When I was at Stanford, I took a class on social hierarchies. I remember thinking it was fascinating how social hierarchies influence perceptions of self and others.

At the time, I had very little experience with social hierarchies outside of the academic arena. 

In high school, seniors (fourth-years) were revered and freshman (first-years) were lucky to be tolerated.

As I started recruiting for jobs, I discovered there was a hierarchy amongst professions (medical school, law school, investment banking, and consulting were “good”; consumer packaged goods and industrial companies were “bad”) and a hierarchy amongst firms within an industry (McKinsey, BCG and Bain were “good”; other firms, less so).

When you’re immersed in a culture (an ethnic culture, a regional culture, an industry culture, a company culture, a family culture, a marital culture), it is very easy to believe that the social hierarchy in that culture is the way things work.

It’s really easy to believe that surgeons are “better” doctors than family practitioners. It’s easy to believe that McKinsey partners have more worth than engagement managers.

As I’ve traveled the world and done work across many industries, it never ceases to amaze me how many social hierarchies exist.

Amongst Italians who cook, they look down on how Italian-Americans and Italian-Argentinians cook. They can’t help but shake their heads and shrug their shoulders, wondering why they can’t seem to cook like “real” Italians.

When you’re immersed in a culture and you’re at the bottom of their social hierarchy, it’s easy to feel bad for yourself… that you’re somehow “less” than others.

Having studied social hierarchies both formally and informally for close to three decades, I’ve concluded that there is no such thing as the single, universally-true social hierarchy.

There are literally thousands of social hierarchies. Some have deep historical roots. Others were created somewhat arbitrarily.

But, here’s the thing… others may place you into certain positions in their social hierarchy, but whether you accept that as your identity or place in life is your choice. You can choose to accept it as true for you. You can also choose to recognize that others have placed you in a particular position in the social hierarchy while not letting such placement define your identity or worth.

To quote Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Just because others around you consent to internalize a social hierarchy doesn’t mean you have to.

The choice is yours.

Choose wisely.

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