How Prestige Destroys Meaningful Work

Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of our core conversation series, “Extraordinary Women Change the World.” Yesterday, Emilie Wapnick shares what it feels like to be the only girl in the room. Today, Carmen Sognonvi shares the dangers of the prestige to your meaningful work.


When Charlie and Angela invited me to be a part of this core conversation on women’s empowerment, I had just discovered Y Combinator founder Paul Graham’s 2006 article “How to Do What You Love.”

I was especially struck by what he wrote about the dangers of prestige:

Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world… Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like…

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind””though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Graham’s words really hit home for me because there have been several points in my career in which I’ve taken a left turn, and everyone around me kind of scratched their head and wondered what the heck I was doing with my life.

So how does this relate to empowerment?

I believe that many women hold themselves back from doing what they truly love because whether they realize it or not, they get hung up on prestige.

I went to a good school. Wouldn’t I be wasting my degree if I did this?

I’ve already established a great reputation in my industry. Can I really afford to walk away and start over in a new field?

People know me as a [insert your industry] expert. If I do this new thing, what happens to my identity? Whom do I become?

Don’t get trapped into chasing prestige.

If you truly want to be empowered, find a way to do meaningful work – regardless of what others think of your choices. (click to tweet – thanks!)

Pamela Slim and I recently had a conversation about this very topic, and I thought I’d share it with you here.

In this video, we talk about:

  • Why I decided to “waste” my Ivy League degree to work as a secretary
  • Why I walked away from being regarded as an authority in my field (complete with CNN appearances, book agents, and highly-paid speaking engagements) to start a mom-and-pop local neighborhood business
  • How even the most seemingly irrelevant jobs I’ve held have taught me things that served me later on in my career

Have you ever held back from trying something because you were afraid of what you might lose?

What decisions have you made in your career that made your friends think you were going a little batty?

I’d love to hear your stories, so please share them below.

About Carmen:
Sign up for Carmen’s free video course, “The 5 Mindset Success Secrets Every Local Business Owner Should Know.” Carmen blogs about local business and local marketing at She and her husband own Urban Martial Arts, which offers karate and kickboxing classes in Brooklyn, NY.

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  1. says

    This is such a great post, Carmen. I’m so glad that you shared this with us. I think you’ve really hit on something important with this. The education that we get, both within the four walls of academia, as well as out in the world, are BOTH important. In fact, some of what I have learned outside of academia has been what has sustained me and allowed me to truly understand our customers. 
    I struggled with something similar when I finally decided to leave academia. I was so very concerned about what it would look like to earn a PhD, teach as a Professor, and then walk away to work in our business. Part of me wondered why on earth I had pushed so hard through academia and if I had wasted all that time and education. 
    The truth is my PhD in Sociology has helped me so much in my position now in our company. And, what I have learned outside of the ivory tower are lessons that are just as important. 
    Thank you for sharing this. 

    • carmensognonvi says

       @Angela Wheeler Thanks for sharing your experiences, Angela! I think people underestimate the courage it takes to “walk away” from an established career like the one you had to embark on something that doesn’t have the same kind of recognition. I really enjoyed being part of this series, so thanks again to you and Charlie for inviting me.

  2. irisvankerckhove says

    Yes, everyone needs to get over the prestige thing. It’s so freeing! You’ll be able to do what YOU want to do, and not keeping up with other or living by their expectations rather than your own.
    I think a lot of of my friends think I’m crazy for staying in a job that doesn’t use my full potential. I know it’s out of love and care–they want to see me enjoy my work. But I stay at my job for now because it gives me a wonderful life outside of it. For friends who were raised with the mentality that career is number one and everything else in life can wait until that’s sorted, they just don’t get how I have different priorities. But I don’t mind, I like hearing different point of view, even if I don’t ultimately take their advice :)

    • carmensognonvi says

       @irisvankerckhove Yes! It’s easy to be swayed by what the conventional wisdom holds to be what you’re “supposed to” want. But in reality, that thing may not make you truly happy. I’m glad you’re able to stay true to your priorities, and accept your friends’ concern for what it is – love and care for you as a friend.

