Status Limbo | Theory No. 27
To get status, you have to give up status.
When you step off the colloquial ladder, you land in status limbo.
I’ve visited status limbo a few times, each after a decision to pause or step off a well-regarded path to explore a drastically different one. This time around, it started when I decided to leave my most recent job, and that too, without a perfectly charted out next move.
Since then, I’ve been exploring new ideas as a founder and embracing a new approach. I’ve also poured time into creative pursuits and personal goals. All of this has been incredibly fruitful, but hasn’t significantly moved me out of status limbo. To be honest, I haven't actively sought to escape it.
Nevertheless, there are moments when I'm reminded of where I am. It usually happens when someone asks, 'What are you working on right now?' or 'Are you still pursuing X?' or 'Do you miss doing Y?' Sometimes they ask directly, and other times, I hear it through the proverbial grapevine.
Status limbo is a state of being that’s frequented by those we admire, both for their remarkable achievements and inspiring journeys. Even if you don’t identify with this archetype, status limbo seems to be a universal human experience that we all have more than once in a lifetime.
While temporary, if you can understand and accept its inherent trade-offs, status limbo can be an incredibly meaningful time of free exploration, personal development, and professional growth — and an all-around transformative period.
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I. Status limbo
Status limbo is a state of ambiguity and future uncertainty about your status, both in your estimation and as perceived by others.1
When in limbo, your status is challenging to pinpoint, both for yourself and those around you. And your future status is uncertain, with no visible path in front of you charting your next steps.
While status limbo often entails a drop in status, it remains ambiguous and doesn't feel permanent. You don’t know exactly how far you’ve fallen, but if done well, your actions in limbo will help you escape it again, ideally with more.
Status limbo is a place with more freedoms than other states. It’s not freer in a tangible sense, but removing the usual status-preserving hangups lets you act more freely. It somewhat like being on the moon. There’s less societal and institutional gravity.
If you take advantage of your time in status limbo, you might emerge with a big status win, bypassing what you had before. Or you may emerge with similar or even a touch less status but as a happier, more internally-aligned person.
This is the allure of visiting status limbo. Taking the leap to take a sabbatical, change careers, start a startup, or shut down a startup all come with their own consequences, but the prospect of a win is compelling. At the same time, the reality of going through status limbo first subconsciously weighs on people.2
II. Entering status limbo
Voluntary status limbo
Not long ago, I had a friend who was contemplating quitting their career in medicine to explore creative fields. But they were concerned about the questions “people” would ask. People had certain expectations of them. They would wonder.
This is one way you might choose to enter status limbo voluntarily (and hence it could be seen as a privilege). You quit a “prestigious” career that’s stable, lucrative, and praised by society. Apart from this, it’s also a big part of your personal and social identity, so that changes too.
Entering voluntary status limbo can be daunting even when you do it willingly. You might be surprised at how much or all the ways it ends up impacting you. But, the weaker the ties to the people you’re worried about, the more it’s usually status that concerns you more than something intrinsic. “People” is often a nice way of saying esteemed strangers.
Drawing from my own prior experience, I instinctively said something like —
“You have to be willing to be nobody to have a chance to be who you want to be.”
I meant this on both macro and micro levels. You have to take risks. You have to be willing for “people” to think less of you, or at least be unsure what to think of you for a while. And for the people that are close to you, discuss it openly. You’ll likely get understanding and advice, making it less tempting to back out too. And in this process there’s a good chance you’ll find out who really is and isn’t so close to you too.
Involuntary status limbo
I was intrigued by the recent viral TikTok videos of people recording themselves being fired from their jobs. Of course the subjects seemed to have a clue it was coming, yet it still seemed like they were real-time processing a big shock.
Getting fired is one way to involuntarily enter status limbo.3 Sudden shifts in personal relationships, such as breakups or divorce, can also thrust you into it. Or a significant, unexpected financial loss can be the catalyst.
Involuntary status limbo often brings more perceived or real societal judgment. In contrast, voluntary entry doesn’t always carry the same judgment. For instance, entrepreneurship is often lauded, even though it pushes you into status limbo.
III. Status sacrifice
As an entrepreneur, the value of what you’re building is often uncertain, oscillating dramatically from day to day, week to week, or month to month. Financial stability is also in question if you haven’t yet banked a lucrative “win.”
One challenge of being in status limbo is that, by nature, it means something else is also in limbo. The “riskier” the endeavor you undertake while in status limbo, the more unstable and uncertain your future and the timeline to exit this state.
The flip side is that if you take status limbo in stride, you might actually feel relieved of traditional status handcuffs. A lack of attention and anticipation from people can feel like freedom. Sometimes that’s when you try the most interesting, crazy-unique things.
