Why Social Badges Determine Your Worth

It really shouldn’t, but to the overwhelming majority, your school determines your worth. Harvard? Princeton? Yale? Any other Ivy League Schools? The thinking is you’re a genius. Western Nevada College, however? You’re average. But where does this value actually come from and will this thinking change?

One need look no further to understand the death-grip Ivy League schools have on the workplace than at the recent admissions scandal. Some parents are willing to pay millions of dollars to get their children into a school like Stanford because they know that a degree from such a prestigious institution is a tremendous advantage. They’re not wrong.

Natalie Elisha Gold

Natalie Elisha Gold, wealth attorney and author of Money Momma became an attorney at 23-years old, starting her own firm at 24. She’s been featured in CBS NY, CNBC, Cosmopolitan and she says this kind of pay-to-play scenario isn’t new. “It’s a tale as old as time” she told me. Wealthy donors have known for decades that if you give large amounts of cash to a University and put your name on a building, you get preferential treatment — it’s not a secret. For some wealthy parents, it’s worth it. An Ivy League diploma sets you up for life and proves you are intelligent. Or does it?

The Ivy League Schools Badge System

Gold explains that whether we like it or not, in the USA we have a badge system. If you go to one of these Ivy League schools, you are automatically placed in the “great” pile. If you go to any other school, however, you go into the “meh” pile. But there is one big Achilles heel in this logic.

The only reason people rank Ivy League diplomas as better than other diplomas is simply due to business owners, hiring managers, or recruiters honoring that same badge system. I’m sure you are familiar with the other badges as well, including years of experience, previous high-profile companies, and even the city you may have worked in. New York sounds better than Darien, Connecticut despite Derien having far more wealth per capita.

Obviously, these badges have nothing to do with how brilliant you are or how great a worker you are. Many of our successful CEOs today didn’t go to Ivy League schools or even graduate from college. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, BIll Gates and Frank Lloyd Wright are just a few well-known names that not only hold no Ivy League degree but no degree at all. So, the question is, why is there a badge system and what would it take to undo it?

It’s a simple question and it has a simple answer. People don’t know talent when they see it.

People Don’t Know Talent When They See It

You could be a mega-genius and even explain in vivid detail how you would be the perfect candidate at a particular job, but if you don’t have the correct badges, there’s little hope. You need the honor the hollow badge hierarchy. I often think of Joshua Bell’s fun subway social experiment as a great demonstration of this.

Bell, who packs halls, and is one of the most well-known violinists in the world played in a subway for 43 minutes and hardly anyone noticed. The same is true of iconic design Jony Ive, who was basically ignored for most of his life until Steve Jobs noticed him. But are these stories outliers? Sadly, no.

In a study published this week by Peter Belmi from the University of Virginia, and Margaret Neale of, all places, Stanford. They proved that pedigree and an Ivy League education is enough to convince most people of intelligence, even if that person wasn’t a highly intelligent individual. It turns out people with pedigree and confidence fool people into thinking they’re intelligent. The study effectively concludes people suck at identifying talent. Why?

Identifying talent takes training. It takes hard work. It takes keen listening and saturating yourself in the research-deep-end. It means bosses, CEOs, business owners, and leaders must actually get to know people instead of scanning resumes for Ivy League schools, years of experience, or any other meaningless badges.

Sadly, most leaders are too busy putting out fires to realize they are the ones responsible for creating the dry work culture conditions fires thrive in. If you are a leader that can identify talent when you see it however, this puts you at an incredible advantage.

Consider how much time and effort companies waste hiring the wrong people due to this inculcated badge system? Consider that lots of incredible talent within your grasp, ready to be snatched up with little to no competition in hiring. Consider that talent likely can’t command an Ivy League price yet. Consider how many great people asking “why can’t I get an interview?” why you wait for the perfect candidate.

Today talented individuals are right under your nose. Hiring them right now, badge or not, would be like buying Apple stock in the early 80s.

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