    • bsaunders says

       @irisvankerckhove What’s ironic about the “full potential” line is that high-prestige jobs don’t necessarily use your potential either. I had a six-figure gig that consisted of mind-numbing cutting and pasting and wrestling with buggy software. Hardly my purpose on the planet. Teaching people to exercise was closer. Tutoring kids was closer. Heck – facilitating beautiful dining experiences, i.e., waiting tables, was closer.

      • carmensognonvi says

         @bsaunders Hey Barbara, you’re so right about that. Sometimes things that feel “smaller” in prestige or scope or whatever, actually are much more fulfilling because you see the impact of your work in such a direct way.

  3. carmensognonvi says

    Yes, they can be too confining. Look fwd to meeting you later today! -> RT @davidrostan Resumes can be anchors

  4. mkr127 says

    This really IS a great post!!!  I am a chemical engineer with an MS and PhD in Fuel Science…. but, I don’t really want to be a combustion expert.  This is something I have been coming to terms with slowly over the past year or so.  It’s very confusing, actually.  Prestige is a good way to describe it – I hadn’t been able to find the words, because it wasn’t as simple as saying that I wanted to fulfill the expectations of all of those who know me – it’s what I had convinced myself I was capable of, or something.  And to be a woman in a male dominated field in a relatively high paying job, it just seems like regression to step out of it – but that regression is one-sided, and is more about women than it is about me.  It wouldn’t be regression for me.  Anyway – thanks for the enlightening post – I feel like I read this as the perfect time!  Thanks to Pamela Slim for posting about this on her FB!

    • carmensognonvi says

       @mkr127 Hi Mel, I’m so glad you found this post at the perfect time! It sounds like you’re dealing with many layers: prestige, other people’s expectations, your own expectations of yourself, a feeling of duty/obligation to represent for women in your industry… I can totally relate. I hope you come to a decision that feels right for you! :)

      • mkr127 says

         @carmensognonvi Hi, Carmen!!  You are absolutely right that I’m dealing with all of these facets!  The funny thing is that the more I sit with my realizations, the less scary they feel.  And I can relate to your discussion with Pam Slim, about when you became an assistant.  Right now I am working with an acquaintance to pick up a side job in her writing/consulting business – she has commented that the pay is terrible (just above minimum wage) compared to my current salary (in a totally different industry).  She was surprised when I said that I am totally fine with the earnings – I just want to gain the experience and learn all that I can about the industry that I think is calling me!  
        Anyway, each step I make away from the thing that is bogging me down, and toward the thing that satisfies my heart, the more confident and inspired I become.  I still have a long way to go, but I can see the clouds lifting, which is an immense relief, because the past two years have been terribly confounding and depressing for me (career wise).  
        Keep doing what you do, and thanks for sharing your wisdom with the rest of us!!!  

  5. bsaunders says

    I think my error was to confuse prestige with money. Not that I cared particularly about having lots of money! At 21, I had absolutely no idea that, say, many blue-collar jobs paid more than many white-collar ones. 

    • carmensognonvi says

       @bsaunders Yes! Or even within white-collar jobs, many that have less “prestige” (like sales) you can make way more money than those that are better regarded by people from fancy schools

    • carmensognonvi says

      @prolificliving Thanks, Farnoosh! So glad you liked that one. I suspect we share some parallels in our experiences :)

  6. Jessii says

    I can relate. i think prestige has got in my way many times. i think i choose to do things based on what people expect of me and i don’t do what i love. I think i should free myself of this because it might end up making me unhappy. This post really opened my eyes to what i should be doing and that i should do what i love and not what others expect me to be doing. THANKS FOR THE POST!!!! :) 

  7. atlcharm says

    Thank you sooo much. This is right on time. I’m struggling about going back to school to be a doctor. Each time I think about the path to get there, I get mentally and physically tired. I’m wondering if I am embarking on this path simply for the money and the PRESTIGE. 8 year is a lot of time to waste on something just so that people will think more of you. Hmmm…

    Thanks so much!!

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