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The Moat of Low Status
Around anything cool you want to pursue, you will find a Moat of Low Status. Each moat is different, but they are never pleasant to be in. They’re always scummy, cold, and terrifying.
The Moats that surround prestige industries are guarded by beautiful people with blowguns and scathing witticisms. They will delight in your failure. Perhaps you will be their intern in a bitter winter. Once you’re successful, they’ll suddenly start liking you. Weirdly, this won’t give you any satisfaction.
Other Moats involve physical pain as well as social pain. Sure, at a nice jiu-jitsu gym everyone will be nice to you as a white belt. You’ll still spend most of your time getting crushed, and you’ll know that you suck, and they’ll know that you suck, and your appetite for continuing will depend on your ability to bathe in a Suck Field day in and day out.
Some only consist of your self-loathing. If you find a shack to practice the violin where nobody can hear you, congratulations. But you will still hear you. And your ability to notice that you suck is what will make you good. Or what will make you quit. You can generate a Moat all on your own. But then you have to cross it.
This is not an uplifting story. I’m not telling you to enjoy the Moat of Low Status. There’s no way to enjoy them. There are only a few freaky people who genuinely don’t give a fuck about their level of esteem. If you were one of them, you’d know it already. Most people who seem like trailblazing don’t-give-a-fuck types just give a different variety of fuck. They feel bad too.
But maybe this makes it easier—knowing that you will be nauseated and lost when you try to do anything in life other than stay on an understandable, legible, unobjectionable trajectory. Sometimes this is called safety. But it’s really not safe. It’s just steady-state. People with safe jobs get cancer and get fired all the time. Often, taking the ‘safer’ path—to a broader skillset that’s more remunerative, or a healthier lifestyle that suits you better—involves crossing a Moat.
If you want to live an evolving creative life, you have to cross a bunch of Moats. During my twenties, I crossed the Singer-Songwriter moat, which, weirdly, lead to the Entry-Level Journalist moat. Then I got a book deal. Pretty high-status! But the island of book deal turned out to be an inhospitable place, with sparse nourishment. Back into the low-status waters we go. Right now I’m writing a Substack novel. There’s an awful lot of telling people to like and subscribe going on. That is another Moat.
Am I better at it now? Maybe. I certainly know that you can’t die of shame. So setting out to cross the Moat is in some way, easier. At the same time, I’m more weary. Part of me thinks it’s too late in life for this buffoonery. I should get a salary and steady interests and not deviate. Perhaps I’m too old for all of this vacillation.
But those are the words of the Moat, you see. It seeps into your mouth as you swim. The water is mind-control water. It speaks in your thoughts. Once you’re swimming, you will tell yourself, convincingly, in your own words, that you will drown in the Moat, that you should turn back. The far shore will seem impossibly distant. The current, meanwhile, would carry you home so reassuringly if you just yielded to it.
If you turn back, it’ll be okay. You will find yourself in your familiar mud, being a mud person. And you can have a fine life as a mud person. A long, fulfilling life. But many mud people gaze out across the treacherous water with longing in their eyes.