Global Economy

Don’t worry about the young ones–the coming generations will do just fine.

Stuff that will be inevitably outdated: credentialism, workaholism, conspicuous consumption, single-family housing, fragmented kin/social networks, weak social norms, narrowly economic definitions of social progress and national status, indirect democracy distorted by corporate interests and media conglomerates.

The Grand Social Quasi Experiment

  • Observe like-minded communities to see what exactly makes a good, positive society
  • We should recognize that cultural evolution, like biological evolution, is much smarter than we are

Legalizing Freedom

What government can do to stop promoting conspicuous consumption:

  • Most governments value GDP growth over citizens’ happiness, quality of life, efficiency of trait display and breadth/depth of social networks
  • For examples to emulate, look at places with high Human Development Index (HDI): Norway, Australia, NZ, USA, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, Germany
  • All economists agree that consumption taxes encourage less consuming and more earning, saving, investing and giving.
  • We should promote product longevity (e.g. houses that last longer than 5 years!)
  • Good design can minimize depreciation over time (see: today’s clothing industry and obsession with disposable, fast fashion)
  • We need to promote camaraderie, reciprocity, trust, charity, savings, eco-friendliness, respect, and trust

Why the Sky Won’t Fall if We Change

Over the longer term (i.e. not too suddenly), economies are resilient!

Free markets always find a way to go forward (“creative destruction”)

Pre-requisites for free markets to work: peace, rule of law, property rights, stable currency, efficient regulation, honest government and social norms of trust, fairness & honor.

  • This already more or less exists in Silicon Valley, Hong Kong and Switzerland.
  • Humans were meant to live in small-scale societies built on mutual recognition, respect and trust.

Conclusion: Self-Gilding Genes

Remember: goods and services are not good at advertising our traits to others.

Instead, focus on language, kindness, creativity, beauty, and intelligence.

We can flaunt our fitness with more individuality, ingenuity, and enlightenment.


Read other reviews and notes on the book’s Amazon page.