Signaling is how humans communicate with other humans before even speaking a word or making eye contact. Signaling is a social trait which makes us human. When it comes to money and wealth, I try to be neutral but I’ve found it to be a losing battle. Instead, I’ve used a different technique to achieve a similar result.
The way I walk, the way I talk, the clothes I wear, these are all ways of signaling cues to others. Signaling actually is a display of caring even if we sometimes take it to the extreme. I signal to other human beings because I care about them and want them to have a certain impression of me which hopefully will be both positive (deodorant) and non-threatening (shaving).
Even that obnoxiously loud person, blasting their music, or revving their tiny motorcycle engine, is signaling. It’s because they have an emotional connection to other humans (even animals) – an innate human trait. Are they showing off? Maybe, but more importantly, they are craving attention; hoping to connect with someone who will appreciate their unique flavor of clothing, music, or transportation of choice.
Doctors signal to other doctors with our attitudes, our attire, our possessions, where we live, what we listen to … classic doctor shit. It’s for the sake of belonging and displaying status so that we can connect with the like-minded.
Signaling our status
We signal our status for both good and bad reasons. It helps us connect to others in our own social class, which can decrease friction. It’s also to let others know they can trust us. If I wanted someone to think I’m a thug then I’d go buy an Impala, drop it, and black it out. I’d maddog everyone out of my rolled down window and blast loud music. This would signal to the normal people to not talk to me (because they annoy me) and for other thuggish people to know that I share their way of life.
Maybe it’s because we have been domesticated for so long that we don’t know how to control signaling – we just go with it. But advertising companies have also influenced that way we signal. They benefit because we often buy more shit to help us signal. I buy a hippie looking shoe to tell others that I’m a tree-hugger. Or I buy Italian fancy leather shoes to tell others that I’ve made it. The Rolex is the classic signaling that you’ve made it – that you’re a wealthy doctor.
For many medical professionals, status signaling is done with a luxury car, a >$500k home, stylish clothes, and fancy gadgets. It’s rare to meet a doctor who hasn’t traveled to exotic destinations. It’s almost a cliche and the patterns are predictable. And, again, not because we are bad people, but because we are trying to connect with other fellow physicians – other human beings who understand us and don’t judge us for being rich.
The classic physician demeanor – slightly dismissive, yet analytical – is also part of our signaling status. These are unique traits when compared to the rest of the population but helps us fit into our own group. The surgeons are slightly rushed. The family medicine doctor is excessively sensitive. The radiologist is overly analytical. The pathologist is … well, nobody talks to pathologists, so nevermind.
So, we need to belong because we care. We need to signal so that we can properly express ourselves. But signaling like other doctors can be financially exhausting. One alternative to traditional signaling is to focus our energy on less tangible and more sophisticated endeavors. Within this realm you can maintain your physician identity and connect with others who are like-minded.
Examples might be: chairing a board for a health organization, volunteering in a local community clinic once a month, or contributing to a the health section of a local newspaper or medical journal. This takes more effort and your shared community will be smaller so it can be less satisfying, but it will be more sustainable.
One other advantage here is that you’re going to be a far more interesting person. And you’ll be more likely to engage in deeper conversations with people because you have these less obvious, hidden, interesting traits.
I’m convinced that most Americans who would suddenly come into a sizable wealth would purchase multiple flashy luxury items. Think, LV bags, a Benz, and mini-mansions. Since most luxury goods aren’t of higher quality – in fact, many are of lower quality since form supersedes function – the purchase of these items isn’t for the sake of practicality, rather it’s to signal wealth.
A Benz or a Beemer will signal wealth. A house on pill hill most definitely will signal wealth. But why bother signaling wealth to other wealthy individuals. And why bother signaling wealth when you already got status? I think if we did a cost/benefit analysis of these behaviors, we’d stop them.
We keep up this behavior because it’s ingrained in us, I don’t think it’s something each of us individually and uniquely discovered. We just did what others did or what others told us to do.
Breaking old habits
Status has somehow become more important than actual wealth in the US. Compare a $2k/month car lease payment to a paid off $10k car. Or a $250k paid off condo to a house with a ton of useless grass in the backyard with $5k/month mortgage payments.
If each of us spent a little more time getting to know others, really building a network of deeper relationships, I don’t think there would be a need or desire to connect superficially. We would resort to less wealth signaling, less showing off, less of impressing others.
This is why in smaller, close knit communities fewer individuals signal wealth – at least not in a flashy manner. But in overcrowded cities, where it’s hard to stand out, many revert to signaling wealth by popular media standards. You’re just lost in a sea of people, how else would one stand out?
More wealth next door
Showing up with a Lex or Maserati to pick up your daughter at school will make you feel like part of the gang of rich soccer moms, but then what? Okay, you bought the expensive house in that expensive community, now what?
You’re still going to be competing with the guy who has a high school education but is making $125,000/month doing SEO for websites. Your other neighbor owns half of your town. The widow next door inherited $100M from her husband. And the young couple next door just sold their baby clothing business in Mexico for $18M which doesn’t even include royalties.
Alternative wealth signaling
Getting to a financially secure place is less sexy but a more functional form of wealth signaling. Constantly playing a role in someone else’s game can lead to misery. But when you are truly wealthy, you derive a certain amount of confidence from that wealth. You feel less fearful and eel more stable in your life.
Instead of showing with purchases, have the swagger of a doctor who has no debt. Who has $500k+ saved and invested before age 40.
Be the dude who invests in others. You could be the person who supports young entrepreneurs or young female artists in your community. That’s wealth right there. You can feel great about yourself and people will know you to be the go-to person in your community. You’ll make connections and you’ll benefit from it as well.
Also, time is probably the most potent display of wealth. I spend my days at cafes which sometimes sparks the question of why I never work and whether I’m independently wealthy. When I think about it, it’s true, I have a lot of free time and can spend it any way I want. This is a wonderful way to signal wealth.
We signal wealth in order to connect – I already mentioned that. We do it in order to feel less lonely; if others are doing what we’re doing then we have compatriots. It’s a grind when you do something totally unique. You’ll hardly get any support for it and that’ll make you feel lonely.
The loneliness stems from your colleagues not understanding why you chose this particular lifestyle. Why aren’t you driving a nice car? Why don’t you have a big home? Why don’t you travel more and see more countries? Dude, haven’t you heard of Machu Picchu?
One solution to this is to make those deeper connections as I discussed. Another is to find more like-minded colleagues. They are out there, somewhere. Quite a few of them on this blog, in fact. But they don’t have to be physicians. If you can disidentify from being a physician, disidentify from medicine, you can befriend whomever you want, in any field, with any interests.
I have more barista and service industry friends than I have doctor friends. It’s the nature of my lifestyle and probably the signals I display. Some of these folks are amazing people whom I now call friends. It’s a good cure for loneliness.