And in that flow, you find yourself doing things not purely for status, but because there’s something in them that’s more meaningful to you. As I’ve written before: “To become truly great at something, you need to be at least a little obsessed with that thing — enough to get lost in the joy of doing it, not the allure of what it could get you.”
This is the paradox of status.
To get status, you have to give up status. You have to sacrifice some existing status to make it back and more. This is especially true in creative fields and high-upside opportunities. Writers, musicians, actors, directors, entrepreneurs must all do their time in status limbo. And you don’t know how long that time will be. How well you tolerate this state can be the “winning” difference between you and someone just as talented and hard-working as you.4
The more status you have, the more you may feel yourself giving it up. That’s the price that comes with the privilege of your starting position. Are you willing to pay it?
IV. Status shields
Sometimes you’ll have opportunities to mitigate the depth of your status limbo. Status shields can help you defend against sudden drops, slow erosions, severe hits and all the rest. Status shields are the things that prop up your status.
Your family’s reputation, education from a prestigious school, or past achievements and trophy jobs, to your ability to display your talents regardless of your current job status. At times, you can actively pursue status shields, such as taking a sabbatical while retaining formal employment or securing a prestigious fellowship that extends throughout your journey as a founder or the more dangerous — raising money from venture capitalists for signal more than need.
I have written about “minimum viable status” before, the idea that people want to accumulate a threshold level of status (especially within a certain community they care about) before they feel comfortable no longer playing status games to the same degree. This is a kind of status shield too, and though not idyllic, I think worth considering. Is there some minimum level above which you feel more comfortable taking a jump?
All this said, status shields can just help reduce status anxiety, but they don’t ever cure it. And hoarding too many shields can ironically hinder you from reaping the rewards of going all-in.
IV. Leaving status limbo
You don’t want to be in status limbo forever. You can’t stay in status limbo forever. You can either leave voluntarily or involuntarily, i.e. be kicked out, and no one can tell you exactly when the latter will happen.
Leaving status limbo means transitioning to a status haven, where there’s greater clarity and certainty. Big tech companies are status havens. Ivy League colleges or academic positions can be status havens. Any well-established, respected path in society can be a status haven. It could be something new too, like a startup, but one that people can easily identify as notable or valuable.
Sometimes, life itself compels you to seek a haven. Or you’ve grown tired of the constant ambiguity and uncertainty of being in status limbo. This transition often happens for entrepreneurs who've dedicated years to a startup without a big breakthrough or for creative professionals who must decide how long to pursue their dreams without big outcomes. There’s always temptation to seek a haven, but it can be dangerous to your future self to bail too early.
Getting kicked out of status limbo can happen suddenly or gradually. Maybe something you created or undertook in limbo itself becomes the status haven. This of course is the dream scenario. Or maybe your startup gets acquired in a hurry. Or perhaps the status ambiguity just decays over time. As you adapt to a new status setting, it doesn’t feel like limbo anymore. Someone whose status becomes certainly uncertain by logic becomes more certain.
Sometimes, leaving status limbo can be even more challenging than entering it. The difficulty lies in leaving behind or giving up the very reasons that led you there to start. You might come to the conclusion that this wasn’t the right time to visit status limbo, or that you need a break before you return (and this is ok if it’s thoughtfully-considered and not just a fear response). If you’ve accomplished your goals, the transition may be smoother, but if you haven’t, it can be a complex mix of rational and emotional decisions.
I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t experienced status limbo at some point in their life. This isn’t limited to a specific age group, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class. In that way, status limbo seems like a universal human condition. It’s just that different people experience it at different times and deal with it differently.
For some, status limbo is a subtle undercurrent that they rarely notice and that minimally impacts their well-being. Others may be too acutely aware of it and wrestle with its implications. Undeniably, our society’s relentless pursuit of continuous achievement and status gains has taken a psychological toll, particularly on young, ambitious people. At the same time, we’ve seen that status isn’t permanent, and it seems progressively less enduring than it ever was.
In this light, we should fear status limbo much less than we tend to. Instead, we should accept its existence but view it as an avenue for personal exploration and growth. If you’re lucky, you’ll leave status limbo happier than when you arrived. Perhaps you’ll capture a big win or discover something profoundly meaningful about yourself. Either way, you’ll be much more prepared the next time you visit.
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The term "status limbo" used to be used to “describe the uninformed state you are in, due to the fact that someone else hasn't recently updated their Facebook status.”
Status is by no means the most important thing to focus on or optimize for. That said, putting idealism aside, the pursuit of it (and issues arising from this) do contribute meaningfully to the human experience, especially in communities of ambitious people.
When you involuntarily enter status limbo, you also enter identity limbo. Or rather you enter it more sharply than you otherwise would because you didn’t have time to prepare your “limbo identity.”
A good thing about such high-risk fields is that people in them are aware that people in status limbo today could be “on top” tomorrow, and hence they will often treat them accordingly.